Math in Words

by on September 24, 2012

Posted in: Uncategorized

‘Math in Words’ is a fortnightly series tracing the development of math rock through the 90s. In the first installment the focus is on Slint’s 1991 record, Spiderland.


Math rock as a genre largely eludes a definitive exposition; critics generally apply the term when left scratching their heads and finding themselves unable to make comparisons to more familiar styles and structures. Fans are equally ambivalent; any entry on YouTube titled ‘math song’ is more often than not burdened by users commenting on what makes the song distinctively ‘not math’ without offering any elucidation on the subject.  Paradoxically, many of the musicians frequently associated with the genre are as reluctant to accept the term; instead turning it into something of esoteric joke. Writing about individuals who are suspicious of such journalism is just another irony I have to accept as part of this project.

Such frustrations ultimately deny a conventional study of the genre and insist on a more abstract approach. I figure the most logical way to do so would be to have a broad view of the principle characteristics of the bands I will be documenting. These include the use of, but are not limited to: asymmetrical time signatures, idiosyncratic structures, and a privileging of instruments over voice.

In fortnightly installments I hope to assess as chronologically as possible the more accessible records which contributed to the movement whilst still alluding to those which however formative may be considered difficult, or, in some instances, ‘unlistenable’. As tracing the genre through its many antecedents would require a vast, labyrinthine casebook, I’m instead going to focus more specifically on the bands which emerged in the early 90s as I consider this loose collective to be of particular importance when attempting to reach some kind of answer to the question of what math rock is.

To begin unraveling the subject I’ve decided to take a look at Slint’s second and final record, Spiderland. Released in 1991, the record possesses all the hallmarks of what is often considered a truly math rock record: The guitars oscillate between angular rhythms and scratchy riffs, the time signatures are often irregular, and the dynamics shift in a totally unpredictable way. The complexity of each song’s architecture demands total engagement; I tried to listen to it whilst writing this piece and just found myself unable to divide my attention.

Produced by Brian Paulson, the record reflects his raw, live approach to recording which makes for a far more natural sound than the mechanical rigidity of many new rock bands. The production led Steve Albini, the producer of their first effort, Tweeze, to suggest that “The crystalline guitar of Brian McMahan and the glassy, fluid guitar of David Pajo seem to hover in space directly past the listener’s nose. The incredibly precise-yet-instinctive drumming has the same range and wallop it would in your living room.”

Released under Chicago’s Touch and Go Records (a self-published zine turned label only ten years prior to Spiderland’s production), Slint joined the indie roster responsible for the likes of Big Black, The Jesus Lizard, and Don Caballero; three bands whose involvement in the progression of math rock is indisputable, not matter who says otherwise.  

Spanning less than forty minutes and totaling only six tracks, the record serves as a veritable model for the genre. Each track is replete with dichotomies: mumbling spoken word narratives to rasping yells, melodic chiming guitars to discordant and distorted stabs, ambient instrumental sections to crowded vocal arrangements. Piero Scaruffi describes them asmasterpieces in rock history… Leveraging from experiments of preceding years, Slint is now completing a more sophisticated search on rhythm and resonance, culminating in an almost transcendental quality”, an accurate statement.

The album artwork is equally unsettling; the members all treading water in black and white, offering what many music journalists may describe as a “brooding extension of the album’s existential angst”. Really it is just a reflection of the band’s autonomy and their investment in every faucet of the record’s production. It may not be your traditional ‘concept album’, but it certainly offers some continuity in everything from artwork, linear notes, and the songs themselves. The band’s self-awareness is evident in the, “this recording is meant to be listened to on vinyl” stickers they included as part of the CD release; it is this kind of engagement with the listener which heightens the intensity and personal feeling of the record.

Whilst truly innovative in more ways than one, the record it is not without its debts. The narratives McMahan delivers in Good Morning, Captain and Breadcrumb Trail are entirely reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s Goo, released only the year before. The guitar arrangements sound at their cleanest to borrow from early Gang of Four records, and at their heaviest, Black Sabbath in drop-tuning.

Spiderland has in more recent years acquired the critical reception it rightly deserves. Whilst largely ignored upon its initial release (which great records aren’t?) it now ranks highly in respected music publications when charting records which actually changed the musical landscape. The band’s limited output of only two records is unfortunate, but no less defining as a consequence. Evidence of Slint’s influence can be seen in the works of JUNE OF 44, Polvo, and Drive like Jehu; three bands credited in equal measure for their involvement on the math rock scene of the 90s. More recent traces can be heard in Mogwai, This Will Destroy You, and 65daysofstatic. As I can think of no conclusion more fitting than that of Steve Albini, I will quote him again here, which is to say, “Play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live.”
Oliver Pearson