Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Math? Rock!: A DFSBP mixtape
[Links below refreshed on 5/2/2011. Write me at hshteamer [at] timeoutny [dot] com if they've expired and you'd like a re-up.]
DOWNLOAD: Math? Rock!—Part I [Tracks 1–18]
DOWNLOAD: Math? Rock!—Part II [Tracks 19–35]
STREAM: Part I
STREAM: Part II
[Thanks to Phil Plencner of BrutalProg.com for setting up the streams.]
The other week, a cool gentleman I'd just met through a mutual friend asked me an interesting question. "What is math rock?" he queried, after learning that I play in a band that has often been categorized as such. I started in on a meandering spiel about how the term commonly referred to a distillation and refinement of the heaviest, most rhythmically off-kilter aspects of classic ’70s prog—i.e., those that relied on odd time signatures, thus requiring meticulous counting, hence "math"—that flourished in the early ’90s via bands like Don Caballero. I wanted to paint a clearer picture, though, so I offered to make an explanatory mix. The very next day, the aforementioned mutual friend was intrigued enough to ask after said compilation, and so I set about putting together a track list.
What I realized is that I wanted to represent not simply Math Rock, dictionary-defined as such, but also math rock, namely my own personal canon of rock music that triggers certain pleasure centers in me and greatly influences my aesthetics as a musician and listener. (Jeff Wagner's great Mean Deviation makes a similar distinction re: Progressive Metal and progressive metal.)
There's no simple way to boil down what unifies all the below selections in my mind. Foremost, they're great songs—with or without words—songs that infect you and won't leave you alone, that loop inside your head and your body whether or not you invite them in. Brainstorming re: this introductory note, I came up with "the simultaneity of disorientation and groove; the divine herky-jerk."
What it's really about is building OBSTACLE COURSES, or RIDES of some sort. You as a player/composer set up these hurdles to jump over, cones to weave around, along with your collaborators. And you have a fantastically great time doing so. And you listen back as objectively as you can and you shave down the self-indulgence and the off-the-wall-ness just enough so that there's a song there, not just a bunch of parts or pointless challenges. And the magical result is that it's as fun to listen to as to play. You're delighting as you're confounding both yourself and the listener, essentially—that is the trick. And you do in a sense flaunt the fact that you're confounding; you may even feel a little proud of that fact. But you do not forsake the ROCK in the name of the MATH, hence my title.
This thing, this math rock, takes many forms, but I always know it when I hear it. The recognition of the fellow obstacle course builder, whether that's Jimmy Page or Hella's Zach Hill. There are such architects in all sorts of genres. I think the ur-text for this whole vibe is the "Dances of the Young Girls" section of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In jazz, Tim Berne frequently communes with the math-rock muse, as you can hear on the head-spinning yet infectious tunes he has written for, say, his Hard Cell band. ("Hard Cell," from The Shell Game, almost made the cut for this mix, and something from Feign probably should have, now that I think about it.) The robojazz strategies of Fieldwork, heard as well in the solo work of members Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman—all probably informed in some way or another by Steve Coleman—are also worthy of mention in this context.
But what we mainly have here is rock of some form or another. In some cases, the math is out front, with the rock lurking in the background; in others, it's the opposite. The trained math-rock radar picks it all up—because it's addicted, really. It's not that unusual: You want to groove but you also want a little brain-teaser to chew on. I think all these tracks provide both services expertly. Besides that, many of my favorite bands of all time are represented. I hope you enjoy. Fellow math-rockers (or even Math Rockers), what tracks would you have chosen if asked to define the form?
P.S. My most treasured math-rock text not included here is the mighty "Close to the Edge" by Yes. It's simply too long to incorporate into any sensible mix, but if you're not familiar with the piece, I suggest you get yourself to that point—it's breathtaking. For a quick taste, go here, skip to 5:45 and prepare to get STUNG.
P.P.S. You may notice that many widely acclaimed outfits commonly branded "mathy" are not included here. This is either because (a) I don't know their catalogs well enough to intelligently excerpt them (Magma, Meshuggah, Converge or Botch, say), (b) despite earning my basic respect, their output doesn't move me in the same way as what's below (Dillinger Escape Plan, say, who often seem to me to be forsaking the SONG in favor of the OBSTACLE COURSE), or (c) their material touches on what I'm getting at below but seems best considered in its very own headspace (Mick Barr, say, whose early work with Crom-Tech and Orthrelm might have fit on here but whose, IMHO, best work—ANNWN, say—really doesn't at all).
P.P.P.S. I had attempted to include YouTube streams for ease of track sampling, but the embeds weren't rendering properly. It's a small loss really: Download the MP3s for the full "Math? Rock!" experience.
P.P.P.P.S. Many of the artists featured below gave me the go-ahead to post their work. Most of the parties I haven't consulted are either (a) defunct, (b) megahuge or (c) both. If any band or label takes issue with the dissemination of their work in this capacity—or if you'd simply like to me to include an alternate purchasing link—please drop me a line at hshteamer [at] timeoutny [dot] com.
1. The Beatles - "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" from The Beatles (1968)
This song has baffled and delighted me since I first heard it in college (way, way too late). There's a hypnotic groove happening in the first verse, but then the fun begins. What exactly is going on during the slow interlude that begins at :45? The guitar and bass/drums seem to exist as different tectonic plates, sliding past each other, interacting only warily. The "I need a fix" section continues in this vein; you hear repetition, some sort of predictable reoccurring cadence, but it really isn't there. And then, the math-rock explosion that is the "Mother Superior jumped the gun" refrain. I keep trying to count it and then realizing I'd rather not. [I couldn't resist: I'm hearing it as one bar of 6/8 plus one bar of 6/4, followed by one bar of 6/8 and one bar of 7/4.] All I know is that it's dislocating, jagged/delightful, brazen, badass. Who taught this riff to Ringo and how the hell did they explain it? Did he get it right away or did he have to live with it a bit? People often brand the seven-beat verse of "All You Need Is Love" as the classic example of the Beatles' incidental mathiness, but to me, it's definitely this bit right here. Afterward, dig how the "Mother Superior" part falls away, replaced by an easy singsong vibe. But you're still left with the feeling of dislocation that prevails in the song's midsection.
2. Thin Lizzy - "Look What the Wind Blew In" (1971) from Thin Lizzy
What does this band, one of rock's greatest aerodynamic cruising machines, have to do with math rock? On the whole, not all that much, but this is something different—there's a definite herky-jerky-ness at play in this track—keenly singled out by STATS bassist Tony Gedrich from amid the baffling mixed bag that is Thin Lizzy's just-reissued self-titled debut—a kind of proggish zaniness beneath the swagger. Listen to the incessantness of the rhythms, the way they jerk you around and how good it feels. Why does the intro riff need to stab at you exactly six times, and why does the subsequent PUNCH accent (:05) sound so destabilizing and so thrilling? And what about that little techy flourish/micro-riff at :29, a true nugget of proto–Math Rock? Or the ray-gun guitar trill at :51? Or the prancing bass-drums interplay underneath the guitar solo, signaled by Phil Lynott's little laugh? The real capper is the workout/meltdown that begins at 2:21, after the false re-start. Man, to be a fly on the wall when Lynott was teaching this to his bandmates. (I assume he wrote it since he gets credit for the full song, but you can't be sure.) Magnify this and you have prog, fusion, Math Rock, all of it. It is some of the most gleeful virtuosity I have ever heard in a rock song. And it's all in the service of what, at heart, can be enjoyed as a straight-up jukebox burner—a perfect balance of the math and the rock.
3. King Crimson - "Larks' Tongue in Aspic, Part I" from Larks' Tongue in Aspic (1973)
I'm sure a greater prog-head than I could tell you EXACTLY when the math-rock impulse became self-conscious, when the proto-tech-metalhead first reared its head, when such geekouts became not just aspects that were written incidentally into songs but the actual focus of said songs. To me, though, this early-’70s period of King Crimson is really where that whole agenda officialized itself, to the point that I'd call KC the first real Math Rock band. Categories and lineages aside: The riff that explodes in at 1:00 into this excerpt is really one of THE classic tech facemelters of all time, the kind of thing you anachronistically hear after years of checking out, say, ’90s and 2000s era Math Rock (as I did) and say to yourself, "Ohhhhhhhh, so this is where all this madness came from!" Things get funkier after the tempo change at 2:20, but the obstacle course is never far off. Rush famously labeled its "La Villa Strangiato" (which dates from five years later) as an "Excercise in Self-Indulgence," and the mania of "Larks' Tongue, Part I," its sheer ADD-ness, definitely points ahead to that piece, as well as "YYZ." Obviously this was a slippery slope in the making, a sort of invitation for every high-minded rock band to try their hand at crafting an athletic instrumental. But all that really isn't the fault of Robert Fripp & Co. "Sorry for partying," they might rightly reply.
