Genres and labels have become a necessary yet arbitrary force in the music industry. A band is analyzed by their sound and then grouped with similar acts in order to forever place them in a cube of adjectives to help describe just what they sound like. It can be both good and bad, with the good being certain people who browse through these labels might find that specific artist, but bad if a band just wants to make music and all of a sudden they are labeled as something they didn’t even know they were or want to be associated with. That being said, an authority figure has to police the authenticity of certain genres, right? Welcome to Genre Benders, a fun and inventive column that uses wit and research to tackle just what it is that makes a genre well, a genre.
Sorry I took May off. I apologize. It was a busy month that required too many emotions, too many moves and not enough time to study. It was almost like I had gone through my own finals, like I used to while I was in college. Now, I am back and ready to unearth the details about our favorite genres. Since my emotions have been at an all time high lately, what’s better than over thinking about genres and wrapping it into a piece full of wit and terrible anecdotes? Speaking of over thinking, let’s talk about math rock; the genre where too much thought goes into every detail. Now, I had always listened to bands that adjusted time signatures, having fallen in love with Protest The Hero and learning three full albums on guitar without knowing at all what they were even doing, I would just play by feel and I still do. Fuck trying to understand how to count 12/8 time signatures that lead into 17/18 for half a measure or whatever the opening to “Bloodmeat” is.
Math rock boasts intelligently crafted instrumentals that are rhythmically atypical, breaking away from the standards of 4 over 4 (crafting a measure with four evenly spaced beats). I claim these creationists of math rock smart individuals because learning how to intertwine intricate time structures between multiple instruments (sometimes two different time signatures on one instrument — usually the drums) is rather difficult. This all being said, it is often very important that the drums lead the charge for the music, because they hold most of the infrastructure together. At times, guitars will be incredibly complex — think Chon — but it all falls back to the rhythm section establishing a base for that to happen. While not necessarily having a specific band that quote/unquote created the genre, many bands in the 80’s started creating simple polyrhythms (having two different beats happening on a drum kit, like a snare in 6/8 and a kick drum in 4/4) like Black Flag. Yes, the incredibly punk Black Flag even had a hand in experimenting with “mathy” punk vibes.
Then, what distinguishes it as a genre? Plenty of groups enjoy playing with time signatures for fun, but that does not exactly establish them as a participant in doing calculus or whatever it is drummers do to tie songs together. The guitar players are also extremely skilled, at times embedding jazz styled chords into their music, much like I guess quote/unquote forefather to some aspects of the genre King Crimson. These jazz chords help create a bit more chaos, because they usually are allowed to change the dynamics of a chord (adding minor sevenths or ninths) or progression by blending it into a chaos of discordant notes. Usually the tone of the guitar is bright, lacking distortion because every note fights to be crystal clear. A bass is still prominent, but some bands have guitars that play both roles — think Floral — rather well. Vocals are sometimes present, but if they are, they are not the center of attention, with lyrics not entirely too personal or sometimes an assortment of thoughts strung together to help mesh with the chaos of the music.Okay, we get it Sean, get on with it. My first true attachment to the genre came rather recently, when I randomly found Giraffes? Giraffes! on bandcamp. I think I was looking for band names with Giraffes because my best friend and I love that animal. I mean, just look at one! Anyways, I heard the music and enjoyed the frantic stops starts of the music, wrapping around motifs rather randomly. I didn’t really care to try and understand what was happening because it just took me away from everything. Even in the uncontrollable (well it sounds that way) spasms of sound, I felt calm. I felt the same way when I found out about the band toe from Japan. The music is winding, trance like and Hear You was one of my favorite albums to relax to in 2015.
Now, this where I think the term math rock becomes a loose nail in the canvas of genres. Bands blend mathy progressions into their songs with ease, and that to me keeps things interesting while still relatively being listenable. At times I can hear certain acts play their math and it feels overbearing, maybe I aged too fast for musical realms. For whatever reason, after years of playing Protest The Hero songs I grew a bit bored of being able to “wank” my guitar well, it was rather maddening to play and dissociative of my feelings anymore. Tiny Moving Parts play with a lot more signatures, making their songs sound a bit screwy but now they have found a marketable bounce to their music on Celebrate. A plethora of “emo” groups have their roots tainted with math rock as well, making it an easy argument to say that narrowing the scale of the genre to just on distinct sound is a bit difficult.
As I am writing this I just remembered about my cousin’s ex-fiance that showed me Hella in about 2007. That group is heavy on math rock, AND it had Zach Hill in it. Now that guy was the first drummer that made me question if drums were actually the most badass instrument to know how to play. I’ve come to appreciate the way certain groups (whether math, hardcore, indie, emo or alternative rock) accent certain parts in songs with drums. My favorite part of Henrietta’s “Arrows” is the second verse pounds, it just lets the song drift a bit longer with plenty of natural emotion streaming from a drum kit.
Now that I have gotten off topic, I feel a bit like a math rock band sometimes. I envision myself as a swirling ball of chaos trying to make things as interesting and difficult as possible, writing endlessly about music just because music is out there waiting to be experienced. I don’t want to miss any beat, any note, I want all the notes — inharmonious or splendidly candid — to ring through what I pour out from my brain and into a keyboard of selfless appreciation and determinate bliss. Math rock just takes me to a special place, one where two giraffes really do play music and are better at it than I am.
P.S. I have not had a math class in seven years.