The roots of math rock are traceable to multiple points of departure, from 90’s Midwestern emo and expansive prog-rock, to the noisy post-hardcore scene and the instrumental virtuosity, tonal diversity of jazz. Math rock is an all-encompassing term, the sort of phrase that hallmarked the early work of Foals, Everything Everything and Dutch Uncles but has equally found itself attached to the less poppy likes of King Crimson and The Mars Volta.
For years the question ‘‘what is math rock?’’ has plagued numerous forums across the alternative music sphere. The technical answer (involving discussions of time signatures, polyrhythms and other musical jargon), while often illuminating, fails to capture the diversity and richness of the genre. From post-hardcore to prog, emo to pop, twinkles to riffs and simple three pieces like Tangled Hair to the textural onslaught of Oceansize, math-rock channels a wide range of genres and moods.
I have followed this scene for many years, conducting reviews and interviews from all across the country, all the while running a website dedicated to charting its rise, simply titled The Math Rock Blog. I’ve spent a year at Newcastle University following the surge of an embryonic northern scene, spent months in Scotland getting a taste for post-rock and frequently travelled to the southern strongholds of London, Bristol and Brighton. But for my money the best that math rock currently has to offer is found in the northern musical powerhouse of Leeds.
It’s not uncommon to hear math rock bands name the inimitable Brudenell Social Club as their favourite venue around. With the rugged charm of a low stage, a permanent balcony for a great view from all angles, seating for contemplative music. as well as a wide selection of famously cheap booze, it’s not hard to see why. Dirty Otter and Bad Owl Presents are likely to provide the bulk of the best math rock in the city, the former hosting an annual all-dayer as its flagship event and the latter throwing together the eclectic sounds of post-metal, post-rock and hardcore with smatterings of math in everything they do.
Despite having so much to offer, the insular island of math rock still finds itself marooned in a quiet corner of the alternative music world. But things are starting to change. As the titanic tectonic plates of prog rumble slowly beneath and as the convection currents of a much loved post-rock rise to their glorious crescendo, these bigger genres and their attendant marriage to math rock are slowly helping the cause for all of alt-rock music. The math rock descriptor has creeped into the odd Radiohead review and is often the figurehead term journalists use to describe the frenetic interlocking grooves of Everything Everything’s first album Man Alive.
There has also been a growth in festivals catering to the often-noisy, ever-experimental sector of rock music, such as Truck, 2000 trees and the seminal ArcTanGent. American Football and Owls have smashed out massive reunion tours and The Fall of Troy have followed suit. And So I Watch You From Afar have wound their way up to more mainstream festivals like Leeds, Reading and Tramlines. Tall Ships have frequented Huw Stephens’ show on Radio One and even the under-loved likes of Leeds’ own NGOD have penned big record deals. But the most rewarding thing to bear witness to is the immense surge of underground bands. Almost every week I inadvertently come across an event page for a gig and the imagined sound of the three solid math rock bands on the bill feed simulated anthems and ersatz riffs to my ears for a precious moment.
To experience the real thing is a must, an imperative offered by Leeds almost every week. From Headrow House to Nation of Shopkeepers, the collision of melody, complexity, riffs and noise can be found molded into atypical rhythms and performed by some of math rock’s finest. So if you like the new cabal of chorus-pedal synth pop bands, check out the tropical waves of Joey Fourr or the pristine pop of Will Joseph Cook. If you want more complexity without the noisy hardcore influences, local alt-pop 3 piece Tall Talker are a safe bet. If noise is precisely what you’re looking for, Leeds’ very own Bearfoot Beware are creating some of the most brilliant nostalgia-filled, 90’s sounding grunge and hardcore jams. Relatively fresh-faced Unwave are releasing their debut album in the same musical vein whilst Leeds’ alternative rock veterans Pulled Apart By Horses are on the cusp of finishing their fourth album, supporting Twin Atlantic in the finishing stages.
But if foundations in the smooth, groovy and wizard-like complexity of jazz are more your thing, The Physics House Band and Three Trapped Tigers are soon to come to Belgrave to blow your minds with some the most accessible technical math rock in the scene. But if all that sounds too intense, then look out for math rock’s ceremoniously allied cousin post-rock, with Japanese pioneers Mono and the UK’s most pensive rock band Her Name is Calla both visiting Leeds in the coming weeks.
If you like what you hear, be sure not to miss…
15th Pulled Apart By Horses (Supporting Twin Atlantic) – Beckett Student Union
15th Tall Ships (Supporting Lonely the Brave) – The Key Club
19th VASA / Bearfoot Beware – Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen
22nd Tall Talker – The Key Club
30th Bearfoot Beware – The Brudenell Social Club
31st Will Joseph Cook – The Brudenell Social Club
6th Bad Owls Presents: Tomorrow We Sail, Jacob Reece, MYRR – Wharf Chambers
13th Mono / Alcest – The Brudenell Social Club
20th Three Trapped Tigers / The Physics House Bands – Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen
26th Her Name is Calla – The Brudenell Social Club