4. The Mahavishnu Orchestra - "Birds of Fire" from Birds of Fire (1973)
How much did John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra influence King Crimson, and progressive rock in general, a friend of mine wondered in an e-mail the other day? It's a damn good question. The first Mahavishnu album—1971's The Inner Mounting Flame—is, if nothing else, a math-rock album. It's fusion, sure, but there's a revelry in jaggedness and fury that's very ahead of its time. Whatever the hell you call it, it's essential. As is its follow-up, Birds of Fire. The title track is almost a rewrite, maybe even a betterment, of Flame's opener, "Meeting of the Spirits," featuring another one of the immortal Destabilizer vamps, a true infectious agent, the kind that—in Mahavishnu-land—violinist Jerry Goodman typically handled in tandem with bassist Rick Laird, and which breaks out here at :42. McLaughlin loved to lay these vamps down and then SHRED mercilessly over them, in graceful, dancing fashion but always with an eye toward the face-melt. (For all his mystical, flowy-shirt-wearing peace-and-love-ness, he's always been a cocky, heavyweight-champion guitar hero.) During his solo, the band just lays it down as he climbs higher and higher, and after, they demonstrate one of the key Mahavishnu tricks, the restatement of the theme between improv passages, which reorients the ear splendidly. At 2:49, we're off on a very Rushlike and borderline-goofball prog journey, introduced by yet another shred-flourish, and then Billy Cobham's graceful double-bass pistons lead us back to the Destabilizer. You'll hear Self-Indulgence in the ensuing jam, but you'll also hear those titular Birds of Fire. This is math rock as cosmic communion, wherein trippiness and deadly virtuosity are perfectly balanced. Later, those two paths would diverge, so much so that you really don't hear bands these days who sound both this heady and this shreddy.
5. Led Zeppelin - "For Your Life" from Presence (1976)
Hearing this song for the first time, as part of an in-depth exploration of the Zeppelin catalog that I undertook a few years back, was like stumbling upon El Dorado. Were these monsters of the arena also ur-math-rockers? (I should have known from hearing mega-math jams like "The Ocean" on classic-rock radio, but I hadn't yet put the pieces together.) The opposite of King Crimson's willful eggheadedness, Zeppelin's math tendencies are intimately interwoven with their MONSTER GROOVE tendencies. The initial riff here is a bit of a demon to count, and probably not even worth the trouble. Just feel the loping, lazy HANG of it all, how it soothes even as it destabilizes and baffles the must-find-the-one beat sense. And then the obstacle course winds its way to RIFF SECTOR II at about 2:07. Oh, and what's this fun little counting game, wherein the final rifftag repeats an extra few times during the final repetition, JUST BECAUSE? And then, what's this crazy, proto–"Paradise City" coda? Bonham's drumming demeanor is fantastically unperturbed throughout the whole labyrinth. The imperative is the groove and he's right on it. Robert Plant too: As the earth moves beneath him, he simply screams, moans and raps the blues as usual. His is a commendable effort, and not one to be minimized. When the singer carries on as if nothing's wrong, the math and the rock can truly become ONE (one reason why instrumental math rock can often sound like it's painted into a nerdy corner). There's insanity like this throughout the Zeppelin catalog. Might I also recommend "Nobody's Fault but Mine"? Pay special attention to the bass/drum-accents insanity that commences around 2:20. In two words: holy shit.
6. Rush - "Cygnus X-1" from A Farewell to Kings (1977)
A track like this is an almost laughably comprehensive illustration of why Rush is the ultimate geek band. Moreover, Rush's influence on Math Rock is just right there on the surface, here and in a thousand other places. But "Cygnus X-1" merits inclusion on this mix simply because of the inimitable way its math ROCKS. The initial bass riff, introduced by Geddy Lee around 1:20, is math rock at its most elemental: self-conscious but not bogged down in tech. Yeah, there's a counting game going on—the end of the riff bangs once, then twice, then three times, over consecutive iterations. But there's also a showbiz-y swagger to the whole thing, especially when first Neil Peart's drums and then Alex Lifeson's guitar enter the fray. Once all three are playing together, beginning at about 2:25, there's this near-cheesy pride to the whole thing: "This is our obstacle course, and we are going to NAIL IT for you right this minute." It's the kind of passage that, as a Rush fanatic, you can simultaneously adore AND understand to be exactly the kind of exercise that has caused so many to pejoratively brand the band as nerds entertaining other nerds. But, crucially, we've got a song happening here, not just a workout. The gates open into a classic Rush overture at about 2:56, and theme after theme comes pouring out, virtuosity and catchiness mingling perfectly, until we arrive at the TECH MONSTER at 3:37, consisting of a bar of 6/8 and a bar of 5/8. You hear sci-fi; you hear machines churning irregularly; you hear math; you hear rock. You are math-rocking, verily… and you're not even halfway through the song. It's all about the grandiose-prog-leavened-with-happy-pop-rock for the next few minutes. Then some very "Larks' Tongue"–like ascending doom PUNCHES around 7:00, and then the calm before the mathstorm. Lee and Peart throw out some staccato blasts as Lifeson builds the tension. And at 8:21, the floodgates open. You will not hear a more breathtaking demonstration of the math-rock ethos than this brutally balletic tech-eruption: If you're not spazzing out along with this, you may want to move on to another area of musical inquiry.
7. Black Flag - "Obliteration" from Slip It In (1984)
So we move from prog to what's SUPPOSEDLY its polar-opposite genre, punk. But as any SST enthusiast could tell you, that's absolute bullshit. Late-period Black Flag, for example, WAS prog, just a particularly raw, frayed version of it. Take this phenomenally queasy instrumental, a maze of strange accents and monomaniacal "reboots" (wherein Greg Ginn incessantly brings back that initial note series as if to imply that, "No, we are not, in fact, making any compositional progress; we are staying right the fuck here."). There are guitar-solo moments, but that is not what this track is about. This track is about making you sit through something, to endure these mind-numbing math workouts. What do they mean, other than sheer mind-sickness? You don't need Henry Rollins caterwauling about alienation and perverse desires to get you to that Black Flag headspace. "Obliteration" is the map of Greg Ginn's twisted mind, and it's both horrifying and magnetic.
8. Descendents - "Uranus" from ALL (1987)
Bill Stevenson took what he learned drumming in Black Flag (that's him on "Obliteration"), brought it back to his already secretly techy proto-pop-punk vehicle, Descendents, found kindred closet-fusionists in new bandmates Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez, and proceeded to tech the fuck out. I loved the Descendents as a teen, but I didn't grasp the entirety of their achievement until the aforementioned Tony, after witnessing an early show by Stay Fucked (the previous incarnation of STATS), asked if we were fans of the instrumental Descendents material. I knew the immortal "Theme", of course, but I had never heard "Uranus" till he played it for me. Good God, this is an exhilarating piece of music. There's the prog and there's the punk, perfectly mingled. Don't let anyone sell you that half-assed narrative about punk being inherently anti-virtuosic. Tech-ing out, or if you prefer, math-ing it up, as the Descendents do here, was just about the punkest thing that any band could've done at this time juncture. "Uranus" is the sound of Mahavishnu Orchestra divided by Black Flag multiplied by way too much coffee. This is last song on the last Descendents album, but Stevenson, Egerton and Alvarez would continue their Mission to Math as part of ALL (the band, not the album). ALL's Allroy Saves and Allroy's Revenge and the track "Birds" (from the otherwise spotty Percolater) are all crammed full with prog-punk manna, and Egerton has been continuing this line of inquiry over the past couple years with Slorder.
9. Voivod - "Experiment" from Dimension Hatröss (1988)
To me, Dimension Hatröss is where you hear Voivod's storied techy brilliance in full flower. Before I'd heard the band (which I hadn't before a few years ago), I had this idea of them in my brain as some cyborg-metal beast, with a jagged, mechanized sound to match their jagged, mechnized image. In truth, Voivod as a whole is a lot goofier (thanks largely to vocalist Snake) and more straightforward (I'm referring specifically to the recent spate of albums since Snake's return) than I'd imagined they would be. But during their late-’80s golden era, as discussed previously on DFSBP, they found a way for lyrics, artwork and music to all tell the same techy tale at the same time. The opening seven-beat riff of "Experiment" (:39) is something I absolutely cannot shake. It doesn't seem so ingenious first but it just gets in there and churns and infects. It IS math rock, the groove plus the disorientation, and here the late, great Voivod guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour uses the vamp as a launch pad for some schizo texturizing over top. Behold the shaggy sound pictures he's painting around 1:20—they're really not un-SST-like at all; Ginn and Egerton likely approved if they heard this then. (This illustrates another bullshit genre barrier: Metal IS punk IS prog. They are all welcome under my math-rock big top.) A classic math-rock pause at 1:45 leads into the song's breakneck prog-thrash midsection, during which Snake pilots the Voivod spaceship, finding logic in its arcane daredevilry. The opening riff returns at 4:50, offering a crucial breather amid the tech-metal hurricane, and assuring that you feel turned on, plugged in, engaged even as you're overwhelmed. There's that simultaneity again, the shared trait of all the best math rock.
