Meditations on “Math”, Pt.I: 3 Heavy Hitters
My friend Hank Shteamer’s recent primer on “math rock” urged a deeper look into the traditions of contemporary music that toy with established means and methods of songsmithy. I like that word: songsmithy. “I’ve this bag of notes I must take down to the songsmithy and get them worked on.” This is an ongoing project, hence the “Pt.I” of the title. This is a good thing.
• “Math rock” structure represents a fractal/chaotic “natural” system standing in contrast to musical form based in idealized geometries expressed through straightforward rhythmic patterns or senses of harmony. Clearly, the term “math rock” is contentious, since all music is mathematical. However, it is apt in the sense that it forces the listener to recognize new patterns and methods of song-building.
• Hank had added a few caveats to his introduction, namely that there were notable gaps in his listening experience that prevented him from commenting on certain bands. We all have these and because Hank’s post provided me with a number of new doors and passages for further exploration, this is my small way of returning the favor.
I first made acquaintance with these guys shortly before they released their instantly-epic 2001 release Jane Doe. Slowly my musical tastes were expanding from the punk and early- to mid-’90s “alt-rock” & “grunge” of my formative years to things that were heavier and/or more immediately challenging. I remember my dear friend Bart McIlduff bringing over the Converge/American Nightmare split that featured two songs that would appear on Jane Doe: “The Broken Vow” & “Distance and Meaning“. Though American Nightmare didn’t do much for me, the two Converge tracks completely broke my 20yr-old brain. Looking back, this was a definitive moment in my musical development that only in the past few years have I been able to more fully comprehend.
Converge have become pretty huge in heavy music circles, so it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that most of my peers are familiar with their work. At the same time, Jane Doe marked a major turning point in their sound (the addition of Ben Koller on drums is a significant factor in this, I believe) from earlier, more primitive “metal-core” to a maximally emotive, yet still technically precise blend of metal and hardcore that far surpasses the majority of bands who labor under that genre tag. Their minimalist follow-up, You Fail Me, completely flipped the script to a more aerodynamic heaviness that retained all the power and precision of its predecessor. (If the former was Joyce-ean, the latter would have been Beckett’s.) I’d be hard-pressed to claim a favorite between the two. The two full-lengths that have followed, No Heroes and Axe to Grind, found them floating between these poles, free to experiment having demonstrated their prowess. Some of the experiments floundered, but there is good stuff to be heard on them, for sure.
Spring of 2003, shortly before I graduated college, the aforementioned Bart heard Botch’s incredible cover of the old Latin hymn “O Fortuna“. Botch had just broken up the previous fall and posthumously released the ep An Anthology of Dead Ends. They are a great example of getting into a band backwards; this ep had an immediate impact on me as did their previous lp, We Are the Romans, while I’m only lately beginning to get into the more raw songwriting development of American Nervoso. If you want to hear overt jazz influence in hardcore—without veering directly into “metal”—just listen to Botch, as they mastered it. Make sure you’re holding onto something solid when you get to the 3:10 mark of “Vietmam”. It’s just a 3 count under a 4 count, but it sounds like the song is falling apart. So cool.
And “Frequency Ass Bandit” is a just sweet-ass song with a sweet-ass title that alternates between parts in 7/8, 3/4, 12/8 and 4/4.
I wasn’t joking about the ’90s rock. There’s plenty of music from this period that I liked that doesn’t hold up after 15 or so years (see: most Pearl Jam), and Chris Cornell did his image plenty of damage with terrible solo work and Audioslave. But go back and listen to Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, even a handful of songs from Down on the Upside, and you’ll find songs that tastefully and energetically shift signatures all over the place. Soundgarden was also well known for using a multitude of guitar tunings (8 alone on Superunknown) to fill sonic space and reduce the difficulty of certain phrasings. Also, Matt Cameron was and is a completely underrated genius drummer.
I’ll stop here for now, it’s still early and I don’t need to get crazy. But I’ve got a bunch in mind going forward, particularly in regards to lesser-known bands. Maybe also more interesting thoughts on what makes these forms so intriguing…