Applied Math Rock
Scrolling through her Spotify recommendations last week, Jessica Dai tipped me to the existence of Egg Punk. I choose to pretend this is not a genre. But Jess also was incredulous that Math Rock was a thing.
Little did she know Math Rock is one of my favorite genres. The math rock sound has evolved a lot over the last 30 years, but I love every incarnation of the sound. When I was in college, Math Rock was what you called Progressive Rock played by Indie Rock hipsters. For whatever reason, you were not allowed to admit you liked King Crimson or Yes. Prog was decidedly uncool.
Math Rock meant you had to deliberately count out the main riff. The intrepid hipster needed cover to play in odd time signatures. The riffs would always go something like 12 12 123 12 12 12345. My band had a song that our drummer, Rick, would mock “oh, you mean the 12 12 123 song?” Rick was the only other person I knew in Chicago who would own up to loving Prog Rock.
90s math rock was hard-edged and dour. The sound was some fusion of Shellac and Slint. But in the mid 90s, more emotions started to peek through. The second Sunny Day Real Estate Record was one of the first emo records to add Prog Rock sounds. Chicago band Cap’n Jazz also pushed the emo envelope. After Cap’n Jazz broke up, drummer Mike Kinsella formed American Football. American Football’s first record touched all Math Rock that would follow. After 2000, it’s hard for me to differentiate “midwest emo” from “math rock.” (I love these genre names.)
One of my favorite recent Math Rock bands is Covet, particularly because they lean into the virtuosity of their music. Bandleader Yvette Young is unabashedly a guitar shredder and also unabashedly emo af.
In the 90s you always had to sort of pretend you couldn’t play your instrument and had to try really hard to be cool. But kids these days are on YouTube gleefully showing off all sorts of two-hand-tapping riffs. I salute their wankery.
Here’s a playlist of some of my favorite Math Rock songs. I tried to sample more recent songs and include some of the early greats too. Shellac pulled their songs from Spotify, so they’re a notable omission. But leaving them off lightens the mood anyway. Enjoy some Applied Math Rock.