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Math rock

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Math rock

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Math rock
Stylistic origins: rock, punk rock, heavy metal, minimalism, and progressive rock
Cultural origins: Late 1980s United States, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Japan
Typical instruments: Guitar - Bass - Drums
Mainstream popularity: little, in small underground circles in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s
Instrumental rock - Post-rock
Fusion genres
Mathcore - Tech metal
Regional scenes
Chicago - San Diego - Pittsburgh - Boston - St. Louis - Japan
Other topics
Minimalist music

Math rock is a style of rock music that emerged in the late 1980s. It is characterised by complex, atypical rhythmic structures, stop/start dynamics and angular, dissonant riffs.



Whereas most rock music uses a basic 4/4 beat (however accented or syncopated), math rock frequently uses odd-time meters such as 7/8, 11/8, or 13/8, or features constantly changing meters based on various groupings of 2 and 3. This rhythmic complexity, seen as "mathematical" in character by many listeners and critics, is what gives the genre its name. Musically, math rock derives from other rock genres, including rock, heavy metal, progressive rock or punk rock. Math rock often sounds familiar but somehow "off". It fits into those genres but is never a classic example.

Musicians who purposely turn to mathematics to find new creativity in their music are also classified math rockers. They manipulate, twist and syncopate to confuse, to delay, to create something that is a twist on rock, punk, or pop, something familiar but "wrong", something new. Some math rock artists and fans refer condescendingly to rock bands who do not use complex meters as merely "4/4 bands."

Lyrics are generally not the focus of math rock; the voice is treated as just another sound in the mix. Often, lyrics are not overdubbed, and are positioned low in the mix, as in the recording style of Steve Albini. Several math rock groups have been entirely instrumental.


While a few artists who emerged from the 1960s, like Henry Cow, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, and many more bands of the 1970s and 1980s such as Genesis, Gentle Giant, Rush, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd had experimented with unusual meters, such groups were generally grouped under the heading progressive rock. Canadian punk rock group No Means No (founded in 1979) have been cited as a "secret influence" on some math rock.[1]

In the 1990s a heavier, rhythmically complex style grew out of the broader noise rock scenes active in Chicago and other Midwestern cities, with influential groups also coming out of Japan and Southern California. These groups shared influences ranging from the music of 20th century composers such as Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, and Steve Reich, as well as the chaotic free-jazz approach of John Zorn's Naked City, and critics soon dubbed the style "math rock."

Midwestern groups

During the 1990s, the greatest concentration of math rock bands was in the urban centers of the U.S.'s Midwestern "Rust Belt," ranging from Minneapolis to Buffalo, with Chicago being a central hub. The Chicago-based engineer Steve Albini is a key figure in the scene, and many math rock bands from around the country have enlisted him to record their albums, giving the genre's recorded catalog a certain uniformity of sound, and lumping his bands past and present, Shellac, Rapeman, and Big Black into the pigeonhole as well. Also, many math rock records were released by Chicago-based Touch and Go Records, as well as its sister labels, Quarterstick Records and Skin Graft Records.

Some key bands of this period include Bastro, Table, Cheer-Accident, Shellac, and Breadwinner. Also out of the Chicago area, from nearby DeKalb, Illinois, is U.S. Maple, which formed out of the ashes of the Jesus Lizard-esque Shorty. U.S. Maple took a more deconstructive approach to their brand of rock music, similar to that of Captain Beefheart. Their music has a free-form approach to rhythm, with songs only occasionally coalescing into conventional rock beats. Thus, aesthetically, the group is not as "mathy" as other bands in the genre, but the same thought process of dismantling rock music still applies.

Several other math rock groups of the 1990s, all characterized by extreme rhythmic complexity and sonic brutality, were based in Midwestern cities: Cleveland's Craw and Keelhaul, St. Louis's Dazzling Killmen, and Minneapolis' Colossamite.

Pittsburgh groups

The city of Pittsburgh is home to one of the most defining examples of the math rock genre: the four-piece Don Caballero. Formed in 1991, "Don Cab," as the group is affectionately known, successfully blends heavy noise rock sounds with avant-garde jazz influences and the fierce non-stop drumming of Damon Che. Like many other bands in the style, the band despises the "math rock" label applied to them by critics. Even so, it should come as no surprise that a temporary bass player Matt Jencik, a member of another former Pittsburgh math rock band, Hurl, also spent time in Don Caballero. The group's former guitarist Mike Banfield has noted Breadwinner to be an important early influence on the band's sound. Their other former guitarist, Ian Williams, drew quite heavily from the minimalist works of Steve Reich, shown especially in the group's final release, American Don. Williams has taken this approach further with his newest outfit, Battles. Don Caballero disbanded in 2001 after a van accident that abruptly ended their support tour of American Don. However, Che reformed the band in 2004 with an entirely different lineup consisting of members of the Pittsburgh-based math rock band Creta Bourzia.