10. Metallica - "…And Justice for All" from …And Justice for All (1988)
It's funny: The one member of Metallica who's notoriously inaudible on …And Justice for All, bassist Jason Newsted, would go on to join Voivod after extracting himself from the maw of the behemoth. He was just settling into his Metallica gig back in ’88, but you can bet that he was giving Dimension Hatröss some serious spin-time all the same. In any event, he had his own tech to contend with. It wouldn't be quite right to classify any Metallica album other than Justice as a math-rock album, or a prog-rock album for that matter, but the record ought to show that Justice itself is, in fact, both of these things. The way it weaves EPIC TECH together with UNIVERSAL SONG is just a miracle. It's one of the best albums… full stop. On the title track, Kirk Hammett lays out one of this trademark florid overtures, into which the rest of the band bursts intermittently. Now check out what happens next: this deranged series of march accents that begins at :45 and repeats just twice. You're absolutely bewildered and you have no time to think, so it's best to rewind that section about 100 times before moving on because the math continues to unfurl relentlessly in its wake. Rush-y accents, unmoored from the composition at large, steward us to the gate of Math Manor, and suddenly Lars Ulrich is hammering out the template, riffing on a classic math-rock archetype, that of the theme and variation, the two-part riff that does X thing this many times on one iteration and then this many times on another. (The opening "Cygnus X-1" bass riff builds on the same principle.) So it's "boom-boom-KAH boom-boom-KAH / DERRR ner-ner-ner" followed by the shorter "boom-boom-KAH / DERRR ner-ner-ner." Like all great math-rock riffs, it's a mantra: Catchiness and complexity are one solid intermingled thing. Like McLaughlin, like Lifeson, like Ginn, like Piggy, Hammett indulges in a little solo grandstanding over top before the monomaniacal hive mind returns. The ensuing verse needs no annotation—it is what makes this both math and rock, after all. It is simply Metallica switching gears (as it has so brilliantly and for so long, right up to the great Death Magnetic) from the techy and florid to the straightforwardly flattening. But as with the Thin Lizzy track, there are these little tweak-out episodes, little bits and pieces of sinewy math stuck between the teeth of the larger song structure: the jagged little pick-up at 2:30, the skyrocket run at 2:41, reprised and doubled at 2:52. And the way the chorus climbs and climbs, elongating gloriously on its last triumphant segment. All of these aforementioned thorns, which at first seem aberrant, become familiar as the composition repeats, and thus is math alchemized into song. (Even that spastic march from the intro returns in a smoothed-out version at 6:22.) It's almost hilarious how even as Metallica was solidifying its reputation for drink and debauchery around this time, it was constructing these marvelous, insanely demanding sound labyrinths. (You really get a sense of that contrast in this live version of the tune.) During the final verse-chorus go-round, all the familiar thorns are there, but many of them are tweaked slightly—e.g., the pick-up from 2:30, which gets doubled when it reappears around 8:05—continuing the theme/variations trend. You're still enthralled after nearly ten minutes, and, magically, you remember every little oddball wrinkle as though it were a bubblegum-pop chorus.
11. Melvins - "Oven" from Ozma (1989)
And right around the same time, elsewhere on the West Coast, Melvins were busy perfecting the math-rock short form. Ozma is a hive of complexity, a maze of harrowing tightness the likes of which Buzz and Dale would never again attempt. But thank God they did once. "Oven" is a true destroyer—brief, baffling and somehow deeply evil-seeming. The beginning features a counting game that echoes "Cygnus X-1": a standard intro followed by first two, then one, then three accent punches, i.e., "chocka-digga chocka-digga b-KANG b-KANG / chocka-digga chocka-digga b-KANG / chocka-digga chocka-digga b-KANG b-KANG KANG." But there's none of that snazzy showmanship vibe that you pick up on in the Rush. This is pure, mean randomness, sans pleasure or style. Buzz & Co. aren't so much showing you what they can do as what they can do TO YOU. The brief "verse" imparts a sense of anthemic regularity, but then the bottom drops out again, via an extended, fantastically unsettling drums-and-vocals interlude driven by Dale Crover's zombified syncopation. Again, I would give anything to know how this bit was composed—did Buzz write the drum part and teach it to Dale, or did Dale devise it himself? It's just a huge "WHY?" slapped in the middle of the song. The ensuing kick-in feels like a release, but as with the intro, the band doesn't afford you the comfort of straight repetition: a swaggering doom riff loops yet resolves differently each time: first with jackhammer accents that lead into a pause, then with a jarring kind of truncation, and finally with a segue back into the intro. But here again there's a change in scenery: the "chocka-digga" loops twice and then, inexplicably, four times with one extra concluding PUNCH. There's constant destabilization here, but also enough thematic material that there's actually a rug there to pull out from under you. "Oven" tests just how far you can push the math without forsaking the rock, and provides its own answer: Precisely THIS far.
12. Slint - "Pat" from Tweez (1989)
The same year Buzz and Dale were wreaking wanton doom-tech violence in the Northwest, Slint was busy answering their own mathy muse. This is ground zero for the fluid, introspective, emotive Math Rock, the kind people often mean when they use that term, with clean-toned guitars, bulbous, full-bodied bass and heavy emphases placed on brooding textures and overall crypticness. (Along these lines, I think of bands like Dianogah or June of 44, but you can take your pick. Anyone know much about A Minor Forest? I'd like to get better acquainted.) But "Pat" is weirder and slipperier than anything it may have influenced. This is, truth be told a loopy piece of fusion. A supple, twinkly intro, a Speak & Spell–style invocation and then an outburst of Berklee School of Music soloistic pizzazz, likely courtesy of Dave Pajo. At this point (1:00), the Exercise in Self-Indulgence commences: a slinky yet thorny jazz-rock jam—like a post-prog mutation of the Ren & Stimpy theme—featuring drummer Britt Walford's thudding, big-band-ish four-on-the-floor groove. In pieces like this, Slint exhibited an almost hysterical kind of eccentricity. Taking in the core jam-out of "Pat," you want to both (a) howl with laughter and (b) turn to your friend and ask, "What in the living fuck is happening?" And the band is way too poker-faced for you to get any kind of read on what you're SUPPOSED to think. Is this parody of snazzed-out fusion or a mutant, postpunk example of same? What it really is, is the illogic and the drive, the joy and the math, cohabitating blissfully.
13. Breadwinner - "Tourette's" from The Burner
[The Burner is a compilation spanning 1990–1992; I believe this track dates from 1990.]
Some 600 miles east, Breadwinner was busy mashing together evil-tech math rock, à la Melvins, and more whimsical, WTF? math rock, à la Slint—I have no idea who actually influenced whom; I'm just following the chronology of releases here—to create its own brand of magnetic disorientation. There a savagery to this track, highlighted by the relentless trebliness of the sound palette (that tin-foil guitar tone, very SST-ish, as well as the absurdly high-pitched snare drum), but there's also a goofiness, a kind of left-field funk that makes me think of this band as the Faith No More or Living Colour of Math Rock. After a sort of Minutemen-play-thrash-metal kick-in, the trio makes its way to a daunting accent thicket, about 20 seconds in length, a kind of choreographed stumble that would mean nothing were it not sandwiched between such memorable sections. The second of those is a riotous groove outburst that, strangely, transports me directly to late-’90s MTV, and the surprisingly fusiony pop-metal of bands like 311. (Don't believe me that 311 fits somewhere on the math-rock continuum? Sample this Breadwinner breakdown alongside "Come Original" and make sure you let the latter play through to the righteous prog interlude at 2:23.) Now I'm not saying Breadwinner actually influenced any of the more well-known alt-rock bands mentioned above or vice versa, but I am saying that, to me, there's a similar spirit of impish virtuosity-as-loopiness at work here, of presenting the math-rock impulse as a kind of recreational impulse. (In that respect, they're right in line with Zeppelin; there's a definite Zep quality, directly relatable to "For Your Life," in the last 30 seconds or so of "Tourette's," wherein Breadwinner drummer Chris Farmer—still, apparently, engaged along similar lines—stomps, unperturbed and Bonham-like, through the riff labyrinth.) On "Tourette's," Breadwinner is definitely building an obstacle course for their own enjoyment. That it retains its fundamental song-ness so well despite its dizzying structure (and that it's so goddamn fun to listen to) is the reason it bears inclusion here.
