Math rock for everyone

Dom Saad marries together maths and music in his exploration of the formidable arithmetic delights of the Oxford-based TTNG

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Source: Flickr

What’s in a name? Matt Sweeney of Chavez once claimed the term “math rock” was coined by a friend as a derogatory summary of one of Sweeney’s past projects, Wilder. After listening stony-faced to a Wilder track, Sweeney’s friend would punch numbers into a calculator to try to figure out how good the song was. This bizarre quip can be explained by one of math rock’s characteristic features: a dizzying number of irregular time signatures employed in a single track, with seven, eleven, and 13-beat metres slotted in for single bars or longer sections.

Interestingly, the arithmetic challenge that math rock presents (and that sparked its name) seems to be just one aspect common to bands under the genre’s umbrella. Math rock arose from the post-hardcore scene, and so the crazy rhythms of math rock drummers are frequently host to dissonant, abrasive instrumentation and harsh production. Slint’s 1991 album Spiderland is a good example: a terrific record and a pillar of the math rock genre, but at best uncomfortable in its discordance and at worst near-unlistenably alienating in its isolating lyrics and extreme dynamics.

However, one band from Oxford has throughout a decade-long career successfully annulled math rock’s marriage to stridency. TTNG—who officially adopted the acronym of former moniker This Town Needs Guns after concerns that the previously “ironic statement” was no longer appropriate once they set foot on the global stage—pioneer a decidedly melodic math rock sound. Guitar virtuoso Tim Collis pairs rich instrumentation with the impossible metric of brother Chris Collis’ impressive drumming, and singer Henry Tremain’s honeyed voice conjures lyrics somewhat more relatable than those of Spiderland.

It’s a bright sound, and full for just three musicians; no part of the kit goes un-drummed, down to the rims of the toms, and the guitar parts are complex sonic whirls. In contrast, the vocals are simple and untampered, and are a necessary platform that grounds and guides the listener in the delightful madness of TTNG’s tracks.

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TTNG’s discography begins with 2008’s Animals (literally a collection of animals—‘Chinchilla’ through ‘Zebra’). This auditory zoo’s finest specimens include ‘Baboon’, in which an absurdly rapid stream of notes gushes from Tim Collis’ guitar, and ‘Panda’, where all the delicate rhythms collapse into a three-beat metre injected with one-two stabs of seventh- and ninth-laced chords.

Meanwhile, the explosive opener for 2013’s 13.0.0.0.0,Cat Fantastic’, sees Tremain musing over material indulgence (“You’ll be happy when you’re willing to share”) and the mood shifts in the wonderfully-named ‘Nice Riff, Clichard’, where Chris Collis programmes an Ochre-esque, aquatic IDM beat to accompany a melancholy guitar loop.

The band released Disappointment Island in July 2016. Opener ‘Coconut Crab’ buzzes with excitement: the drums mostly steer clear of cymbals and rhythm is found with accented snares and toms, while guitar tracks coalesce into exotic chords. ‘Consoling Ghosts’ finds a moment for subdued, nostalgic swells amongst the speeding grooves, while ‘Whatever, Whenever’ opens with a deceptively simple, straight beat that quickly expands into a mass of hi-hat finesse and whooping guitars.

Though TTNG’s sound has undergone minimal evolution since their debut, they’ve carved for themselves a niche so small and refreshing that for them to simply fill the melodic math rock musical vacuum with three albums of their unique style is actually very welcome. For a group of musicians to keep to quite so many time signatures is formidable; for the music they create to actually be a great listen is an accomplishment. In this sense, TTNG have made math rock accessible to the masses. Additionally, as an Oxford-based group, they’ve been known to grace the hallowed halls and sticky walls of Cellar as recently as 2013, so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled.