Oh Messy Life: “math-emo”

The term “math” as applied to “math rock” or “math pop” refers to irregularity, complexity, unpredictability. The appeal is that asymmetrical rhythms created by irregular time signatures give a sense of chaos, and quite often the appeal of such music is in how technically impressive it is. I certainly think that some bands, especially the more contemporary bands of the math-pop scene (eg Maps & Atlases, Tubelord, and Colour, but similar ideas can be traced back to The Dismemberment Plan in the late 90s), use the effect to create original pop structures and technically impressive textures.

Here’s Hella being totally awesome – displaying unbelievable skill and managing to keep time with an almost robotic precision. Hella are all about these near-impossible riffs and inscrutable time signature/key changes (and yet this is their most “traditional” song, it even sort of has choruses). All of this isn’t geared towards the evocation of an especially emotional response; instead, “math” music is rewarding because it subverts one’s expectations of rock/pop music. This is an admirable goal in itself, but I want to focus on how the unpredictable, chaotic textures of math rock have been used as devices in some of the most effective emo bands.

I spent my last post going some way to describe the actual roots of emo, but since the scene originated, it’s converged in many interesting ways, with the ill-defined “second-wave” of emo. Some bands channelled emo influences through a pop aesthetic, for instance Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World (which I suppose facilitated the faux-“emo” pop culture phenomenon); while some bands took the genre to noisy extremes (Gospel and Saetia are good examples). But there’s also a traceable genus of bands who took influence from math-rock, whom I’d describe as “math-emo”. It’s often been located in the American midwest, in the early 90s; another frequent tag is “Midwestern emo”.

The trouble with this is that the band whom I’d pinpoint as the epitome of this sound, Cap’n Jazz, were highly localised, short-lived, and their sole LP, Shmap’n Shmazz, received very limited release, so their recorded output was really only heard with the post-breakup complete works compilation Analphabetapolothology (1998 – still in time for lots of bands I’m discussing to be influenced by it). The band have this retrospective legacy mostly because of the various side-projects and new directions taken by former Cap’n Jazz members, most prominently with Tim Kinsella’s Joan of Arc, Davey van Bohlen’s The Promise Ring, and Mike Kinsella’s American Football and solo project Owen, but the list goes on. Much of their music is currently distributed by Polyvinyl records – probably my favourite record label (they send out sweets and free music with all orders!) Here’s what Polyvinyl have to say about Analphabetapolothology:

The discography was unintentionally revisionist. What had been a group of teenage friends playing in a punk band was now being touted by zine culture as a band who had galvanized a genre. Suddenly Cap’n Jazz had “dominated the Chicago indie scene of the early nineties” and were “a band who helped transform emo from a deeply underground punk subgenre into a more widely accepted subset of indie rock.” […] their following had been highly regional and by no means dominant, their overall influence was most likely being distorted by the success of Davey von Bohlen’s band, The Promise Ring.

The Promise Ring are great in a different way; they are one of the bands whose emo influences contribute to “a more widely accepted subset of indie rock”. They show little of the dexterity and unconventionality Cap’n Jazz were known for. The energy of the above track is comparable to certain moments of Cap’n Jazz songs, but the influence of Cap’n Jazz, if not the renown, can be traced in other ways.

The first time you listen to Cap’n Jazz (and the above song is a perfect place to start), it’s really quite jarring, difficult to get an angle on. In ‘Oh Messy Life’, the two guitars are given separate channels and slightly varying tones, giving the impression that they’re competing rather than interlocking. They aren’t the best musicians in the world (vocalist Tim Kinsella admits lead guitarist Victor Villareal was way ahead of the rest of them), and there are imperfections which I would argue augment the sound – its roughness isn’t forced but reflects the unrefined outburst of catharsis which emo is supposed to portray. Yet it comes together more in the chorus – one guitar spends a fraction longer completing its pattern, before launching into a unity that has a simple mathy friction, an only slight irreverence in the emphasis of beats. Really, it’s just sheer screaming, (trust me, don’t bother looking up the lyrics), just the emotion of shouting syllables from the top of a building at the world at large. The first time round, the chorus is repeated, the iterations separated by a chunk of power chords (0:58) that suddenly switches tempo like an instant of convulsion. It’s moments like this that are the essence of this “math-emo” aesthetic – the words don’t convey the emo elements but musically this provokes a physically disconcerting reaction similar to the effects of the emotions the band are aiming for. I’m not sure I want to say that emotion provokes some sort of spasmodic fit, but emo is about extremity. It’s an attempt to make music as provoking as the emotion hinted towards, and innovative mathy textures serve as a platform for conveying subversive and strikingly new emotions, as math subverts what we expect from the listening experience. (I take the idea of “math” fairly liberally – a complex time signature is not as important as unconventional structures or unexpected rhythms.)

