“Mad for Mathcore: Appreciating a Subgenre of Heavy Metal Rock Music” by Angel Wang

As music critic Heidi Waleson stated in the Columbia panel discussion on Friday, April 25, “It’s not a critic’s job to make people love a certain performance or genre of music. It’s their job to make the audience listen in an informed way.” Using her insight, I write my review not to force readers to love heavy metal music, but to enlighten them in a way that they can appreciate heavy metal.

Heavy Metal is the music that everyone loves to hate. It seems like every age group complains about some aspect of it—older folk think it’s too loud, middle-aged parents find it too provocative for their children, teenagers think it’s weird, and kids are outright frightened by it.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes blind people from seeing the impressive features of this genre, such as the remarkable virtuosity of heavy metal musicians, the impressive versatility of the rhythm and meter, and the philosophical depth of the lyrics. This review will examine these common misunderstandings.

First, heavy metal is a broad category. In fact, the genre has grown significantly over time; to say all heavy metal is the same would be akin to claiming that all jazz music is the same. To avoid any erroneous generalizations, I am going to focus on a new subgenre of heavy metal called “mathcore.” Mathcore developed from early sub-genres of heavy metal, most notably “metalcore,” but has recently differentiated itself and claimed its own independent identity in the past 5 to 10 years.

Mathcore is most notable for its overwhelmingly fluctuating meter and unusual time signatures. Its very name—mathcore—emphasizes its tight connection with complicated mathematical formulas that provide the foundation for its melodies and rhythms. This is evident in its relentlessly shifting time signature. In the song “The City” by the band The Chariot, the meter changes with essentially every measure (make sure to listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kczMkGbg90).

It’s impossible to tap your foot along. In contrast, in the song “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, a consistent predictable beat is immediately evident at the beginning of the song, first introduced in the guitar bass and then in the drumset and cymbals. In “Psycho Killer,” it’s incredibly easy for listeners to nod their head to the steady beat; in “The City,” it’s incredibly difficult for listeners to grasp the underlying beat since there is no static meter.

This is an important distinction to make, since, many people may stereotype Mathcore as mindless head-nodding music that only requires brash drum banging, random guitar strumming, and screeching vocals. This image could not be further from the truth. Perhaps the most misunderstood feature of mathcore is its incredible virtuosity. Mathcore guitarists display astonishing technical skill, with incessant riffs and flourishes that can last for the entire song. Their fingers move extraordinarily fast, squeezing multiple notes within a single second. This is not only musically challenging, but physically demanding.

Drummers and singers also perform with remarkable talent and mastery of their respective fields. Mathcore percussion sounds are very harsh and sharp sounding, and drummers must not only multi-task to play different features of the drumset (cymbols, bass, snare, etc.) but must do so at heart-racing speeds. Singers too perform passionately, belting out lines that combine difficult pitches in complicated sequences. Thus, mathcore music is striking for its virtuosity.

In light of all these impressive features, why is mathcore music often avoided and disliked by mainstream American society? To examine why mathcore is unpopular, it is helpful to compare it with music that is considered popular. In Professor Bradley Kramer’s music hum class, we compiled a list of traits that contribute to the popularity of a song. Such features include: familiarity, hummable melody, memorable lyrics, upbeat major tonality, and peer pressure.

Mathcore has virtually none of these qualities.

One of the best parts about Mathcore is its refusal to submit to familiarity. First, Mathcore doesn’t use familiar-sounding instruments or pleasant-sounding timbres. Musicians often incorporate strange, outer-worldly noises that are rarely recognizable. Listen to Car Bomb’s song “Gum Under the Table” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeGtMRm9Sho) and notice how it begins with a outlandish siren wail. Then, at 1:25 to 1:45, listen to the disturbing electric squealing sound is audible, which then transforms into other bizarre noises. Doesn’t it seem like aliens have intercepted your computer and forced technological malfunctions upon it? Aren’t you worried that extra-terrestrials are trying to infiltrate your system? Eerie, I know.

