Your immediate thought when hearing of the subgenre called mathcore is probably, “like, 1+1=2?” Well, sort of, but not quite. Like virtually any other genre, mathcore is not defined by specific musical parameters. That said, mathcore is quite a niche subgenre of metal or metalcore. Bands that are sometimes labelled as “mathcore” usually incorporate elements from a plethora of other genres, while retaining their harder, or harsher, metal sound. “Mathcore” is a neologism and portmanteau, combining math rock (bands like Tool, Bloc Party, Minus the Bear, and Mars Volta) with metalcore. The NY Daily News wrote that mathcore is “a hardcore punk/heavy metal crossover known for speed and technical efficiency.”
While mathcore songs might sound like any other metal song to an inattentive listener, with guitars tuned to some absurdly low tuning like drop F, screaming, and double bass pedals, there are some notable differences that sometimes get incorporated that make this subgenre somewhat unique in metal.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, considered “the ‘godfather’ of mathcore,” for instance, wrote a song called “CH 375 268 277 ARS.” In this instrumental song, the time signature is virtually impossible to pin down, and some even argue that it changes frequently while maintaining its central melody.
But screaming doesn’t always appeal to everyone. Protest the Hero is a bit more palatable. Their music often seems to center around the vocalist’s impressive tenor voice. “Bloodmeat,” the first track on their album titled “Fortress,” is played in 15/16 time and involves a tapping technique on guitar and bass parts. At around 3:32-3:34 of their song “Wretch” on the same album, you can hear a cat meowing.
Sampling and inserting random noises is sometimes considered a trait of rap or hip-hop. But some mathcore bands have also taken to doing this too. For example, The Chariot’s song “Cheek” centers on a sample of a speech, “Great Dictator,” written and orated by Charlie Chaplin. Other songs of theirs randomly break into a wild-west theme (as in “First”), an old spiritual, or samples from the song, “Atlanta, My Home Town” sung by Terry Lee Jenkins (as in “and”). And if you like spoken word poetry or “talk music,” Dan Smith, vocalist of the band “Listener,” is featured in The Chariot’s song “David De La Hoz.”
If you’ve listened to any of these songs or bands I’ve mentioned so far, you might notice that the bands LOVE dissonance—especially as heard through feedback, which is the high-pitched screeching made when an electric guitar is too close to a microphone or an amp. The Chariot is particularly notorious for this technique, but some others incorporate it pretty well, like What We’re Afraid Of.
In good poststructuralist fashion, The Chariot and What We’re Afraid Of, among others, confuse the listener. Often times there isn’t a clear ending to the song; songs blend into each other or a song will feel like it has ended in the middle of the track and then they continue playing. What We’re Afraid Of’s EP “Long Walk Home” embodies this particularly well.
Mathcore is not restricted to completely underground bands though. Even the more popular band Underoath has been said to fit into the mathcore label in some instances—especially with songs from their album “Lost in the Sound of Separation.”
You might still be wondering what this music sounds like. Well, I can describe it for ages, but you should just listen to it.