Math isn’t usually “unrefined”, though. There’s a tension between the irreverent complexity of Cap’n Jazz’s riffs and the haphazard way in which they’re delivered. Production is a large part of the math-rock aesthetic and as a good rule of thumb, the rawer it is, the more “emo” it will be – that is, the more direct, cathartic, messy. Particularly in independent music, we tend to associate poor production with artistic integrity. There are certain math-pop bands who are very talented musicians and who embellish their arrangements with immaculate production: Colour are a great example and would not be described as emo in spite of their challenging polyrhythms – nor are The Dismemberment Plan in spite of frequently emo-style lyrics and mathy textures, because they tend to have a pop sheen to their production, favouring smooth songs over jarring rhythms, nonetheless cleverly using the music to emphasise the emotion of lyrics as in ‘The Face of the Earth’.

High production values tend to suggest a preoccupation with the song form rather than the emotion portrayed; a certain sloppiness emphasises artistic merit. (This has been undermined somewhat with certain contemporary artists – Wavves and Times New Viking, for instance, are a couple of newer lo-fi bands who tend to go the other way and intentionally damage the quality of their production, which to some listeners is seen as pretentious. The most “honest” music is often regarded as that which is created with materials at hand, as pure an expression of the song as possible; extremely lo-fi music detracts from this).

The problem arises that Cap’n Jazz’s lyrics don’t really follow traditional emo paradigms. Tim Kinsella apparently composed 90% of the lyrics on Shmap’n Shmazz while on his first mushrooms trip at a camp fire – and the songs are indeed mostly inscrutable, completely contrary to the idea of emo being a carefully-constructed first-person relate-able outpouring of emotional ardour (Kinsella probably hates the idea of making this a goal). After this revelation I began to realise how wonderfully psychedelic a lot of the imagery of the record is – take the title of this blog, for instance; I totally think Tim was literally seeing the fire’s embers mutate into the night sky (a hallucination with a wonderful metaphorical depth; he has a knack for transmuting the actual, the non-constructed, into metaphor (particularly in his later work) which is the way my mind works too). It’s referred to as emo just because he has, on this record especially, the quintessential emo voice – he yelps, like a trapped animal, and no matter what the lyrics are it sounds so passionate – so back to that Oh Messy Life chorus, all that matters is the “YOU ARE” for context. I suppose, at my most cynical, I’d say that this vague second-person invocation is all that emo needs – certainly it’s all Oh Messy Life needs; the second verse is some aimless monologue about salami and hats and apologising but it doesn’t matter because it’s just a vocalised counterpoint to build up to the chorus. The math element is more important than the lyrics.

So this was arguably the beginning of the style, which caused a stir in the Midwest post-hardcore scene. Braid are also from Illinois, and are perhaps the most notable band who very likely witnessed Cap’n Jazz firsthand. Their record Frame and Canvas is more polished than anything Cap’n Jazz made, but has similar rhythmic flourishes which typify math-emo. I suppose they’re more similar to The Promise Ring and might best be described simply as post-hardcore, but every track on Frame and Canvas seems to have a moment of rhythmic dissonance which I’m pretty sure is a mark of Cap’n Jazz influence. Check out ‘The New Nathan Detroits’, especially the hedges between the chorus & verses (which are in completely different time):

And perhaps this also influenced Faraquet, who hail from Washington D.C. and were signed to Ian MacKaye’s label Dischord. I mention them in particular because if you’re not sold by my notion of “math-emo”, (every time I type it it looks more ridiculous!), ‘Cut Self Not’ is not only a contender for best song ever but also is a perfect midpoint between math-rock and emo. There are so many different rhythms and tempos in this song it’s insane. It’s apparently a song written as a way of resisting the temptation to self-harm, and the multiple textures emphasise the idea of split personality in the lyrics.

Since Cap’n Jazz reissued Analphabetapolothology, their influence has been far more prominent and wide-ranging. The band Algernon Cadwallader in particular I would single out as owing much to Cap’n Jazz; I’ve heard a fair few imitations of Tim Kinsella’s vocals! I’d also point to Castevet, who merge emo, math, and post-rock – they’re absolutely stunning and very underrated in my opinion; The Echo and the Light is the best emo record of the last few years (check out ‘Six Parts Summer‘). And of course Kinsella & co. produced many similar albums with Owls (a semi-reunion of Cap’n Jazz), American Football (mellow but often termed as emo), certain moments of Joan of Arc (a few moments across their career hark back to the Cap’n Jazz sound, this recent single in particular, which perhaps was inspired by the recent Cap’n Jazz reunion); the list goes on.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more it sounds pompous to use a blanket term for a fairly nebulous style; nonetheless I think it’s definitely how I conceive of this sort of music. It’s a tag that’s been used before, and I mostly wrote this post because I think a lot of music I’ve listened to over the past year or so, I’ve loved because it merges the two styles in the way I’ve described.

PS: I owe a lot to A Heart Filled Reaction To Dissatisfaction, a blog which introduced me to so much of this music AND has killer recommendations for a bunch of other styles.Thanks!

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About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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One Response to Oh Messy Life: “math-emo”

  1. spare says:

    i run a heart filled reaction to dissatisfaction. hey. this is cool.

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