Do the math

There's math, and there's arithmetic. I'm really good at arithmetic. I am able to multiply three digit numbers (233x645, say) in my head within a handful of seconds. I am not, however, good at math. I got good grades in trig and calc, but I always got the feeling that I didn't actually know what I was doing. As I look at my 11-year-old's homework and ask him what he's doing, I realize that I was correct. I know nothing about real math.

This applies to "math rock," too. I've heard many of the most influential bands of the genre: Slint, Rodan, Don Caballero. . . hell, I reviewed just about everything that Touch and Go put out through the 90s. I liked the way the lines bobbed and weaved, and I've always been a sucker for asymmetrical time signatures. But often enough, the music tended to get lost in itself. And then I got lost.

Take a listen to these examples. First, we have one of Iceburn's monumental takes on Rite of Spring. It is startlingly delicate and abusively brutish--one of the great interpretations of what many consider the finest composition of the 20th century. Wiggy and extreme, to be sure, but absolutely involving. A few years later, the renamed "Iceburn Collective" (the new moniker was a tip-off, of course) put out recordings like "Invisible Dance". Interesting? Yes. But there's nothing in that recording to make the skin crawl.

Fifteen Quiet Years
(Quarterstick/Touch and Go)

If you're reading this, chances are you're familiar with math rock. But in truth, this is one of the more obscure genres around. It's a small subset of the alternative rock scene of the 90s. As far as the general public is concerned, its biggest accomplishment was setting the scene for the emergence of emo (this is a very complicated and somewhat contested lineage, but remember that Jawbox is considered to be one of the earliest emo bands and also one of the greatest math bands). Still, dorky music critics like me have written enough about bands like Slint to get Spiderland entered into the pantheon of great albums.

Slint's heyday was well before the emergence of math, but its influence is clear. The guitars on Spiderland are definitely math-y. The lines are clean and technical, if a bit hazy at times. Tweez (Slint's first album, originally released on cassette only) is, well, much louder and messier. Very proto, you might say. Spiderland is exceptional. Then Slint went away after releasing its masterwork, leaving the door open for other bands.

I've always been more of a Rodan guy than a Slint guy. Slint came along as I was getting attuned to the whole college radio/alt. whatever scene. I liked Spiderland. A lot. But I loved Rusty. Like full-on, head-over-heels, throw myself in front of a train love. So when I got word of the completist release Fifteen Quiet Years (which collects just about everything that Rodan recorded other than Rusty, and throws in a bonus disc of live performances just for fun), I had to hear it. And in these days of digitized instant gratification, three minutes later I did.

My reaction to "Darjeeling" (the first track on Fifteen) was instant and visceral. My pulse quickened, my breathing became shallow and my vision blurred. My hands were sponges of sweat.

It was awesome.

I rode the uneven waves of the rest of the album with similar enthusiasm. In this day of alternadull music, the precision with which Rodan dispatched squalls of distortion and tightly-crafted rhythms seems otherworldly. I thought I'd remembered how astounding the music was, but I was wrong. It was even better than I recalled. Of course, my next move was to listen to Rusty for the first time in a couple of years.

I'm still reeling. I'd say it was like watching the birth of one of my boys, but since I have a recent reference with Nick's arrival last week, that is an exaggeration. Listening to Rusty is like remembering--not actually experiencing--the birth of one of my boys. Which is still pretty goddamned amazing.

Rodan and Slint understood that weaving technical guitar lines and polyrhythms together can be quite stimulating to the brain. But music that does not provoke a physical response is simply not good. And there's no way to listen to Spiderland or Rusty without responding in the most visceral of manners, often with that skin-crawling feeling I mentioned with Iceburn's Danses.

Fifteen Quiet Years is uneven. It has to be. By cobbling together the band's original demos, 7" releases, some Peel sessions and a number of scattered tracks (remember all those indie label compilations of original songs that littered record store back in the 90s?), the surviving members of Rodan knew what they were making. This is not a cohesive album, something that would trump Rusty's greatness. That couldn't happen, so they just collected the tapes, remastered them and sent them out to the fans.

Rodan lasted one album. Rusty has six songs. This set has nine. Fifteen songs (although the live CD has two renditions of another, "Wurl"). Fifteen (or sixteen) songs that launched a legend.

The remnants of Rodan went on to great things. Various members (together and apart) wandered through such bands as Rachel's, Shipping News, The Sonora Pine and, most importantly in my mind, June of 44. Oh, and one should not overlook Tara Jane O'Neill's solo work, which is also excellent. All of these efforts helped to define and refine the idea of math rock (and take it from a joke to a movement, as more than writer has described the scene). But Rodan was there in the beginning, bearing witness to the power of composition, technical playing and almost infinite quantities of noise.

Fifteen Quiet Years is mostly for geeks like me--even if I'm no good at math or even appreciating math rock to the Nth degree. If sets like this are what nostalgia is all about, sign me up for a round of reminiscing.

Jon Worley

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