14. Confessor - "Alone" from Condemned (1991)
We remain in the South long enough to check out another fascinatingly inscrutable band, one that takes rhythmic disorientation about as far as it can go while still somehow fulfilling song criteria. As with Robert Plant, Confessor's Scott Jeffreys performs an invaluable function: He pretends that what he's singing over isn't a steaming morass of mathy insanity, but rather some sort of hyperemotional, lighters-in-the-air anthem. As strange and (to some) distasteful as his contribution is, he gives the whole endeavor a purpose. And what exactly is that endeavor? That endeavor is a delightful "What if?" What if you took Sabbath and tech-ified it beyond recognition—gazed at it in the pieces of a broken mirror, picking through every last asymmetrical shard. That is what Confessor does to riffs, mainly thanks to the hyperevolved drumming of Steve Shelton (previously discussed on DFSBP), an innovator, a visionary and a very, very sick man. All the irregular seams are (purposefully) showing in this music, and they're not quite seams: They're actually as important as the riffs they combine. Neither element (the irregular seams or the riffs) takes precedence, though, and this is what gives Confessor its unique power to both baffle and delight. "Seems like nothing's clear to me / I can't find my mind," sings Jeffreys at the outset of the song, and you know exactly what he means, having been pelted mercilessly with lurching prog-doom for 30 seconds straight. And then this strange refrain emerges, an actual chorus, operatic—as though Jeffreys is singing for Journey and not Confessor. What must it have been like for a vocalist to surf these choppy riff waters? The time straightens out around 1:30, but you can hear Shelton hungrily eyeing the bar lines, ready to chomp right through them. The asymmetry mounts and by 2:36, you're deep in CONFESSOR LAND: Look to the right and there's a weirdly limp bass-drum-and-cymbal-catch punch (2:38); look left and there's a terrifying flurry of toms and double bass (2:41). (There is something so fantastically CRUNCHY about this music—it's like getting ground up in gears, and Jeffreys is right there with you.) A gnawing, uncathcartic guitar solo, and then, at 3:35, there's that opening riff again, but Shelton isn't about to let you off the hook—he stomps and rumbles all over it, yielding a bulbous mutation of the song's intro. So there's that key principle again: the memorability combined with the disorientation. Just enough ground to stand on before it's yanked out from under you. Right up through the end of the song, Shelton pounds the riff like a demented blacksmith, demonstrating that a good one (riff, that is) can take a massive beating and still sound like itself. (Check out drum-cam footage of Shelton playing "Alone" here, and check out more astounding math metal via Loincloth, Shelton's instrumental band with Confessor bassist Cary Rowells and Breadwinner guitarist Pen Rollings.)
15. Carbonized - "Night Shadows" from Disharmonization (1993)
And what exactly is this? On tour a few years back, the members of Stay Fucked (the previous incarnation of STATS) wondered the same thing during a tour when we found Disharmonization on tape at a truck stop in God knows where (I wanna say the Southwest). I recall a combo of bafflement and fascination at this inscrutable Swedish band, and how it peaked as this track came on. Primitive death & roll at the outset—nothing special—a foreboding, almost postpunky bass break and then, HUH?!? The math emerges out of the murk. I adore this riff passionately (the one that starts at :25): a bouncy, herky-jerky, pinball riff—almost like math rock executed by Devo. The guitar and bass keep up the pattern as the drummer spirals off into rudimentary-blast-beat territory, while the singer moans unintelligibly. And then, here's Devo again at about 1:00, with a goofball, almost disco-y version of the pinball riff. Just like with Confessor, the approach here is to utilize all parts of the pig, so to speak, to subject a single math-ed out riff to as many dissections and recontextualizations as you can dream up. After bringing the primitive-death-metal vibe back for a sec, the band then hairpin-turns into loungey swing, a gimmicky remote-control sort of move that might've sounded surprising back in ’93 but now seems a little tedious. But then the permutation game begins again, and a tripped-out eerie-carnival version of the death-metal riff emerges. The song begins to puree: thrash, lounge, a few precious seconds of THE HOLY PINBALL RIFF, distorted version of lounge. By the end, you will be scratching your head; you may even be fantastically annoyed by the band's offbeat humor. But you will not forget "Night Shadows." All its obtuse parts are too skillfully woven together, too hard to shake, too songlike. Since that first encounter, the pinball riff has haunted my dreams.
16. Hoover - "Electrolux" from The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 (1994)
"Electrolux" is a mantra, nine beats long. It has no obtuse parts. It has one part. It is one of the greatest bass lines I have ever heard, played by one of my favorite bassists, Fred Erskine (later of the Crownhate Ruin and June of 44). This bass line IS math rock. It IS the embrace between the disorientation and the groove. It is a thing of gorgeousness. There are, of course, dynamic shifts: the bass alone, sproingy and wet; the bass and the drums; the bass and the rhythm guitar; the full crashing OCEAN of Dischord post-hardcore. What can we do with this riff, the band asks? We can pause at the end of every repetition, leaving only the hi-hat, or a chiming guitar, or the clicking of drum sticks on the edge of the snare; we can divide the eighth beat of the measure in two, and punch out a pair of bass and bass-drum accents, like a stuttered period (this latter move begins around 2:00). We can remove the guitar, de-note-ify the bass line and drag it out into a zoned-out drool (2:14), a head-rattling throb. On a self-titled posthumous EP, Hoover would offer a dub remix of "Electrolux." It was entirely unnecessary. This song is its own remix, its own artful run-down of all the possibilities of this riff, a hymn to math. Hushed, then loud and screaming with horns and scribbling guitar. Fred Erskine is always there, plucking out the riff all the while. How long can we do this, he asks? No one has an answer, so they keep doing it. My favorite permutation is at 6:13: I imagine the bass like some sort of animated thing, its neck twisting cartoonishly as Erskine wrenches out the string bend at the end of the first measure. And then that aforementioned stuttered period again at the end of the second. Something new; something old. Hooking your ear and then surprising it, or vice versa. That's the triumph of math rock at its finest, e.g., "Electrolux."
17. Dazzling Killmen - "Blown (Face Down)" from Face of Collapse (1994)
And here we begin with another mantra in nine, the hypnotic intro of Dazzling Killmen's "Blown (Face Down)." There's almost a chilled-out quality to the groove here, but it's mixed with an underlying menace: The guitar (muscle) drops out cyclically, like breathing, leaving only bass and drums (bone). The throb and the jangle continues into the verse, and then, a queasy guitar break (:58), a sound of alarm, of a nightmare. There is a terror to Dazzling Killmen that I treasure, a sensation that something is either very wrong or about to go very wrong. As with "Electrolux," this track is all about the build, the accrued weight of a vamp pressing down on you, guiding you toward a spastic climax. Here, it comes quick and merciless, signaled with just four swift accents (2:32): a relentless, irregularly hammering rhythm, a classic math-rock obstacle course, a roller-coaster. You're definitely not the one driving. That's another key Dazzling Killmen trait: the feeling that you're being dragged somewhere, whether you want to go or not. An atmospheric interlude brings you right to the brink: this ungodly horror movie HANG, just a cloud of dread, which breaks through at about 3:48 and leads back into quick final reprises of the verse, chorus and roller-coaster break. Major respects to vocalist Nick Sakes (who later went on to the equally outstanding bands Colossamite and Sicbay and who now lives in Brooklyn and works in the raw, ferocious XADDAX) for narrating this twisted journey. Listen around 5:00 how he drops into a concerned mutter before working his way up to a veins-bulging-in-the-throat shriek. Revisiting this song, I keep thinking the TRAPPINGS of metal, Cannibal Corpse song titles, say, such as "Death Walking Terror," and how everything about THIS piece of music expresses those sensations a thousand times more intensely than ACTUAL METAL. I've argued this point for years, and I'll reiterate it here: The most extreme math rock of the early-to-mid-’90s, namely Dazzling Killmen and their friends and contemporaries craw [sic]—whom you'll hear from in just a minute—found a way to move PAST metal, to retain what was still intense about it, but to plumb new depths of torment, anguish and pure voices-in-my-head insanity. Don't get me wrong, I loved, love and will always love metal, but this stuff just takes everything I value about that genre and pushes it further. To me, it's simultaneously the most harrowing and satisfying music in the world.