Mathcore also sounds unfamiliar because of its intense polymeter and rhythmic unpredictability. Polymeter compositions feature the simultaneous use of two or more meters, and it often seems that each mathcore musician operates on his/her own time signature; the electric guitarist, vocalist, and percussionist seem to follow different meters, yet somehow manage to perform in a cohesive manner. It’s completely mind-blowing. For example, in the song “Turn Soonest to the Sea” by the band Protest the Hero, not only is the meter perpetually in flux, but the different instrumentalists are playing different meters.

Because of this constant change, mathcore music demands much concentration and attention. Unlike mainstream popular music where you can mindlessly nod your head or tap your foot, Mathcore music demands the listener to acutely focus on the fluctuating rhythms. Thus, mathcore music is often perceived as unfamiliar because the beat is destabilizing and unpredictable.

Another trait of mathcore music is its complex melodies. Mathcore melodies are not simplified, easily identifiable tunes, but are often disjunct and jump across a large range of notes. In fact, early mathcore music was atonal, meaning that it did not build upon one principal tonality or key center. This makes it practically impossible to distill an easily recognizable and hummable melody. Additionally, the texture of the music is incredibly dense; the electric guitar, bass, and vocal parts interweave with one another to create a thick polyphonic fabric, much like a Baroque-era fugue. The multi-layered textures are dissonant and sharp-sounding, rather than pleasantly harmonic or consonant, which again makes it difficult to target a hummable melody.

Another reason why it is difficult to identify a hummable melody is due to the sharp, violent percussion sounds. Drummers play with such vehemence and aggression, it is as if they are attacking their drumsets and cymbals. Harsh cymbal crashes and pounding bass drum beats will often overpower the other instrumentalists, an impressive feat considering the piercing levels of the electric guitarists. Thus, a hummable melody will often be buried under an avalanche of sharp, heart-shattering percussion sounds.

Mathcore music is also remarkable for its lyrics. While popular music tends to have warm themes such as love and friendship, mathcore music is oftentimes very dark and painful. Mathcore lyrics are immensely philosophical and directly address controversial subject matter such as death, rape, marginalization, subordination to power, and government repression of human rights. For example, the song “Abe the Cop” by the Dillinger Escape Plan features lyrics

“just shun heavens thunder

while laughing at the sky

with a hiss of the nightmare’s downpour

now wake up and… DIE”

The lyrics aren’t just difficult to grasp conceptually, but are often audibly difficult to comprehend. Many mathcore musicians have gritty voices and the rough, coarse timbre of the vocals make the lyrics difficult to understand in the first place. To the untrained ear, the vocals can sounds like growling or animalistic snarling. Thus, the lyrics are hard to memorize since they are deeply philosophical and difficult to hear.

Why, then, do Mathcore bands utilize these atypical musical features and diverge so sharply from “popular” music? Though each band has its own answer, I personally believe that Mathcore’s unconventional qualities are purposefully used to make a statement about life’s pain and injustice. Mathcore’s unstable and fluctuating meter, raw and gritty vocals and timbres, unfamiliar sounds, sharp percussion sounds, melodic dissonance, and deeply profound philosophical lyrics illustrate the agony that exists in the world. I respect Mathcore for its courage to confront the harsh realities of life, and its boldness in acknowledging these ugly images of life. Whereas some music genres gloss over and ignore the existence of strife, Mathcore audaciously highlights these problems.

Society’s ears have been unconsciously trained to expect certain musical sounds, chord progressions, and general compositions. Mathcore music does not follow the status-quo or these existing guidelines. Yet, just because they don’t adhere to mainstream expectations does not mean they should be disdained and insulted. Though one does not have to love and worship this type of music, one should at least take the time to learn and appreciate the intricacies behind mathcore and heavy metal in general.


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One Response to “Mad for Mathcore: Appreciating a Subgenre of Heavy Metal Rock Music” by Angel Wang

  1. Derek Neveu says:

    I just wanted to thank you for this open-minded and user friendly take on an otherwise misunderstood genre of metal. I was trying to explain The Dillinger Escape Plan to one of my junior students and the topic of “Mathcore” came up. Needless to say he, like many, had no idea what I was talking about. I hope you don’t mind, but I shared this blog with him, and hopefully I may have created a fan of Mathcore in the process. Thanks again for this, as a Columbia graduate, it’s always good seeing a fellow alum putting positive information out into the world!

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