Since its inception in the 90s, math rock has been the home of some of the most forward-thinking rock bands out there. Combining the use of complex, hypnotic grooves, with layered up guitar harmonies, math rock bands have sprung up around the world to serve its satisfying sounds to those strange sorts of music-heads who enjoy getting their head in a twist. But math rock isn’t all about topsy-turvy rhythmic trickery. Luscious harmony and extended chords often make for beautiful moments amidst the highly-organised chaos that’s associated with the genre. This article takes a look at some of the best math rock bands and albums over the past three decades, as well as some current and modern bands, from the genre’s three great centres – the US, the UK, and Japan. But, first, for the uninitiated – let’s talk about what math rock actually is.
What is math rock?
Math rock is defined by the use of complex rhythmic structures, especially the use of less-common time signatures (5 or 7), cross-rhythms (for example, guitars playing in 5 over drums and bass playing in 4), and unexpected starts, stops, and rhythmic changes. Why is called math rock? It’s called math rock because those unusual ‘metres,’ or time signatures, are much more difficult to count than the 4/4 rhythms that are typical of rock music, and Western music in general.
While math rock often features punk influences, it is more akin to jazz in the level of technical proficiency required to pull it off. This said, math rock differs from jazz in several significant ways. Math rock tends to be highly structured, with relatively little improvisation. And while math rock often features layered-up harmonies, it is generally harmonically simpler than jazz. More than any other genre, math rock has most in common with prog rock, and in quite a few cases, bands can fit into both categories.
Math rock bands are generally comprised of typical rock music instrumentation. The influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich is evident in the use of repeated, looping, polyrhythmic patterns. On the other hand, far from the world of Reich, the venn diagram of math rock often intersects with post-rock, and even emo. Math rock is generally instrumental, with vocals taking a less prominent role, if they are present at all. So without further ado, let’s jump in.
Hailed by some as the ‘saviours of rock’ black midi have been making waves in the UK over the past couple of years with their chaotic blend of post-punk, experimental rock, and math rock. The London-based four-piece, who formed at the BRIT School, play with vocals, synths, guitar, bass, and drums, adding sax to their live shows. With the esteemed Morgan Simpson keeping the rhythms tight on drums, the band’s experimental, mathy sketches blend with Georgie Greeps’ strange, sometimes crooning, sometimes spoken vocals. Strap yourself in for their epic 2021 album Cavalcade – it’s a wild ride in which the cacophonous mayhem of tracks like ‘Hogwash and Balderdash’ sit side-by-side with sweet, psychedelic moments in ‘Diamond Stuff.’ A ridiculous, brilliant odyssey.
California-based Floral fall in the realm of twinkly, pretty, mathy, guitar-heavy math rock – their name rather fitting on account of the extremely flowery guitarwork. Opting for fairly clean electric guitar timbres, here you’ll find an abundance of extended chords and hammer-ons, powered by energetic, constantly driving drums. The simplicity of just one guitar (although the complexity of the parts make it often sound like two or more) and just one drum kit make for a pure and in some ways thin sound. The thinness of the sound, however, does not make it feel in any way lacking, with constant rhythmic changes endlessly arresting the ear. These crunchy, beautiful sounds hold the satisfying beauty of a crisp autumn day. Check out their latest record, the 2020 Floral LP.
Don Caballero are one of the most-celebrated math rock bands of all time, with their 2000 album American Don generally recognised as their most enduring work, and one of the all-time essential math rock albums. Clocking in at just under 56 minutes, the record is raw and punky, yet, at the same time, a flowing instrumental journey. Despite the hard drums and rough-around-the-edges production, American Don has an almost ambient, gentle feeling, ebbing and flowing through various, absorbing, hypnotic movements. Hammer-on guitars with layered up harmony and trancelike groove moments abound. The building, repeated cross-rhythm guitar patterns on ‘Haven’t Lived Afro Pop’ are especially satisfying. All in all, the record is a case study in math rock brilliance. Explore their live recordings for a taste of the band’s raw live energy.
Hailing from Rennes, France, Totorro’s most recent two albums, Home Alone (2014), and Come to Mexico (2016) are both immaculate examples of glistening, twinkly math rock. The instrumental four-piece call to mind the likes of the ultra-twinkly Explosions in the Sky, leaning less towards punk than some math rock bands do, and more towards the ambient. There are plenty of noisy moments, but in the case of Totorro, such moments feel carefully structured and controlled. Their math-ier moments are so tight and flawlessly executed that sudden changes in time signature or tempo simply wash over you. Listen to their two albums back-to-back for a good, long soak in lush distortion, and twinkly reverberating guitars. Although it has been some years since their last release, the band are still together.
Clever Girl get a special mention on this list, not only for being amazing, but – full disclaimer and brag – because I happened to know these guys, and saw them play a couple of times. Formed in Sheffield around 2009, and named after an obscure Jurassic Park reference, their only ever record No Drum and Bass in Jazz Room was first released in 2010. Some months after the record was uploaded to YouTube, the algorithm drew more and more math-heads. Slowly but surely, the mostly unknown, moreorless disbanded Sheffield band built a cult following who couldn’t get enough of their luscious, twinkly guitar music. With its beautiful interwoven guitar arrangements, overlayed with saxophone touches, the record is earnest and uplifting, with some truly beautiful moments. The coveted record was finally pressed to vinyl in 2018 – selling out immediately. The third press is available now via their Bandcamp. There have been rumours of a revival gig, from the band who are now mostly based in London. Watch out on their socials just in case it ever happens.