18. craw - "405" from craw (1994)
And this whole aforementioned obsession all began with this song right here. (I'll spare some of the details, since they're recounted in previous craw posts here and here.) I was something like 14 or 15. I brought craw's self-titled debut home from Best Buy (of all places), sat down in front of the stereo, and THIS came out. I know… What in the living shit? This was my first exposure to the divine herky-jerk, the glorious turbulence that I've spent the rest of my life as a listener and musician chasing. The first 50 seconds of this song amount to a mini masterpiece of tension-building. I don't care who you are: You can hear the madness and the brilliance here. Start Stop Start Stop StartStopStartStop Start. When will it end? Do I want it to end? How are they counting this? What was that weird chant thing at the beginning? And the vocals: tranced-out, mumbling, sinister. And then strangely offhand: "It. Was. Like. I. Committed a crime-or-something." Then, flip the switch and ON (:51), the whole thing firing at once. It's a true sensory flood, this kick in. The vocal first a whine then a tortured yowl. The second guitar chiming, sounding a deranged counter-narrative. The whole thing lurching and stomping, sometimes headlong, and sometimes with that classic math-rock gear-grinding roughness, as with the teeth-pulling, five-staggered-accents-played-three-times interstice at 1:09. An absolute DEAD STOP at 1:26. And an ascent to utter insanity at 1:35. "And when it took off / I knew it was going down." "405" is a story about a plane crash, but even if you don't know that, you feel it. You're jarred and rattled to bits, with savage purpose. It's not some cut-and-paste job—it's a song, by god. A hush arrives (2:10), and a heavy-lidded build. The breakneck plane-crash riff now recast as a trudge—rising, rising. And the barely audible croon that you still feel like an icy hand. Martial cymbal rolls. And then: explosion (4:12). It's like snakes crawling all over you. Don't want to get too literal with this description: It's all plain to hear. And then a spent, exhausted decrescendo. I've never gotten over my initial exposure to this. Abstraction is great (as I'd later find when the free-jazz bug bit me), but nothing beats this kind of merciless, channeled frenzy. It's both wanton and utterly calculated, and that is its triumph—that is what I'm trying to get across about all this music. As a composer, you control the environment so totally that the listener feels terror and overwhelmedness but also a marvel. You enter a tower and it's so tall you can't even see to the top. You're dizzied by it. But you know that every detail up to the steeple has been considered, thought through, painstakingly rendered. You don't know what it's even used for. You want to stay inside it, find other ones like it. You crave that mixture of disorientation mixed with the comfort of a higher logic, however inscrutable. I guess it really is a religious thing.
[Note: The haunting cover above is by Stephen Kasner, who later went on to work with avant-metal bigwigs such as Sunn O))), Isis and James Plotkin's Khlyst. Apparently, he's currently in need of financial assistance due to medical travails—details here.]
19. Shudder to Think - "Gang of $" from Pony Express Record (1994)
And now we move to something entirely other: math rock not as torment, but as sass. You have four musicians here, and on the verses they sound like they're playing in at least three different bands: the rhythm section just sort of loping along in a holding pattern, guitarist Nathan Larson perversely hurling paint at the canvas and singer Craig Wedren working a sort of preening glam vibe. The aggregate effect is nearly impossible to get a read on, but then something magical happens: At :33, all these mismatched gears somehow click into place. There's a little alt-rock build-up and all the players sync up for these tug-of-war accents, as if they'd just discovered on the fly that they do in fact have something in common. And then on to a soaring chorus (:44). And it's all instantaneous and bewildering, this transition from a happening to a song. In about 30 seconds, two decades of prog and about as many years of glammy rock have been shoehorned into this new mutant aesthetic. This band made no sense to me whatsoever when I heard them as a teenager, but when I revisited Pony Express Record in my 20s, it gelled beautifully before my ears. This track is a true math-rock manifesto in that it stubbornly refuses to pick a side re: songiness or mathiness. Both elements are primary. It's nigh unheard-of. (Don't sleep on the math meltdown that starts around 2:15: It's a great example of a very weird ’90s period where math-rock impulses were intertwining with alt-rock impulses. Think of great, mathy hits such as Soundgarden's "Outshined" or "March of the Pigs" by Nine Inch Nails, or of Meantime-era Helmet.)
20. Don Caballero - "Stupid Puma" from 2 (1995)
Don Caballero, to me, is the band that best exemplifies what people tend to mean when they say math rock: In other words, they are the gods of capital-M, capital-R Math Rock. That's not to say that there's anything staid or conventional about them, just to say that they were ripped off more than any other band in this vein and thus that they retroactively seem like genre flag-wavers. Lineage aside, Don Caballero was, in their mid-’90s incarnation, an absolutely spectacular band. What this track shows you is that they were also a jam band of sorts—note use of lowercase here as well. They take these riffs and sort of roll through them, let them breathe, hammer at them from all sides. Listen to the gorgeousness of this recording: the full meaty bass and drums, the spidery guitars, trancing out on a five-beat pattern. The beginning of this track is like a Rush-ian overture, laying out the basic themes. There's the moody intro, then a crunchy, disjointed riff in 11 (:24), punctuated by a triumphant, fan-fare-ish breakdown (:45). And then it's back into the 11 riff (:48), but faster and more insistent. And then a variation of the moody intro (:57), consisting of a 12-beat riff (five plus seven). As I'm typing all this, I realize it's ludicrous, because it seems like the math-rock cliché: all counting and no soul. But listen to the groove and the sweat and the passion here. It's banging on the calculators with all your heart and muscle until they explode. It's having a blast jumping hurdles, running the obstacle course. It's the joy of sports, basically. A seven-beat riff (1:16) leads back into the moody intro. And listen to these gorgeous, funky hangs that the rhythm section rocks out on starting at 1:36. The funk is in the math, make no mistake. You have to groove, even if you're counting. Rush knew that; Zeppelin knew that; Mahavishnu knew that; and Don Cab most certainly knows it. The guitar harmonics swarm in around 2:30. And drummer Damon Che is having the time of his life grooving out on this, a true descendant of John Bonham and Billy Cobham. Holding down the FAT-BOTTOM-NESS of the groove, but also tattooing it with bell-of-the-ride-cymbal busy-ness. And the ray of shining light, the breakdown around 3:46. Don Cab's "Kashmir." They give you the pleasure of the rock for about six seconds before the mindfuckery begins anew, but it's enough. You've been math-rocked.
21. Cheer-Accident - "Nutrition" from Not a Food (1996)
Cheer-Accident is an absurdly diverse, entirely uncategorizable band, but on this album, they embraced a certain kind of uniformity. For much of Not a Food, they're mainly concerned with math-rocking. As "Nutrition" begins, you can immediately detect a raw, lumbering menace in the groove—the sum of an air-tight band as viewed through the Steve Albini prism. Listen to that raw mutant-Zeppelin vibe going down at :45. I've gushed so often, both on DFSBP and verbally to anyone who will listen, about Thymme Jones's drumming, but I'd've done better to just play them the section of "Nutrition" that begins at 1:29. This pattern disturbs my sleep, invades my waking and dreaming life, not to mention my drumming life. I cannot shake it, these three stabbing accents followed by the little tag of solo drums, featuring Jones's patented mega-swung hi-hat dance. I'd like to hear an ambitious rapper build a track off of a sample of this section. And then hear how it becomes heavier and more menacing the QUIETER it gets, this math mantra, with the uneasy guitar snaking over top. This, to me, is the sound of the rock underground in the ’90s: sickly and yet propulsive. It's Chicago; it's Louisville; it's Kansas City. It's Touch and Go and Skin Graft and Quarterstick and all the rest. I could trance out on this all day. Jones switches to the ride for a sec; the bass is off on its own vibe. By 2:35, the volume is back, and just listen to how utterly Zeppelin-y this sounds before the groove atomizes again. The next section (2:43) is a dizzy-er, a true obstacle, but dig how Jones is stewarding the groove. Your head is spinning but it's also bobbing. You never lose the rhythmic thread, even as the piece ratchets up to its insane climax (4:21). And here's the mutated HANG from 1:29 back again for a sec (4:40)—a kind of mini-reprisal that's a favorite Cheer-Accident technique. (See also "Even Has a Half-Life" from the same C-A record, as well as a number of tracks discussed above, e.g., the Confessor tune—the imperative being: you bring it back, but you fuck with it… but not TOO much.) "Nutrition" runs you through the math-rock wringer but it implants that microchip of memorability into your brain. The patterns don't just wash over you; they stick.
