A Complete Guide to Japanese Math Rock

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For a genre heard of by so few, math rock (or at least the ideas behind it) has been one of the most prominent pillars of progressive and experimental rock music for the best part of three decades. Named by critics for its outwardly snobby complexity and calculated aesthetics, math rock’s approach to rhythm and melody was seen as intently technical, manically detailed, introverted and computed. And that’s because, on some level, it was all of those things.

Rooted in the classical influences of Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich and keenly aware of the free and avant-garde revolutions in jazz in the 1960s, math rock took the developments of Seventies progressive rock acts and pushed them further. The use of increasingly ambitious time signatures, like those found in krautrock titans Can and NEU, were combined with the grandiose, intricate guitar work of acts like King Crimson and Bi Ryo Kan.

That link to progressive rock never truly left certain strands of math rock (especially in Japan), even as angular, post-punk-influenced guitar melodies made their way over from the new wave and set in motion the development of a more melodic style.

Since the genre’s inception, Japanese musicians have been at the crux of so much that is exciting and forward-looking about math rock. Not only have Japanese bands long been embedded in the very foundations of the genre but they have been evident of the genre’s broad influence on other styles and deep resonance with musicians in local music scenes.

For every big name or contemporary icon is a small scene band or lone stylistic outcast acting under the influence of uncommon time signatures or jolting melodies. From Ruins’ blistering early works to the genre-leading stylistic innovations of acts like Toe and Tricot, the Japanese math rock scene inhabits a special place in the history and modern landscape of the genre.

Here I’ll touch on five math rock albums that mark the genre’s extensive developments and Japanese musicians’ crucial role in its growth.

Ruins, ‘Ruins 1986-1992’

(Skin Graft)

As predictable as it may seem, there are few better places from which to date the historic ingenuity of Japanese math rock than with Ruins, a band that defined numerous features of the genre and even predated the naming of the style. Led by Tatsuya Yoshida, now a legendary figure in Japanese rock (also known for his work with Acid Mothers Temple, Koenji Hyakkei and more), every outfit of Ruins has explored a different path of texture and dissonance. Drummer and vocalist Yoshida has been the sole staple figure in what has commonly been only a bassist-drummer duo. Revisiting those first Ruins records, Ruins I (1986) , II (1987) and III (1988) offers a fascinating insight into the birth of Japanese math rock.

Yet, listening to those records in their original form can feel akin to listening to music recorded in tin cans. Luckily for us, the compilation record Ruins 1986-1992 (2001) captured and remastered Ruins’ early achievements with remarkable clarity. Revealed under the haze of early Ruins is a grim, mischievous fondness for off-time repetition, rawer and more unpredictable than their American math rock-founding peers Slint and Shellac. Its brashness and Yoshida’s yelping make for a discomforting listen and yet, by its end, the album sees Ruins gradually transforming towards the kind of melodic math rock that the genre is known for.

Later Ruins works would play with Yoshida’s influences, exploring melody as he looked away from harsh noise and free jazz, though Yoshida’s long-running and still-active outfit Koenji Hyakkei continues to push the boundaries of modern progressive rock (see: Dhorimviskha, 2018). However, for an appropriate introduction to Ruins and early math rock, 1986-1992 dates the turbulent progression of an iconic band who saw math rock’s development from a style within other genres (e.g. the work of Boredoms, Zeni Geva) into a genre fully unto itself.

See Also: Altered States’ Mosaic (1995), a grander, more dramatic and more free-jazz inspired full-band record shrouded in mystery; and Nuito’s Unutella (2009), a more modern reincarnation of Ruins’ opaque complexity and unrelenting harshness.

Downy, ‘Mudai [4]’

(Felicity)

Since the early 2000s, math rock has been closely associated – and often conflated – with three key subgenres of rock, sometimes all at once: progressive rock in the vein of Ruins (including avant prog, brutal prog etc), post-hardcore and post rock. Post rock, the vague genre that refers to the use of what would normally be considered rock instrumentation in music that isn’t clearly rock music, instinctively aligns with a lot of the jazz – and orchestrally oriented way markers that inspire so many math rock bands.

The opportunity to twist rock music into something longform, complex and near-unrecognizable from its roots was grasped by many turn-of-the-century Japanese math rock artists. They were at once both a counterweight to Ruins’ uncontrolled chaos and building upon Ruins’ later, more celestial works. At the pinnacle of this style were Downy who, over a four year period (2001-2004), released four mudai (or untitled) records, each with their own individual draw.

Absent of the clichéd crescendos that hampered so much of post rock’s third wave, Downy were sparse and distant, slower and more contemplative. After three albums that established Downy as formidable post rock musicians, as adept at crafting alien soundscapes with growing ambient depth as they were at piling-on the intensity, Mudai [4] felt like a culminative achievement. Cementing the jazz-like tendencies of its predecessors with urgent drumming and wandering saxophone, Downy layered staccato guitars upon refined layers of distortion. 4 acts as a resounding final act to the Mudai series, an album that stands apart as both an accomplished math rock and post rock album, showcasing the best of the widespread cross-pollination between the two genres.

See Also: Hyakkei, a mellower and similarly instrumental post rock band with pretty melodies but without Downy’s capacity for intensity; and Paranoid Void’s Literary Math (2017), a more recent mathy, jazzy and technical post rock release.

