Meditations on “Math”, Pt.III: The “Indie” Underbelly

Finally, things are returning to semi-normalcy and I can get back to some too-long neglected items around here. It’s finally sorta nice out today in Brooklyn (meaning=not raining), I’ve had my iced coffee and a little time was spent job searching. Now to the important stuff: math rock.

Since I started this series off with mostly heavier bands, I’m going to head down a “lighter” path today. That doesn’t mean the following outfits are soft on the ears, rather they are predominantly the type of bands people like to describe as “angular”, “jagged” or anything that insinuates rough edges or—perhaps oxymoronically—a regulated discontinuity. But they are “lighter” in that there is a greater variety of sonic tonality, ranging from gentle instrumental passages to ecstatic screaming frenzy. The rhythm sections in particular tend towards the propulsive, composing their own riffs instead of merely providing a steady backdrop for guitars and vocals. This, perhaps, is the major differentiation between those below and a “purer” form of pop-influenced rock music.

• Braid

Definitely the most well known and commercially successful of this group, the Champaign-Urbana quartet contorted traditional pop song structure while retaining both the hooks and intimacy of the form. These were the early days of real, Midwestern “emo”, before it became a fashion statement with silly haircuts, unnecessary hardcore breakdowns and completely unlistenable vocals. Braid is probably the most subtle in their structural play, relying on pauses and quick shifts instead of odd time signatures or overt jazz-like passages. At a time when many bands could be accused of “kitchen-sink” songwriting, every section of a Braid song felt natural and necessary, never detracting from the emotional impact.

Apparently they’ve reunited again (after breaking up in ’99 and reuniting for a phenomenal ’04 tour) and should be writing and touring this year. I just found this out, though, so I don’t have any other details.

“Killing A Camera”

• June of 44

Admittedly, I came to this band very late. And by “late” I mean in the past couple weeks. Chalk it up to laziness and distraction. Nick Salek—my musical partner/drummer in Warmth—has long been a huge fan of these guys, while I’ve long been a huge fan of Hoover, who were stylistically very similar and also featured multi-instrumentalist Fred Erskine on bass. What’s more, guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mueller’s previous band was Rodan (see below), another notable Warmth influence. So… I really had no good excuse for not having paid much attention to these guys. There was something really special about Louisville in the early- to mid-’90s with a crop of bands (Slint perhaps the most notable) incorporating Pixies-esque dynamics, DC-style post-hardcore energy and some groove from way out. It’s that groove that really seemed to set it apart from other oddball, mathy scenes like Kansas City or Chicago.

Anyway, what I find really notable in June of 44 is their pattern sensibility. Each member contributes a series of riffs that serves to steady the other members’ contributions in kind. This lends the song tremendous groove even when the individual riffs tend towards the asymmetrical or non-linear. It’s a very unorthodox approach to crafting rock songs and, in its own way, reminds me of Gorguts‘s Obscura. Take a listen to the guitar intro from “Sharks and Sailors” (from The Anatomy of Sharks ep) or Doug Scharin’s drums to open “Cut Your Face” (a punchier track off Four Great Points, noticeably “softer” album) and then notice how the four components quickly congeal despite their individual differences. Pretty spectacular.

“Cut Your Face”

• Rodan

Not too much I can say about Rodan that didn’t also apply to June of 44. The main difference being that Rodan was, on the whole, more consistently “heavy”, likely on account of their youth. They were equally capable of balancing their hardcore energy with stunning, beautiful, intricate passages. Their only lp, 1994’s Rusty, opened with the drumless instrumental “Bible Silver Corner” (which apparently featured drums for live shows) and shifted immediately to the raging “Shiner”. Rodan itself didn’t last long, but all it’s members, particularly Jeff Mueller and Tara Jane O’Neill, have had consistent—if not mainstream—success with post-Rodan projects.

“Gauge” (skip to about 1:20 to avoid stage banter)

• Lynx

This quartet is the odd-man-out of the group, being a purely instrumental outfit and hailing from Massachusetts. They didn’t put out much, as far as I’m aware, just a self-titled lp from ’99 and a 3-song ep. However, it’s all remarkable stuff and stylistically owes a great deal to the above bands. Guitarist Dave Konopka is far better known for his work in Battles, but as great as that band’s pedigree, I’ve never gotten into them as a whole. Lynx, however, is one of those comet-like bands that flicker by once in a lifetime and disappear back into the void.

Being a solid instrumental band is much more difficult to pull off than most people are willing to credit. Many music listeners are seduced by vocals, a sleight-of-hand that allows weak passages to slip by unnoticed. That’s just what pop music is, a manipulation. However, if you’re going to eschew vocals, every single part of the song needs to be interesting and necessary, even if it’s simply to provide contrast to the main theme(s). There is no escape in this format. Fortunately, Lynx never failed on that front—though the difficulty of pulling this off so consistently may be a reason why they never put out more material. Every song pulses from the low end while the guitars weave variations on simple lines, it’s impossible to listen and not be moved such is the interplay of the primal and intellectual. True to form, they could—and often did—quickly shift direction, but never so haphazardly that they lost the listener. Each finished entity was complicated yet approachable, rhythmically quirky but open for dancing. Seriously. I mean that.

“Look At That Table and Make It Spin In Your Head”

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