22. Tool - "The Grudge" from Lateralus (2001)
Tool is, I guess, the world's most famous math-rock band. It's a fact that used to frustrate me a bit, because I'd play people craw and they'd be like, "It sounds like Tool." And I'd be like, "Well, yeah, sort of, but... NO." It's just that age-old conundrum of a band simplifying an underground trend enough that it can speak to the masses and then seeming to have this retroactive sway over everything that actually influenced IT. Anyway, that is all pretty irrelevant, simply because Tool is an outstanding band in their own right, and at their very best, such as on this song, they exemplify the finest math-rock fusion of disorientation and accessibility/song-iness. The intro to "The Grudge" isn't unlike the intro to Don Cab's "Stupid Puma," that being a muted, low-down vamp in five, but it's obviously Tool-ized, meaning tribal-ized, industrial-ized, glossified in a sci-fi sort of way. The vocal entry counters beautifully with the rhythmic undergirding. And then stabbing accents (1:13) and a miniclimax, followed by quiet (1:20) and an extrapolation of the opening riff, with the bass playing over top in a pattern that I hear as six, then four (1:22), and the drums entering soon after, spelling out a pattern of seven, then three. And then the proper verse, which demonstrates Tool's almost incredible bridging of the math-rock obstacle-course and pop idioms. Maynard crooning over this riff in ten (1:45), which sounds impossibly groovy and inevitable and non-count-y. And this is why Tool is huge: They jar but they do so subtly and beneath the song, in a sense. You can listen up top and just drift, or you can listen below and geek out and count and you are satisfied either way. The suppleness with which this band grooves is really something: It's not a post-Zeppelin-ish pounding. It's not really rocking at all. It's this sort of liquid murk: the bulbous bass and Danny Carey's supple drumming, marked by the absence of the snare (i.e., the snare itself is deactivated on the snare drum). The effect is such that when the music "kicks in," it's not this sort of literal rocking. It's more of a soft, ugly, awkward clanking (2:40). And with Maynard in full voice over top, it's just breathtaking and scary. We're still in a ten-beat pattern here, but that's totally irrelevant. Thanks to the vocals, we're in an exorcism or incantation. Tool at its best is a ritual, and that's what's going on here. I think of Matt Damon's sarcastic "The music just owns you" remark in Good Will Hunting, but really that's what's going on here, these insane disorienting vamps building and building until they're not disorientating; they just are. Not math, just music, in other words. And there's so much more to the song. The kick-in at 3:52 is inexpressibly beautiful. Again, it's a post-Zeppelin vibe, but it doesn't sound like Zeppelin. This band has its own way of rocking, something that's very, very rare. Thin, angry, mechanized and with this absolute MONSTER of a vocalist chanting songful mania over top. How can sound so powerful, so well-matched to this strange, strange band? I'll say straight up that all Tool is not this good. Some of it is, but not all of it. If it was, though, they would be absolutely one of the most riveting rock bands of all time. I'm just so, so into the melding of complexity and depth in this song, its simultaneous inducements of bewilderment and mantric comfort. Is that a five against three happening when the counter-rhythm comes in at 7:36? Does it matter, when Adam Jones's guitar sounds so transcendent? And finally, there is no fan of progressive rock music that could deny the thorny badassery of the outro. "The Grudge" is, simply, a perfect song.
23. Mastodon - "Where Strides the Behemoth" from Remission (2002)
Another very, very popular band, and one whose pre-fame material seems to strike a greater chord in me than the later, more "mature" stuff. There's some sick shit on Leviathan, but Remission is my favorite, simply because it's an absolute riff machine, occasionally in a near-math-rock vein. "Where Strides the Behemoth" is a favorite along these lines, a masterpiece of jarring, sci-fi riffery funneled into bruising song form. That first riff is like a math-rock stun laser: two bars of six and one of four (the latter zooming along in a 16th-note feel), adding up to a "normal" 16, but you still feel that roller-coaster math exhilaration. (Interestingly, it's the opposite trick from what's going on in the Tool: making the normal feel weird rather than vice versa.) Drummer Brann Dailor is just... I can't even say. It's astonishing what he does here. The busy-ness of Damon Che, with a nod to the fluidity of Billy Cobham and a liberal peppering of metallic double bass. It's just huge. Right around :40, another tech explosion, as gnarled and anthemic as the opening riff, with the guitar, voice and snare drum hitting together on those first three stabs, like stakes through the heart of the song, and this seven-beat TAIL (:42), during which the guitarists slide down the frets with a kind of disgusting beauty, wrenching and labored and poetic and heroic. The six-six-four pattern repurposed then as kind of dumb, almost hardcore-ish chant (:57). And then the patented Mastodon squiggly-prog breakdown (1:34)—they seem to use it in every damn song—with Dailor writhing underneath, the whole band sounding like a steroidal Mahavishnu Orchestra and pushing every prog/fusion/math-rock pleasure button there is. Clean guitars and rumbling bass, and then just rumbling bass, building up to sheer MATH-METAL NIRVANA (1:56). This stomping, churning, lopsided riff monster, first eight beats then seven. The band just rages over the hurdles. Throw in the towel—you're done, destroyed.
24. Keelhaul - "Cruel Shoes" from Subject to Change Without Notice (2003)
Speaking of done and destroyed. This first riff is really one of the mightiest and stickiest ever composed. My bandmates and I bat this thing back and forth like a secret handshake. It's un-sheddable. It is the math-rock MASTER TEXT. It's the Zeppelin and the Sabbath filtered through the prog filtered through the sweat and gristle of Black Flag filtered through… I could keep going and even parse it rhythmically, but it's just so obviously a mind-destroyer. Listen and learn. Listen to way drummer Will Scharf tapdances through it, so that you feel the bottom but also the destabilization. It's like an anti-gravity chamber, thanks to him. And note that the part itself is constructed in this classic theme-and-variations style, i.e., A B A Bprime, with the Bprime sporting this grotesquely elongated tail. If your riff-tastes are anything like mine, this is one of those true forget-me-nots, never-leave-yous. It's just there: monolithic and gnarled and happy-making, anytime. The latter is the key here: I grin ten miles wide any time I hear this. I run faster on the treadmill. I make stupid guitar faces, induced by this steamroller of doom. And by :30 Keelhaul is already onto another vibe entirely, an anguished post-hardcore churn in five, punctuated by two brutally elegant flourishes (1:01)—one pointing up and one pointing down—a sequence that's sneakily beefed up 250% (i.e., played one extra full time plus one half) at 1:25. And then we're into the diabolical obstacle course, a breakneck riff in seven (1:29), played by the guitar first before the whole band jumps on it in a ferocious dogpile. Then the same sequence—lull followed by dogpile—begins anew at 1:51, and this time Scharf drives a single snare thwack (1:58) through the heart of the song before the kick-in. (I think Bonham would've been proud of the deadly economy of this thwack.) The churn continues: a crunchy little dynamic downshift at 2:14 that Scharf turbo-rolls all over and then an exquisite rhythmic tag (2:28), half boogie rock and half math metal, that signals the onset of a new section (2:33), a lopsided, Humpty Dumpty outro in three. Scharf plays along nicely for a bit, and then out comes the madman swing (2:43), like Bonham reborn as Elvin Jones. The breakneck vamp continues; the band drops out; Scharf pounds out a few bars; and silence. A disorienting, pleasureful riot, an utterly waste-laying riot, this song.
25. Hella - "Women of the ’90s" from The Devil Isn't Red (2004)
Again here, it's all about the drums, and specifically the right foot of Zach Hill, pounding at warp speed like a haywire sewing-machine needle. I read an outstanding Modern Drummer article on Hill from, I think, 2006, where he talked about how he practiced on a super-big bass drum (maybe 26") and then scaled down to a smaller one (maybe 22") for recording sessions, and how, in his words, he could skip around on the latter "like a hummingbird." That really stuck with me, and here, you can hear why. This is hummingbird drumming, top-heavy drumming (I mean top timbrally, as in the snare drum, and as in higher-pithced sounds)—a Zach Hill specialty, and that really stands out among my favorite drumming, because so much of the latter is lazy-giant drumming, bottom-heavy, explicitly Bonham-derived drumming. I don't know what can really be said about what Hill is doing here: It's simply astounding. Darting in and out of Spencer Seim's gnarled riffery like, yes, a hummingbird. It's like a kid playing on a jungle gym, such is the joy and exhilaration in navigating the math-rock obstacle course, and that time-tested tension of having one instrument vamp and the other go batshit on top. This is the kind of music that makes me wish there was more of a clear continuum, that folks (that's artists, critics, fans, whomever) didn't get tripped up so often on labels, genres, generations, movements, cover art, whatever. What I'm saying is that it has to be understood that where the spirits, the lifebloods of prog (King Crimson, say) and fusion (Mahavishnu, say) ended up is not in some lame-ass latter-day "Prog" or "Fusion," of which there is plenty, but in music like THIS, where the exhilaration and the sheer defiant PUNKishness shines through. This music comes directly from that music, and it is just as vital and hungry as that music was when it was in its infancy. You have to stay ahead of the curve and see these styles not as they are aped by later generations, but as they are broken down and ingested and recombined and revitalized. (Again, it's the same theme that Jeff Wagner discusses in his prog-metal book: "Progressive Rock" vs. progressive rock.) Anyway, yes, "Women of the ’90s," one of my very favorite Hella tunes. That first riff, where it's like your ears are caught in a lawnmower, and you and the band alike are writhing around like maniacs but it feels so fast and fun and cathartic. What is the twisted passage that begins at :38, other than a madman's obstacle course? Set the hurdles up, run the course, have a blast, spaz the fuck out. A reflective section (1:00) that would sound very Slint-y if Hill were willing to settle down. But he's not. Seim and Hill invite the chaos in, and they have the balls to let go (1:29) without really letting go. The jaws open and they clamp shut. Listen around 2:20. Seim is playing a sort of folk song. Hill is scribbling over it with neon sound crayons. There's no conclusion or resolution. The song wriggles itself out, but like all the other tunes here, it has deployed its grappling hooks. You'll not shake it, despite all the hecticness and mania.
