My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive or jazz/jazz-fusion came in the guise of Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 43 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing plus the occasional top line and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed to affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. A degree of functionality was eventually attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed but this was the last of the League of Gentlemen concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, the analogue pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.
Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen live dates
I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so I had a good idea that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to prog. What the audience got was hard to describe and despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81 - '84 King Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines, sometimes in different time signatures, to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.
Closely related - The League of Gentlemen and King Crimson's Discipline
Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, the 80s version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US later on in that decade, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s hardly straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.
Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike or the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, they were educational toys for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.
Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. In 2017 I was contacted by Dublin-based Groundburst, a trio comprised of Si Dunne (bass, keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!
The trio had just released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page https://groundburst.bandcamp.com/ but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP in CD format Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014 where the longest of which lasts 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September 2017.
Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly good fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.
Everything I Didn't Say And All The Things I Wanted To
Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of Egg's The Civil Surface; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.
Groundburst's Triad EP (2017)
Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock had an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.
When this article was originally posted I reported that Groundburst were in the process of completing recording for an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it was going to feature longer songs than those in the existing repertoire at that time which I was told would allow greater development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. Unfortunately the album never appeared but it would be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses. I’d personally very much like to hear more of their complex rhythmical and melodic material.
This article was originally posted as the blog ‘Maths lesson’ on 28th November 2017 but has been substantially edited to bring it up-to-date.