SBP column 20/04/08

‘‘Math rock? What’s math rock again?” I said. ‘‘Doesn’t it have something to do with time signatures?” my music journalist friend replied, a vague hope flaring in his eyes. ‘‘I think bands like Battles and Explosions in the Sky play it,” I added.

That was when it hit us. Despite being paid to pen articles about music for a living, we were struggling with the myriad new categories into which rock now seems to be endlessly sub-dividing. More has vanished from the world of rock ’n’ roll in the 2000s than lighters in the crowd (illuminated mobile phones now only please) and mixtapes from people who fancy you. Rock has also lost its beautiful simplicity.

Remember when it was just the likes of punk, ska, goth, indie and metal around? Back then, music journalists had it easy. Now, what with the pinpricked balloon that is the record industry, and the explosion of independent MySpace bands, there are more genres than ever before. Slow-core, emo, post-prog, nu-rave, screamo, straight edge – it’s almost impossible to keep up, even when you’re being hired to keep up.

Recently, I interviewed a young band called Harry and the Potters. They play music that belongs to a genre that began only in 2002: wizard rock. Wizard rock is made by US bands who write songs from the perspective of characters in the JK Rowling books and perform in libraries, bookstores and schools.

Even if their music is a bit insipid, their band titles are uniformly fabulous – witness The Moaning Myrtles, the Ministry of Magic and the Remus Lupins.

But the best thing about wizard rock, at least from this writer’s perspective, is the fact that the genre takes all of 30 seconds to explain. Most of the other genres are a trillion times trickier. And once you’re done conjugating the likes of slow-core and nu-rave, you will face the great category sphinx that exists to destroy hope in students of rock everywhere: emo.

As existentialism is to philosophy, emo is to rock ’n’ roll: everyone involved half knows what it is, but no one wants to have to explain it. According to Trevor Kelly and Leslie Simon, the authors of Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, emo mostly consists of emotional indie anthems aimed at ‘‘Long Island dudes’’, who ‘‘keep journals [and] cry in front of girls’’. My Chemical Romance, Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday are just some of the groups who apparently belong to the genre. Plenty of their fans, however, dispute this description – apparently they’re screamo. Or nuemo. Or something. Ouch. My head. It hoits.

Are all these genres just a vehicle for snobbery? A way for music fans to sound more knowledgeable than their friends about bands? Well, probably yes, but also no. The fact is, as a result of illegal burning and downloading, music has become more available to us and we have become more interested in it than ever before. Like Eskimos with their million and one words for snow, the more we surround ourselves with music, the more neologisms we require to adequately express our feelings about it.

This may be the reason I’m so nerdily happy to have uncovered a definition for math rock: ‘‘Math rock is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), angular melodies and dissonant chords.’’ Well, that’s that sorted. Until the next genre, at least.

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6 thoughts on “SBP column 20/04/08

  1. Great piece! Have come across exactly that problem over the last few years. Alternative use to cover it but now descriptions sound like a recipe …a little bit of math with a dash of post and a smidgen of experimental all tossed over a folktronica base! Leaves them befuddled so it’s just easier to tell them to listen to it!

  2. That always puzzles me too!

    When I read a review of an album and it’s basically: it sounds a bit like this, with a bit of this and some of this. Petridis does it alot. To his credit though, his one-liners are worth the price of the paper.

  3. this is like a game of Wittgenstein’s iPod…

    I guess I understand the term ‘math-rock’ because I know a lot of the bands associated with the term, and can recognise a sot of common sound, but I’m totally incapable of understanding the technical definition.

  4. Erm, are Explosions In The Sky are NOT math-rock. They describe themselves as an ordinary alternative rock act. Without vocals. Without conventional song structure. Ten minute epics. But…an ordinary rock act all the same. Definitely not math-rock. Math-rock goes for the brain rather than the heart, hence Battles always leave me cold.

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