Math rock bands can often boast a decent standard of technical proficiency, and for no one is this more true than Chon. Hailing from Oceanside, California, Chon have been players in the math rock game since 2008. The current configuration is three brothers – Mario Camarena (guitar), Nathan Camarena (drums), and Esiah Camarena (bass) – plus Erick Hansel on guitar. These guys pull off an endless stream of complex, weaving guitar riffs with amazing precision. A four-piece instrumental band, Chon are pretty much the epitome of what we love about the clever, pretty side of math rock. They’re a big one for guitar lovers – tune in for proggy solos, rich chord progressions, and big satisfying whammy-bar action on their 2019 self-titled album.
Formed way back in 2000, Toe are a Japanese math rock band that have toured extensively, including supporting the likes of the mighty Mogwai. Their 2021 live album DOKU-EN-KAI captures something of their live energy. The feeling of the record is sincere and somewhat DIY, leaning more towards the post-rock than the mathy side, with plenty of slow piano moments. A largely instrumental band, vocals feature pretty heavily on this latest record, and the intimacy of the recording is especially appealing after the lack of live music that we all experienced over the Covid era. Their stand out record remains the wordily-named 2012 album, the book about my idle plot on a vague anxiety, with its chiming guitars, clangy drums, and the lovely cosy lofi quality of the sound.
Based in Leeds, UK, Slow Loris are a 4-piece comprised of drums, bass, and two guitars. Little-known, perhaps, in the math rock scene, the band are well-respected in the bustling Leeds music scene, delivering consistent top class technical wonders. Listen in to their 2021 EP Sounds Hoof for hard riffs, dense harmony, clever grooves, and surprisingly low bass tones. The rhythms in ‘Hammer,’ the opening track – combined with sensitive dynamics – throw you right off balance in the most satisfying way possible.
Eclectic Japanese band LITE are known for their live performances and off-kilter rhythms. Their unusual instrumental blend of genres includes elements of math rock, synth, and even something like funk, with bass featuring prominently and guitar tapping galore. Check out their debut 2005 self-titled EP for a taste of their original sound, which fits more squarely in the math rock realm – recent years have seen them move in quite an electronic direction, producing film and TV soundtracks, with relatively few mathy elements. This band are certainly worth checking out, especially for lovers of musical chaos, but you’ve been warned – these wild sonic journeys are not for the faint-hearted!
Genre-defying and influential, Battles pioneered the crossover of math rock with electronic music in their 2009 album Mirrored, released on the predominantly electronic label Warp Records. Formed in New York City in 2002 and led by the duo Ian Williams (also played with Don Caballero) and John Stanier, Battles combine sophisticated, complex rhythms, with catchy, almost childlike melodies. Always at the far-out, boundary-pushing end of math rock (although they transcend the label much of the time), Battles need to be on every math rock fan’s radar. Their latest LP, the 2019 Juice B Crypts sees the pair blend a highly-structured and spacey if somewhat frantic sound with other innovative collaborators including the likes of Tune-Yards and Shabazz Palaces for some big, weird, head-nod grooves.
Alpha Male Tea Party
Alpha Male Tea Party sit on the heavier end of the math rock spectrum as one of the most impressive British math rock bands on the scene today. Big extended chords, big distortion, and big crashing drums, Alpha Male Tea Party’s powerful sound is brilliantly executed. Although generally harmonically concordant, the trio stray into metal territory at moments with some heavy chromatic riffs, as well as those big mathy grooves to make you lose your balance. Check out their 2017 album Health, and the 2020 Infinity Stare – two of the best new math rock albums of recent years. What a sound.
Founded in Oxford, UK, TTNG – perhaps better known by their original name, This Town Needs Guns – named themselves, ironically, in reference to their historic hometown’s low crime rate. Unsurprisingly, however, with their growing international fame, the ironic context of the name became lost and a name change became necessary. Naming aside, TTNG’s delicate, earnest, twinkly music touches on indie, emo, and math rock, with their 2008 album Animals standing as their most-acclaimed record. The popular, tender record really lends itself to the acoustic rerelease, Animals Acoustic that they released a decade later.
The Evil Usses
Based in Bristol, UK, the eminently quirky and at times comedic The Evil Usses produce wonky synthy groovy mathy proggy sonic slapstick – or, in their words, ‘rocky notjazz’ and ‘jazzy notrock.’ The deeply rhythmic instrumental four-piece comprises drums, guitar, bass, synth and sax. The development of their mindbending sound is documented through three ambitious albums – The Evil Usses (2015), Amateur Pro Wrestling (2017), and Muck (2019). Get on it for creepy discordant organ melodies interplaying with squelchy overdriven guitars and pounding groove after pounding groove.
American Football are an emo math rock that skew heavily toward the Midwest emo side of the spectrum. Hailing from Illinois, the band was first founded in 1997. After a long hiatus, the band reformed in 2014 and are back on it to this day. Their acclaimed self-titled 1999 album (the first of three self-titled albums) remains a firm fan favourite, with song titles including ‘But The Regrets Are Killing Me’ and ‘I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional’ gesturing towards the record’s heavy emo sentiment. Without a doubt, one of the most popular (and also one of the soppiest) bands in the genre.
Led by guitarist and singer Yvette Young – originally a solo artist – Californian trio Covet first formed in 2014. Their soft, warm-sounding math rock is predominantly instrumental, constructed around Young’s virtuosic, richly harmonic electric guitar and two-handed tapping style, and her occasional vocals. Despite the rhythmic complexity of Covet’s compositions with their ever shifting time signatures and grooves, their music has that washy, twinkly math rock quality that means you could equally mosh or fall asleep to it depending on the volume and your mood at the time. Check out their 2020 album, technicolor.