26. Necrophagist - "Seven" from Epitaph (2004)
I discussed crunchiness re: Confessor, that sensations of getting ground up in the irregular gears of math-rock riffs, and how wonderful it feels. In the extreme-metal realm, Meshuggah is a band that doles out this sensation by the truckload. As mentioned in my intro, I've still got some catching up to do re: that justly renowned outfit, but I do hear their holy crunch reflected in the music of Necrophagist. This song, "Seven," grinds you up and spits you out in handsome fashion: true mechanized math. With Hella you've got the human-ness of Zach Hill, the actual chaos, the accidental-ness of something being played live. Here it's all cold, merciless machinery. That first riff is such a gem: a sci-fi dance; an armored tank advancing towards you to flatten you yet it's so beautiful you don't want to move. First played for maximum lurch and then back-beat-ized (:08) for maximum groove. Definite jungle-gym riff, one which the whole band gets to climb all over. Sheer death-metal chaos ensues, and then that patented Necrophagist cyber-thrash (:50), the guitars tapping out elegant Morse code, man-machine messages of technological infinity, the spiritual within the computerized binary. And hark! At 1:55, there—in the background of the guitar solo—is the grand recontextualization we've seen so much and greeted so happily: The initial riff, returned, and stomped over at double time, but still totally recognizable. Like an old cyborg friend whom you met not two minutes ago but whom, it seems, you've known for cyber-years. Then the Morse code, the tech-jackhammer, and finally the return of the intro, as if it weren't tattooed on your brain. Pure robot-funk sickness, driven home by a final bass squiggle. There's such a thrill in the humanized math, as you hear in Carbonized (where the math is clumsy and borderline incompetent but all the more potent for it), or in Black Flag (where it stumbles around, nauseated) or in Don Cab (where it's smooth and throbbing and nuanced) or in Hella (where it's hyperactive and splatterpainted). But there's another side to it and Necrophagist is that: the exaltation of the machine.
27. Battles - "Tras" from the Tras EP (2004)
You heard Battles guitarist Ian Williams on Don Cab's "Stupid Puma," at which juncture he was still fully committed to tranced-out, jammed-out fusion metal, later to be known as Math Rock. By the time of "Tras," his priorities had changed quite a bit. When I interviwed Battles in 2007, the members were quick to ward off "Math Rock" as "the m-word," fingers brandished in the sign of the cross. That cerebral fun-vampire is nowhere to be found here—this track is all groove, a dance-floor piledriver—but you can still feel his residue. Just like Hoover's "Electrolux," this is a vamp in nine that first destabilizes you and then starts looping round and round in your circulatory system. There's the methodical build that would seem didactic if it weren't so perfectly effective: guitar one enters; guitar two enters; bass drum and hi-hat enter; (right around the :30 mark) toms enter, and BOOM. The groove is on. Little twinkly electronic sounds up top; Stanier shuffling Clyde Stubblefield–like on the snare. It's the dance floor of the future, Again, yes, the music OWNS you. As much as the band members would like to convince you otherwise, this is in fact math rock, which relies on the combination of disorientation and propulsion. The first-principle paradox that drives the whole endeavor home. Instead of spacing out the hurdles irregularly, though, in this particular obstacle course, the interval remains steady. You lurch, but in perfect cyclical math rhythm until the song is done.
28. birthday boyz - "2" from The Bro Cycle (2005)
Another irregular vamp that becomes a mantra, an unstable yet stable canvas over which the guitars can paint. (Wielding one of those guitars, incidentally, is Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, now well known as the leader of the new-black-metal crew Liturgy.) This opening riff is such a poem, with its slow death-blues-dirge churn. Two pick up notes and then two chiming responses. Then two more pick up notes and just one chiming response. And then the agonizing drag-out of a triplet. And then a bar of sweet, gritty resolution. The drums come in and swing the whole thing, swaying to-and-fro like a mournful elephant. The crucial stop-time section (1:30) with the tastefully destabilized accents. And then settling into a steadier rhythm in three, letting the guitars and bass swirl and paint. The sad, breakneck prog-fusion-core, escalating in speed at 2:38. The vocals whooshing around underneath like an evil wind. And the math intrudes with jutting accents (3:22) that knock you in the gut and steal your breath. A snowstorm climax. Almost too much poetry and pathos in this music, driven by a kernel of mathiness and pushed into postprog bliss. No need to return to the intro, just some last hanging guitar chimes and you can't believe that five minutes have gone by. (birthday boyz, old friends of mine from college and beyond, are now Survival. Not sure what the status of this band is, but if they ever reemerge, they will lay waste, I am certain. History of the boyz is here—click the main screen when you're done blissing out to the emo-math-trance ritual that is "Triumph of the Good"—and an old DFSBP appreciation is here.)
29. Yukon - "Legsick" from Mortar (2006)
A flurry of happy, spastic mania. The engine is the math, deployed in service of progressive-minded, punk-fueled post-hardcore. The lurch and crunch of guitar one, the insistent siren-like whining of the other, the machine-gun hit-hats. Starting at about :22, this precarious human tornado dislodges and rolls down a hill, thudding irregularly but in perfect recurring rhythm. A pause and then a kick-in (:32), but as with the Tool track, it isn't that easy. All the parts from the previous riffs, scrambled and recombined. An impossible kind of busy-ness, settling down finally into a head-bobbing slam (1:00), thriving on the juxtaposition between the respective guitars' low crunch and high twinkle. I love the hang that starts around 1:26. This absurdly long note series, answered after an uncomfortable pause by a single splatting note (1:30). A world-swallowing fill (1:43) and the already fantastically gnarled kick-in section multiplies exponentially in busy-ness, the riff now not rolling down a hill but hurtling over it, but with the original material still showing through underneath the dust cloud. Again, it's that sense of recasting, recontextualizing, complicating but still retaining that original hook. My bandmates and I first heard this song in the live setting in (I think) 2006, when we were randomly booked on the same bill with Yukon. When this section commenced, our eyes bugged out cartoonishly. That what-in-the-living-shit? sensation is entirely preserved in this recording. Listen to drummer Nick Podgurski's ballsy and improbable insertion of stick clicks (hear one instance at right about 1:49) into the runaway spaz-groove. There's just so much energy and exhilaration in this section, the twin spirits of off-the-wall virtuosity and careful songcraft mingling, like there was never any need for them to be at odds. You've never heard such a coherent blur. It gets you coming and going.
30. The Flying Luttenbachers - "The Elimination of Incompetence" from Spectral Warrior Mythos, Volume 1 (2006)
You can find "The Elimination of Incompetence" on a few different Luttenbachers records—all available from ugEXPLODE—but this version is my favorite. Luttenbachers leader Weasel Walter classifies his hymns to the math-rock god as "brutal prog," and that's basically dead-on, but the word "fun" needs to be injected into the mix as well. This is hard (both in texture and hard to play) music, but it's also gleeful music, a happy kind of sci-fi obstacle course. There's no way it isn't a blast to wage musical warfare in this fashion, the same way it's a blast to navigate the cones, jump over the walls, traverse the monkey bars, etc. As a listener, you marvel at the architecture of it all, as themes return, mutate, deform, re-form. You're caught up in the whirlwind from the first second, but that opening six-note pattern is going to stick in your head, by god. And those stabbing accents around 1:00, with the blast-beat sprinting underneath. And the ten-note gnome dance (1:21)—front-to-back then back-to-front—like cells quivering frantically in a petri dish, or rather a cartoon rendering of same, a mingling of cold science and fantastical whimsy. At the 2:00 mark, a furious scramble of the initial six-note theme and the stabbing accents with the blast-beat underpinning. And then what could be thought of as Movement II: throttling full-band accents, echoed almost comically by single-note stabs. You hear these call-and-response flights and you think of the proverbial mad-scientist conductor, frizzy white hair sprouting out of his head. You think of sinister-ness combined with perverse delight. Weasel Walter, the band's leader, is snatching both band and listener away here, strapping them into the roller-coaster and ignoring all speed regulations. Seconds of chaos (3:55), pummeling riff dances in groups of six, and then, the linchpin reprisals: the call-and-response zaniness (about 4:40); then the initial six-note theme (slowed down to a grotesque crawl and accelerated precariously); the stabbing accents. A throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks outro and an inconclusive ending. What a marvelous riff blender this song is: You feel completely winded from all the hyperactive motion, but even in your dazed state, you remember those little details. The formula has been pureed, but somehow those few riff nuggets remain intact. Again, that same core math-rock paradox: You poke, prod and even decimate an idea, but somehow that idea comes out seeming all the stronger for it. All those trials don't obscure the idea; they strengthen it.
