As a lover of funk, I’m always on the lookout for bands who use its basic principals in a rock context. That being complex rhythms and syncopation. In math rock could be traced from King Crimson in the ’70s, then Devo and the B52’s in the ’80s and continues today in in bands like Pinback and Dutch Uncles. The math part comes no doubt in how the complex time signatures might look when written out. Math rock is in essence funk applied to progressive and indie rock music.
Some of my favorite math rock comes from Minus the Bear. The first time I heard them I was taken by the intricate rhythms and the nonsensical lyrics. “Absinthe Party At The Fly Honey Warehouse” was a college radio favorite, but I could never catch the band’s name. In the days before a phone app could tell you what you were listening to I had only obscure lyrics to go on in my pre-Google search.
When I finally figured out who and what I was listening to, I had ended up with Minus the Bear’s second album Highly Refined Pirates from 2002. Just one look at the song titles suggested a goofiness of the material, but in reality it was as much the complex lyrical humor as chaotic time signatures that made the songs interesting.
This was not simply math rock, but a sampling of progressive and indie styles in the context of funk. Highly Refined Pirates features songs that are difficult to peg and can be at once atmospheric and claustrophobic. Song titles like “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!” or Hey, “Wanna Throw Up?” might suggest a frat party, but are handled like serious rock songs with musical subtleties and abstract lyrics built on wordplay.
One of my favorites of this type of song is “We Are Not a Football Team”. Despite its silly name, its title has nothing to do with its lyrics (like most Minus the Bear Songs). It’s somber tone and traditional structure makes it one of the most conventional sounding tracks on the album.
But it’s the pointy guitar and driving beats on Highly Refined Pirates that make it enjoyable for fans of rock in general, not just math rock or funk.