There is probably some irony in writing this post directly after criticizing the use of musical “flourishes” to disguise simplistic songwriting, but the road to patriciandom is not paved in a day, and I want to talk about some hot new genres.
I’ve been listening primarily to two genres lately: math-pop and post-rock screamo. I can say up front that I don’t really see the point of this level of detail in a genre, but at the same time, I understand where the enlightened individuals who made these terms up were coming from.
The easiest way to understand “math-pop” is to think of math-rock. The easiest way to understand math-rock is to think of progressive rock. They’re all just slightly different enough from each other to warrant their own names. Progressive rock is one of the largest umbrella terms in music, and I would suggest that the thing that makes math-rock a unique subset (or separate genre) from it is that math-rock focuses a lot more on odd time signatures and very quick, technical playing. Obviously many prog rock bands do the same, but I find that these characteristics are “must-haves” for math-rock while they are optional for prog rock. Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas by Don Caballero is a nice example of the kind of sound you can expect from math-rock¹.
What makes math-pop different from math-rock seems simply to be that math-pop usually has lyrics, and math-rock usually doesn’t. Math-pop also seems slightly less interested in odd time signatures. In practice, it seems that most math-pop bands would also qualify as math-rock. With that introduction out of the way, here are some of the bands I’ve enjoyed the most from this alleged genre:
These guys have got a great sound put together. I’ll get into an example right away: Tobe. It has this excited vibe that reminds me of the type of songs that get picked for anime introductions. I love songs where I notice the drummer without having to think about it, and this guy really invigorates the song with his pace and spirited playing. The chord progression they chose is very uplifting, and on the whole this is actually a quite upbeat song. In the past I’ve questioned whether “happy” songs can be good — it’s been a long time since then, and I no longer hold that sentiment. This song is a great demonstration of that.
These guys are very listenable, and I would consider them a great entry-level band into the whole “math” umbrella. I highly recommend their album T H E. Oyasumi is another convincing song off the album. It’s very melodic, and again a very positive-sounding song without suffering from the simplicities that “happy music” can sometimes be accused of.
At around this time, the astute listener might have noticed that this band and the previous one are both Japanese. This is because, like with screamo, instrumental hip-hop, and post-rock, Japan has a strong scene for math-rock. Some of their math-rock bands cross into the math-pop spectrum, and 宇宙コンビニ (a very fancy way of spelling “uchu conbini”) is one of the finest examples. So far, I have only listened to their first album, 染まる音を確認したら, but it was fantastic, and I expect the same from their other releases. This is one of those albums that is short enough in length (~30 minutes) and consistent enough in quality that it’s not worth really picking and choosing an exemplary track. Just listen to the damned album.
That said, I’ll just showcase the first track off the album, Pyramid. You can tell this track means business because the lead singer broke out the 5-string bass for it. It has got some very technical playing (although despite my hype in the previous sentence, the bass is nothing special), it’s intensely melodic, and again a very positive-toned song. I’m a fan of 3-man bands, because it is an added challenge to put together a good song when you’re relying on the vocalist to also do part of the instrumentals. 宇宙コンビニ have really pulled it off.
“Math-rock” is a pretty ambitious description of Yvette Young, but that’s what somebody tagged her with, and I really enjoy what she’s doing, so we’re going to have a talk about her. She reminds me very much of guitar virtuoso Andy McKee, who I have been a longtime fan of. She also plays what I guess I’ll call “sparkly” guitar², but allow me to blow your mind: as you can see in A Map A String A Light, she actually sings while doing it. This is extremely difficult to do.
Her Acoustics EP is 25 minutes long, and is a very relaxing listen that I’d highly recommend. Without the drums or electric instruments found in the previous two bands, the music is intellectually stimulating while still having all the calmness that acoustic music is known to produce.
This genre is a bit easier to describe. You take the fury of screamo, as I described it a while ago, and you couple it with the slower, measured sounds of post-rock. And of course, post-rock shares an important characteristic with screamo: they both take advantage of the quiet-loud dichotomy to make for explosive tracks. It’s a smart combination that has made for some interesting bands and some interesting tracks. Of course, as with “math-pop,” there’s enough crossover between “regular” screamo and post-rock screamo that it’s almost not worth pointing out the difference most of the time.
Pianos Become the Teeth
This oddly-named band is really the poster-child of the so-called genre. More than any other screamo band you’ll find, these guys apply elements of post-rock to their music. Songs like Filial demonstrate what this sounds like. The music carries a lot of emotional weight, and it takes us through ups and downs of aggression and composure. It’s a great song to listen to at high volume.
And at the same time, they’ve got tracks like Liquid Courage that toe the post-rock line so much that they’re barely recognizable as screamo. My favorite track from the band is Hiding, which is from a two-track split album they released in 2013. It isn’t identifiably post-rock or screamo, but I love the way it builds in intensity over time. The vocalist and the instrumentals seem to be thrashing against chains that suddenly get released at the crescendo of the song, where the pent up anger finally cascades down over the listener. I consider it the unsung masterpiece of the band, and they have not released any other song like it.
Touché Amoré are the other band on the aforementioned split album, and they are a tremendous screamo band in their own right. The degree to which they might be considered “post-rock screamo” is debatable, but you can hear the post-rock elements in songs like Non Fiction.
I feel like whenever I’ve heard a song by them that I’ve really liked, it has been off their album Is Survived By. Just Exist is the best track off the album. It doesn’t have that “long-build up” pattern that you see in Pianos Become the Teeth, but it gets to explosive levels at around the middle of the song and returns to them at the end. The song therefore has a sustained ferocity that reminds me vaguely of Loma Prieta. I would not consider Touché Amoré to be an entry-level screamo band, but once you’re into the genre, they are one of the best.
At this point I’m completing making things up, because La Dispute have almost nothing in common with screamo nor post-rock. In fact, I have yet to hear any band that is quite like La Dispute. However, because they always come up whenever I’m listening to internet radio stations seeded on bands like Pianos Become the Teeth or Touché Amoré, I’m going to give them a mention today.
The thing about La Dispute that is so interesting is that their vocals are essentially spoken word. The vocalist does not sing. That said, it doesn’t quite feel like spoken word either, because he really yells the lyrics most of the time. It’s highly unusual, and I found it disconcerting when I first started listening to the band. However, now that I’ve grown accustomed to it, I really like what they do. Such Small Hands is their most well-known track, and it is absolutely chilling. Because the vocalist does not sing, he commands attention throughout the song. The song builds tension and does not release it, which leaves the listener unsettled (even more so on account of the lyrics). It is masterfully done.
I picked only two hybrid genres today because they are the two that I happen to be listening to at the moment. I suspect that any combination of genres one can think of has been done by somebody, somewhere. However, in the mainstream, this hybridization of genres is an increasingly common practice, and in the mainstream, all the possible combinations have not yet been tried.
It is likely that post-rock and math-rock are too far removed from dance to be considered likely candidates for a true pop hybrid, but I’m willing to be surprised.
¹I really enjoy this song. It actually includes a riff from another one of my favorite songs: September, by Earth, Wind and Fire.
²I know I’m co-opting that from emo music, but it seems like an appropriate term.