As post-rock’s weirder, louder cousin, math rock is dominated by nerdy guitar players and inhumane drummers. Lot’s of guitar tapping, lot’s of looping on the pedals. Lot’s of distortion, but most of what you hear sounds incredibly clear. Lyrically…well, it’s usually hard to decipher the lyrics unless you pull out the liner notes. The vocalists of math rock are very important to the overall sound; they act as another instrument. Some critics have said that emo helped math rock become more lyrical (example: Minus the Bear). Also, an unlikely but welcome influence on the genre: Black Flag’s My War. Yeah, punk touches everything.
Somehow, King Crimson is linked to math rock. So are Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who made simple musical compositions; math rock is not simple. Actually, it’s really complex and challenging. With all the irregularity and atypical rhythms involved, it could be understandable if some music listeners just don’t get math rock. Maybe all the starting and stopping makes their brains want to explode? Nonetheless, math rock might be the most interesting genre in rock. It sounds like some sort of musical calculation.
Listening to math rock makes me want to play with a calculator. Here are the 10 best math rock LPs to own on vinyl.
Polvo: Today’s Active Lifestyles
Supposedly, Polvo disavowed the math rock tag, so, we might as well start the list with this meandering group from Chapel Hill. Polvo is the astrological signature of the genre. Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski play tug-of-war. Shooting out of a cannon, Today’s Active Lifestyles probably had too many ideas. There are so many transitions, but it sounds so damn unique. Side A and side B both end with seven-minute dirges that give off the feeling of something more; the second track on each side is a demented African rhythm, twisted with echoing guitars. “Time Isn’t On My Side” has no influences and it was so unique it couldn’t influence anything.
Matt Sweeney (vocals/guitar), who has collaborated with Cat Power and Run the Jewels, may be an advocate of math rock being a joke, but Ride the Fader should be taken seriously. Co-produced by John Agnello (his latest work is Waxahatchee’s Out In The Storm), Chavez made a torturous guitar pop album that rattles bones.
Ride The Fader has an extended skronky guitar solo (“Flight ’96”) that pre-dates Jack White; the guitars just swarm on this LP. Like a more distorted Superchunk—that bands first three albums were on Matador—Chavez’s damaging aluminum nails hard. There’s poppy moments, sweet moments and a metal section with some xylophone (“Tight Around The Jaws”). Most significantly, Scott Marshall sends his bass lines out like an earthquake after an A-bomb.
Instrumental bands force the listener to respect instrumentation. In Donny Cab’s case, it completely alters perception of how music can be played. Calling Don Caballero wizards could be an understatement; this is some of the best jamming in the rock business.
The guitars of Ian Williams (we’ll hear more from him later) and Mike Banfield are a spastic, interlocking panic system; it was nothing that anyone had ever heard at the time. Damon Che’s amazing drum playing is unrealized by any other drummer but him. What Burns Never Returns appropriately starts with “Don Caballero 3”—it’s their third album after a mini hiatus, featuring original bassist Pat Morris—in which Che unleashes a snare roll for the ages, probably the longest snare roll put to tape in a professional studio. From there, the guitars bubble behind Che’s mania as we scratch our chins, contemplating Cab’s next move. This is relentless jamming; Don Caballero just does whatever they want. Whether it’s “Delivering the Groceries at 138 Beats Per Minute” or “From the Desk of Elsewhere Go,” music is never gonna be the same.
It’s a shame that Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin—June of 44 is named after their correspondence—never got to hear this music. Both uplifting and paranoid, Four Great Points has impeccable delivery. It’s on the smoother side of math rock, but the album has a menacing progression; June of 44 can hammer a groove.
Three of the eight tracks are instrumentals, and very cool ones at that: “Lifted Bells” has a guitar acting like an ambulance siren; the beat on “Doomsday” was created with miscellaneous objection; and “Air #17” features a guy talking into a typewriter alongside Fred Erskine’s lazy trumpet. Track to track, June of 44 could be mistaken as a completely different band, but they’re probably tired of such accusations. Four Great Points demands that you take down your art. “Governed by resolution and naked souls,” “don’t forget to pick the needle up off the lock groove.”
Four self-proclaimed jackasses from a rainy corner of the United States made what is probably the most important Hydra Head Records release of all-time. Remastered for vinyl in May 2012, We Are the Romans has been fucking kids up since 1999. Botch brought a revolution; it’s science in the form of Western medicine. Not only having the best song title ever (“Frequency Ass Bandit”), the players involved in this truckload of torrents sprouted into a handful of decent bands: These Arms Are Snakes, Minus the Bear, Narrows and Russian Circles.
Recorded in nine days, We Are the Romans is the soundtrack of falling through a black hole. It’s metal, yeah, but just so much more. Botch had a lot of amps to blow; this wasn’t a game Botch would not win. As guitars shimmer and splinter, wide eyes become habitual. Someone just swung open the back door; enjoy your last seconds before these Buddhist Ass Bandits free your pain with squirrelly psychedelics and stabbing arrows aplenty. And all of that before the title tracks entirety of side D, an Aphex Twin-ish dark EDM that pulls you through a tunnel of snare hits. Bye bye now.