San Diego groups

Formed in 1990, San Diego's Drive Like Jehu, which featured the off-kilter guitar of John Reis from Rocket from the Crypt was a blistering, shining example of technical rock music, highly demonstrated on the band's swan song, Yank Crime. The group disbanded in 1994. Other San Diego bands of the time that have been likened to Jehu include Antioch Arrow, Clikitat Ikatowi, and Heavy Vegetable. The latter band took a more melodic approach than the previous two, and featured the songwriting genius of Rob Crow who was able to fuse melody and harmony as well as complex rhythms seamlessly.

Japanese groups

Several math rock groups from Japan developed close relationships with Chicago's Skin Graft label, leading to a cross-fertilization between the math rock scenes in the two nations. The most important Japanese groups include Zeni Geva and Ruins, with Yona-Kit being a collaboration between Japanese and U.S. musicians. It is very likely that Japanese math rock exerted an early influence on some (if not many) of the earliest U.S. math rock groups, as both Zeni Geva and Ruins were formed several years before their North American counterparts became active in the genre.

D.C. area groups

Washington, D.C. also contributed to the sound of math rock with the bands Faraquet, Frodus, 1.6 Band, Autoclave, later Jawbox, and Circus Lupus among some others. The latter is said to have influenced the sound of early Q and Not U. However, since D.C.-oriented bands tended to throw in odd-meters into their already eclectic mix of influences, some were branded with the genre name.

Richmond based Breadwinner spawned a number of later math rock bands in the town. While direct descendents of Breadwinner include Sliang Laos and Ladyfinger, there were many other notable Richmond area bands in the genre: Alter Natives, Mao Tse Helen, Mulch and King Sour.

Buzzard a band originally from Norfolk Virginia included metal elements that eventually evolved into an entirely original instrumental math rock outfit at place with any RIO or Canterbury ethos.

The Louisville sound

In 1991, Slint, then a young band out of Louisville, released the album Spiderland. It is considered an extremely influential landmark album to not only math rock but across the underground music network and beyond. The short-lived group's sound, based on the interlocking of multiple "clean" (non-distorted) guitars playing in generally compound meters, was more sedate and not as metal-influenced as most other math rock groups, and thus its style (and those of its imitators) represents a separate branch of the category. Several groups which followed Slint's lead also used unusual meters; such bands include Bitch Magnet, Rodan, Crain, The For Carnation, June of 44, Sonora Pine, and Shipping News.

Vanguarda Paulista

In the early 1980s São Paulo, Brazil gave rise to a movement called Vanguarda Paulista ("São Paulo Vanguard" in English) that flourished in South America's largest city as the Brazilian military dictatorship began to crumble. The original Vaguarda Paulista was an avant-garde wing of Popular Brazilian Music (MPB) championed by artists like Arrigo Barnabé, Alice Ruiz, Hélio Ziskind, Patife Band and many others who played an angular jazz-rock with constantly shifting time signatures reminiscent of Frank Zappa or Henry Cow. In the early 21st Century, there is a new wave of art-rock bands emerging, such as Hurtmold, Objeto Amarelo and Retórica that have been heavily influenced by sounds from the Northern Hemisphere made by all of the bands mentioned elsewhere in this article. These newer Brazilian groups are sometimes referred to as the Vanguarda Nova or New Vanguard.

Contemporary math rock

By the turn of the 21st century, most of the later generation bands such as Thumbnail and Sweep the Leg Johnny had disbanded, and the genre had, like most musical movements identified in the ever-shifting and elusive underground rock scene, been roundly disavowed by most bands labeled with the "math rock" moniker. However, the influences of the movement can clearly be heard in the abiding avant-garde and indie rock scenes. Present-day bands that have managed to be tagged with the "math-rock" label include Oxes out of Baltimore, Midiron Blast Shaft out of Philadelphia, Yowie from St. Louis, Big Bear from Boston, and the San Francisco's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

A closely-related genre is post-rock, into which some of these same bands are classified; post-rock, though, tends to be defined by a softer-edged, more jazzy and melodic sound.

See also

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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