Toe, ‘The Book About My Idle Plot on a Vague Anxiety’

(Catune)

As Downy were pushing a sound closely related to broader brushstrokes of post rock, Toe were among the first to precisely and effectively execute so many of the features of math rock now best associated with the genre. 2005’s The Book About My Idle Plot on a Vague Anxiety, with its spiralling guitars, punctuative rhythm section and melancholic atmospheres, sparked bouts of imitators. Toe may not have been the first Japanese math rock band to have one dashing for some high-quality headphones, but their early material typifies exactly the kind of extreme skill and intellectual songwriting that the genre is known for.

Toe stand apart because, though many have since attempted to replicate their style and quality, few (if any) have bested them. And the reason behind the longevity of Toe’s success is simple: Takashi Kashikura’s drumming. Best exemplified on Book and its successor EP New Sentimentality (2006), Kashikura is tactile with his fills and off-beats, academic in his dictation of pace, and energetic throughout. His work seems almost improvised, and yet he holds together every inch of melody and packs the punches in almost every track.

Book remains a glimpse into how even purely-instrumental math rock transcends the appeal of every depth of music fan. Gorgeous and immediately appealing, it only becomes more so among those more informed of the style. Later Toe albums never quite replicated the same kind of genius displayed on Book (though the lower-key, more acoustic For Long Tomorrow, 2009, is certainly worth a listen), yet their influence went far further. Toe set a standard of musicianship followed by in spirit by the likes of Lite, Nuito, Uchu Conbini and People in the Box.

Meanwhile, the groundwork Book laid became a precursor for the kind of math rock that, instrumentally so inherently emotional, became quintessentially compatible with those wishing to lyrically express the most sincere and pained of human emotions. “Emo” and “screamo” capitalised effectively on such potential, even if both genres found popularity in the American Midwest long before they produced fantastic records in Japan.

See Also: Lite’s Phantasia (2008), a wonderful modern progressive rock album with Toe-esque performances and clearer contrasts between heavy, gritty riffs and delicate, plucked beauty.

Tricot, ‘T H E’

(Bakuretsu)

Those who have kept up to date with the Tokyo Weekender’s top Japanese albums of the decade won’t be surprised to find Tricot’s T H E included here. 2013’s T H E marks the moment that math rock endorsed full-blooded pop; unpretentiously taking all the technical finesse of three decades of math rock development and bringing it full circle. If math rock was initially intended to be a revolution in rock and a turn away from convention, then T H E brought it all back.

Due to the phenomenal popularity of T H E, it is naturally easy to see it as a solitary watershed moment in the history of math rock. But the reality is quite different. Tricot’s sound and debut came about as the clear result of several other key developments in the genre and in the wake of many other key works. As far back as Zazen Boys’ Zazen Boys II (2004), math rock was being moulded into music alongside genres like post-hardcore and funk; while bands like Wowaka (Unhappy Refrain, 2011), Susquatch (In This World, 2009) and People in the Box (Family Record, 2010) were bolstering math rock with elements of emo and J-pop.

T H E, therefore, didn’t emerge out of nothing. What it did do, however, was spark unprecedented interest in math rock generally, and did so with some of the best-written, best-performed music that genre has seen to date. Few albums in recent memory have had such immense impact (indeed, it is T H E that sparked my own interest in the genre), not only inciting huge interest in Japanese math rock but interest in math rock generally. Tricot’s follow-ups to this record, A N D (2015), 3 (2018) and Makkuro (2020), though stellar, never quite replicated the same impact of their debut. Nevertheless, T H E, as Tricot’s initial reaction against complicatedness and snobbery, has proven remarkably popular, and rightfully so.

See Also: The Cabs’ Saisei no Hukei (2013), an equally anthemic, technical and emotionally poignant release tinged with elements of post-hardcore. Notable for its emo-screamo vocals and high-timbre drumming (a style most commonly associated with black metal), it remains The Cabs’ only full-length work.

Jyocho, ‘Utsukushi shumatsu saikuru’

(No Big Deal)

After exploring a few of the many strands pursued by math rock musicians over the years, that leaves the questions of what modern math rock sounds like (that is, how it sounded at the end of the 2010s), and the direction in which the genre is headed.

As to what it sounds like; math rock still sounds somewhat like everything noted on this list. For every band like Ruins, Downy and Toe there are countless more like them. For every crossover with post-hardcore, post rock, pop or funk, there are more bands exploring similar sounds. And therefore, as is logical, contemporary math rock is therefore heading, as it always has done, in many, many different directions, all at once.

An example one of those directions is in the innovation of Daijiro Nakagawa, specifically under the Jyocho name. Nakagawa’s style of guitar play is sparking and rhythmic; on Utsukushi shumatsu saikuru – or The Beautiful Cycle of Termination – his songwriting is complex (in my opinion, more so than his previous project Uchu Conbini). He works in acoustic guitars, woodwind and folk elements, adding textures that many would associate more with chamber music rather than prog rock. Beautiful Cycle is, unlike many past math rock records, not overly complex or convoluted; it isn’t testing or harsh. Still complex and fascinating, it is simply very, very pretty.

Nakagawa’s music questions math rock’s relationship with rhythm and melody, but he certainly isn’t alone in bringing the genre forward and expanding its potential audience. There are many, many others (Fulusu, 1inamillion, Passepied, Polkadot Stingray, to name a few) that continue to work with odd time signatures and complex melodies within a more accessible style. They are proof that, even 30 years later, Japanese math rock continues to lead the field and is still as restlessly evolutionary as ever.

Feature photo: Nikola Spasenoski / Shutterstock.com

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