The most lyrically driven album on this list, this trademark band has math rock qualities on Go Forth, but it’s more like an awesome rock record that cannot be passed up. Predominantly mathier on the second side, the Beats Per Minute of each song are listed next to the titles; it ranges from 120 to 166 on side A, and 102 to 173 on side B. Not something we usually see, but we can’t expect anything less from a band who has Tim Harrington, a lead vocalist who would rather crawl than walk, a man who drinks pots of coffee while singing about the art of getting laid.
Since the entirety of Go Forth is consistent, it’s difficult to give specific reference points; I advise listening to it all the way through with the least interruption possible. Les Savy Fav could change your life. Masterfully engineered by none other than Phil Ek, Go Forth twinkles like a bright star while also beating the listener repeatedly with a bass drum. Sing along to “Reprobate’s Resume” (“please go easy on me”), share a tiny victory (“Daily Dares”) and let the band commit kidnapping. With spectacular separation—every piece of Les Savy Fav is up front—not many albums end with their two best songs. “No Sleeves” and “Bloom On Demand” will forever be recognizable; it’s a very strong finish to a beautifully coarse LP.
Fear Before The March of Flames: Art Damage
If a bloody slasher film was an album, Art Damage would be it. Going by in a breeze, it’s 29 minutes of heavy mathematical hell. Well, there’s 57 seconds toward the end (“A Tyrant Meets His Maker”) to catch breath with some synth and keys, but that’s all. Art Damage is a torrential downpour of riffs. A document of insanity packed with melodies.
In Fear Before The March of Flames’ heyday, they may have been the druggiest band coming out of Colorado. Eventually, they shortened the name to Fear Before, and while on their first Australian tour in 2009 their friend fell through a roof; the band was never the same. Turns out that integrity was a wooden spike, and they all got fucked. Anyway, Art Damage’s ugliness is impressive. It’s a quick release of frustration and stress; we all need that. Through the eyes of the sick, music is not sacred.
From Botch to Minus the Bear, guitarist Dave Knudson made a shift. The terror is gone, in its place something quirky and way more chill. Minus the Bear is Tetris in musical form; songs built from falling blocks. Seemingly about a series of vacations, Menos el Oso (the Spanish translation of the band name) is the perfect setting for a sunset on the beach. It floats in air, non-polluted air.
Atmospherically pedestrian, Menos el Oso has instrumental flourishes at the right moments; it’s slithery like a snake, but remains mellow. The initial listen proves strange, but this sophomore album lives vicariously if you give it enough time. If you’re an adult on a shoreline with a place to sleep, you can become a child again.
Mirrored is a critical debut from a complicated band formed from experienced players; the music world ate this album up immediately. Ian Williams, former Don Caballero member, on guitar and keyboards; John Stainer, former Helmet member, freewheeling on drums with the highest crash-cymbal stand in the league; Dave Konopka on bass, guitar, and effects; and Tyondai Braxton, who was never part of another Battles production, on guitar and keyboards, running his vocals through a hydrogen balloon. Folks, this is an Adderall-infused toyland of intoxicating rhythm and suspense.
What happens when traditional musicianship is challenged? Mirrored happened. It would be more unsettling if it wasn’t so upbeat. Ran through machines, sound is dehumanized; the guitar is a fuzz gun. Battles revolutionized how rock music and electronics should work together. Indeed, it’s truly bonkers music that questions reality. Sounds come to the front, fall back, only to resurface again. Is the whistling noise from vocals or a guitar? Is that a groaning elephant? Is someone choking? Music this unexplainable should probably be pretentious; it couldn’t be less. Mirrored is perfectly playful. In a glass box, it was done only once.
Forever fooling their fans, the Dillinger Escape Plan played their final show Dec. 29, 2017, at Terminal 5 in New York City; it was a run of three consecutive nights. But a decade prior, on Ire Works, the band created a tremendous wave of delusional D-beats and bash-your-head breakdowns. And DEP was surprisingly sultry; “Black Bubblegum” should have been a commercial hit. Dillinger is done, but they left a career full of hidden messages and classic anthems.
Most of Ire Works’ breakdowns must be felt to be believed—“Party Smasher” is exactly that. Seven-and-a-half minutes doesn’t leave a lot of time for an array of stylistic changes, but DEP packs five tracks into that small chunk; it’s a jaw-dropping performance. “Milk Lizard” was made to fill an arena (listen for the innovative horn blast in the chorus) and the breathless house jazz of “Mouth of Ghosts” dissolves into what can now be heard as the final goodbye. Ire Works is remarkably artistic for a band that was mistakenly accused of being meatheaded.