[Let me state for the record that the above-discussed Flying Luttenbachers track features two guitarists not spotlighted in this mixtape but nevertheless deserving of huge props with respect to this general area of music-making: Mick Barr, whom I've mentioned in my intro, and Ed Rodriguez, formerly of Iceburn and the phenomenal Colossamite (with Dazzling Killmen's Nick Sakes; the two also worked together in the different-but-equally-great Sicbay) and now of Deerhoof.]
31. Archaeopteryx - "Scuba Gooding, Jr." from Dreamt Sniper (2006)
The math-rock impulse, stripped down to pure, shirtless muscle. An obstacle course barely disguised as a song, but with such poetic coherence. Just bass (the oft-aforementioned Tony Gedrich, now of STATS) and drums (Ben Greenberg, of a thousand other bands; now playing solo guitar as Hubble) and a few snake-charming riff hunks. An in-media-res false start. And then listen to the glorious fuzz of the bass re-intro (:12) and the brute, walls-caving-in, what-in-the-living-shit-is-happening-to-me drum entry (:16). A devastator (to allude to one of this band's many previous monikers) of a riff: six beats (four played, two rested), then seven, leading into a groovy math dance (:56), played three times in a low register and once in a high register. A breathtaking stop-time section (1:11), punctuated with stick clicks. It's all about the poetry of the math and the fun of it and the balls of it and the shagginess of it. A geeked-out, steroidal, punk-infused communion with Zeppelin and just about everyone that comes before in this mixtape. The place where the because-we-can impulse reaches its truest, most pleasure-giving expression, where to witness the obstacle course being run is as wonderful as to run it one's self. The tiny details you only notice the 100th time you listen (or maybe that you only feel under the skin): e.g., when the main riff returns after the break (about :46), it's got an extra two (I think) microbeats woven into it, so instead of ba-na-na-NAH / ba-NA-na-na-na-na na-nah (as it is the first time around), it's now ba-na-na-NAH / ba-NA-na-na-na na-nah na-na-nah. Shit you don't have to notice, but that you can obsess over if you do, like one of those "What's different about these two pictures?" puzzles. And then, suddenly (1:28), a vertiginous drop-off into zombie doom, a headspace entirely MINUS math, longer than the entire "song" itself up to this point. Those monster riffs you heard before aren't going anywhere, though: They're stuck with you and you with them.
32. Behold… the Arctopus - "Canada" from Skullgrid (2007)
Behold… the Arctopus, the brainchild of Colin Marston (maybe now better known for Krallice or Dysrhythmia than for this project) and Mike Lerner, is the locus at which the chops-forward fusion impulse comes into full, chrome-plated, metallic flower. If while listening to Archaeopteryx, you're offroading in a mud-splattered monster truck, here you're hurtling through the cosmos in a gleaming spacecraft, dodging asteroids and blasting enemy ships. The overture to this song is a splatter of riffs, hurled at your windshield relentlessly and without warning. (You relish the odd breather moment, such as the majestic riff-pinnacle at :33.) There's a certain Luttenbachers-ness to the whole affair (appropriate, since Weasel Walter has since signed on as the drummer of Behold… the Arctopus), which really comes through when the song reboots with the reprise of the drum intro at :52, a tiny compositional peg to grab onto, a respite from the relentless onrush of ALL NEW information, and then another reprisal: the groovy, almost punkish space-stomp (1:00) from the opening section. Micromotifs emerge (at 1:27, a set of seven cymbal accents—four then three—which returns about ten seconds later) and recede, momentum lurches and you feel totally scrambled, teched-out once that majestic riff-pinnacle from :33 returns at 2:09, but you've absorbed and digested more than you think. A gorgeous drum-less space trance ensues, tapped out on Lerner's guitar and Marston's Warr-guitar (a sort of hybrid guitar-bass). And out of nowhere, a bona fide riff (2:43), a mathy hymn, contrasting the busy-ness of all that came before, a meaty branch to latch on to, not just a twig, and—to me—it's here that this bizarre soundweb transmogrifies into SONG. Suddenly there's momentum, purpose to the whole endeavor, purpose that floods backward to the opening section. As if to drive home that evolution, an honest-to-god guitar solo erupts out of the tech-metal petri dish, As though the Robocop suit opened up and Eddie Van Halen stepped out. The interstellar warfare begins anew at 4:12, with a slamming, lopsided riff that the band seems almost miraculously content to vamp on—prodding and poking it but leaving it structurally intact. And then, at 4:45, what sounds to me like a Luttenbachers homage—hushed accents responding to the blaring chaos that preceded them—and a classic Arctopus-ian outro, wherein the guitars vamp it up and drummer Charlie Zeleny drum-geeks out in splendidly busy fashion. Note, though, the all-important tying up of loose ends, as Zeleny alludes to his intro pattern at 4:58. I love this track because it shows just how far you can push the envelope of mathed-out chaos while still preserving the precious eggshell of SONG.
33. Extra Life - "Blackmail Blues" from Secular Works (2008)
If "Canada" is a calculator meltdown that gradually accrues SONG-ness, "Blackmail Blues" is the opposite: an elegant song that mutates into a thicket of asymmetrical rhythm. I wouldn't claim I could count the rumbling riff that kicks in at :49 (driven by Tony Gedrich's bass and Caley Monahon-Ward's violin), but I can feel its onrush, the fact of its moving in a single direction. (There's a Tool-ish murk to this section, teased out by the combination of the monolithic bass and the snare-deactivated drums.) It's like a tide of lava, terrible and wondrous. It is the magma of the math. Bandleader-composer Charlie Looker enters on lead vocals, spelling out trancey curlicues of melody. I think of some sort of dervish dance. You grow up in a certain remote village and you learn to flail yourself about in exactly this microdetailed way, perfectly logical yet inscrutable to the outside observer. The ebb and flow of this mad rush and the "Spare me, spare me" interludes. And the Zeus-like lightning bolts that are drummer Ian Antonio's China cymbal and hi-hat accents (4:35). The dervish dance simplifies, expands, contracts, and Looker's chant soars and curlicues, stuttering on certain syllables, and you wonder where it's all headed. The stuttering intensifies through the sixth minute, and then it occurs to you that the vocal is part of the equation, game to tech-out in the math mud with the instruments, not just soar above them (as, say, Scott Jeffreys might in Confessor). At 7:45, the raft goes over the falls, as Looker's voice aligns with the instruments in a harrowing, relentless counting game. Just raw syllables, staggered bass/drum thuds, a treacherous web of criss-crossed rhythm. You can't fathom it, so you just let it happen to you, and that submission points the way to rapture.
34. Cynic - "The Unknown Guest" from Traced in Air (2008)
There's more sheer technical ecstasy to be found here—ground up in the gears and you're loving it. Heart-on-sleeve emoting mingles with rhythmic mathiness on Traced in Air with a rare gracefulness. Fade in on a choppy vamp, with all kinds of filigree to distract you from its 4/4-ness, and then the tech-trance ensues. The stop-start pattern that makes up the verse (:40): like a hypnotist's arc-ing watch face, but with frames missing; strobed-out and stuttered. There is something so satisfying to me about these glue-y rhythms, these choreographed spasms, punctuated by flowery fusion. With the notes spiraling up to an ecstatic realm, where the robot-voice dance with the death-metal voice vomit (1:18). Strange architecture to navigate, such as the riff tower that springs up suddenly at 1:31. Unabashed sci-fi-ness, cosmos-touching, hand-of-God type of shit. And again, as on the Arctopus track, Eddie Van Halen hurtles out of the void in the form of Cynic guitarist Paul Masvidal, spewing out a lead as soulful as the Delta blues (2:46). This is math, and it's also rock. It's the cold and it's the warmth. Yes, technical ecstasy. It is a song sung by robots rigged to feel deeper than we.
35. STATS - "Guthy Renker" from Crowned (2010)
I include this not to imply that the band I play in with guitarist Joe Petrucelli and bassist Tony Gedrich is any sort of evolutionary endpoint re: the math-rock continuum, but merely to say that we are one possible output yielded via the input and digestion of the aforementioned. (During various songwriting sessions, we've named in-progress riffs in honor of many of these bands.) I love all the music discussed above—and, though our tastes diverge considerably, so, it seems safe to say, do my bandmates—and "Guthy Renker" is a good summary of what we've come up with to date. I'm not going to lie: The track is here not just for demonstration purposes but also because I think it's badass, not to mention a good example of the simultaneity of disorientation and groove discussed incessantly above. I hope you like it. If so, you can purchase Crowned here on CD or here in MP3 form.
So now you know what "math rock" means to me. What do you think of when you think of this term or this overall aesthetic territory? What should have been included? (I'm especially interested in folks' recommendations re: antecedents, i.e., material from the ’70s or earlier—classical music is mega-welcome—that seems to point the way toward this general area of rockcraft.) What should have been left off? This is an entirely personal canon—again, I might as well have pegged this as "35 songs I love"—and I welcome alternate definitions. Thanks for reading/listening.