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Impressions From the Inaugural Mathcore Index Festival

mathcore

Early on the second day of Mathcore Index Fest, the local Brooklyn band Detach The Islands were being appropriately meticulous. They had already line-checked each of their instruments, but playing mathcore requires the precise mix of mayhem and precision, so it pays to over-prepare. Four stick clicks from drummer Emmett Ceglia, and the band launched into their true soundcheck: a pitch perfect rendition of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s “43% Burnt.”

“If you asked most of the people here what their favorite band is, 50% would say Converge and 50% would say The Dillinger Escape Plan,” says Christian Segerstrom, a writer for Mathcore Index and the head of Dark Trail Records. Even if he hadn’t said as much, and even if Detach The Islands hadn’t made their own adoration clear, the shadow of metalcore legends past loomed large over Mathcore Index Fest.

Not only would most of the bands playing the festival likely not exist without the impact of albums like Calculating Infinity and Jane Doe, the festival itself literally would not have happened without The Dillinger Escape Plan. In December 2017, Segerstrom flew to New York to attend the Jersey metalcore band’s final shows, and it was during this trip that he began planning the festival with members of Detach The Islands and Juan Bond, another local East Coast act that opened the festival on day one.

Organizing a festival around such a niche genre took a leap of faith. While The Dillinger Escape Plan may have been able to sell out New York’s Terminal 5 three nights in a row, most mathcore bands don’t have anywhere near the same draw. Even if Mathcore Index didn’t have numbers on their side, the organizers were part of an active and tight-knit community. “Most of the people that read the blog are musicians in mathcore bands,” Segerstrom explains. “The ones that aren’t are like, super-fans.”

For two days, those musicians and super-fans transformed Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus into a highly regimented cacophony of odd time signatures, dissonant breakdowns, over-the-top lead singers, and hardcore kids excited to be wowed by technical ability. True to the festival’s communal roots, band members mingled and talked shop between sets, screamed each other’s lyrics back to them when performing, and dogpiled the stage during Fero Lux‘s rousing cover of Botch’s “Saint Matthew Returns To The Womb.” All the while, a gaggle of loyalists jumped into the pit regardless of who was playing.

Despite drawing from such a small subgenre of heavy music, the bands that played Mathcore Index Fest showed a surprising amount of stylistic diversity. This is a function of booking a festival with a high standard of virtuosity; when complexity is a given, you better find another way to stand out. Some bands, like Mouthbreather or Mary Todd, differentiated themselves by scaling back on outright shredding and focusing on the genre’s roots in hardcore and punk physicality. Others like Juan Bond and Cryptodira honed in on mathcore’s similarity to progressive metal, while the maniacs in Horse Torso pushed beyond the genre’s limits into the world of improvised jazz rock.

The acts that had the least trouble standing out didn’t differentiate themselves by style but by age. Mathcore Index skewed toward the young and short-haired. I ran into one attendee who told me that he was nine when Between The Buried And Me’s Colors came out (at this moment I saw the face of death looming over the horizon).

By comparison, Car Bomb, who headlined the festival’s first night and drew the largest crowd of the weekend, looked like a gang of Brooklyn uncles. This is, of course, part of their appeal. That a group of dudes who look like they have a lot of opinions on the Yankees’ pitching rotation also happen to be one of the first American bands to crack the Meshuggah code is one of life’s great pleasures. Car Bomb remain one of the most criminally underrated bands in heavy music, and seeing them lord over a packed crowd of adoring fans warmed my heart.

The second day featured two other older acts that stretched the boundaries of the mathcore label. First, Dead Empires threw the mosh-happy segment of the audience by unabashedly embracing the sounds of psychedelia, and then by busting out one of their older instrumental tunes that inspired more frolicking than two-stepping. Shortly after, An Albatross reminded the younger side of the audience that mathcore used to be informed just as much by the aesthetics of traditional rock ‘n’ roll as by extreme metal.

The generation gap wasn’t just subtext either. “It’s like 2003 all over again,” one Saint Vitus bartender told me during the fest with an affect halfway between disdain and the “same shit, different day” deadpan common to rock club drink slingers. Technically speaking, they weren’t wrong. As someone who lived through the white belt years of hardcore, I could recognize most of the tricks the younger bands were using, but I was still surprised by the vitality that they were able to imbue these tropes with.

Because of that, it’s worth examining why mathcore has endured and how the next generation of acts has moved the genre forward.

One of the key factors to mathcore’s appeal is its unpredictability. Typically, when you choose to listen to a song with a conventional structure you are entering a contract with the artist. Because you know what is going to happen next, you expect the artist to satisfy those expectations in an artful way. The power dynamic between listener and artist is on slightly equal footing because both parties know the “rules,” so to speak. Mathcore, by nature of its incredibly complex and unconventional structures, tips the balance of power in the artist’s favor. The unsuspecting listener has no chance of following along, the artist is in complete control. By listening to mathcore, the audience is signing up to be musically dominated.

What makes mathcore so fascinating is that it uses this immense power to simulate complete chaos. After wrestling control away from the audience, the bands featured at Mathcore Index Fest promptly threw away the keys. In some cases, this musical anarchy can default to a thick brozone layer where macho hardcore posturing squeezes out any other possibilities. But the truly adapt mathcore bands can subvert that toxic environment by making music too jagged and off kilter to inspire crowd-killing. Even the bands that did feature room-wrecking breakdowns found ways to twist the form to their needs. Detach The Islands threw plenty of bones to the crowd, but also claimed the pit for themselves when guitarist Siddhu Anandalingham leapt from the stage and stormed through the dance floor. The Callous Daoboys were just aggressive, but with an edge of irony. Singer Carson Pace performed with an awareness that the macho recklessness of heavy music is as much of an act as anything else, and just as worthy of dismantling.

Sly subversion wasn’t unique to the fest’s younger acts either. To close out the festival, An Albatross played a set that didn’t just inspire headbanging but hip-swinging. Despite predating the majority of the band’s playing Mathcore Index Fest by over a decade, An Albatross’s challenge to extreme music normalcy remained just as vital, and just as euphoric in its utopian potential. This strain of rebellion hasn’t vanished in the ensuing years. Earlier that same day, SeeYouSpaceCowboy updated the irreverent sasscore style (a niche within a niche) for 2018 politics. “This song is dedicated to the members of any marginalized community,” singer Connie Sgarbossa announced before the band erupted into a song heavy enough to win over even the most ardent meathead.

The year 2003 may be long gone, The Dillinger Escape Plan may have splintered (for now), and mathcore may no longer be the newest style in the extreme music playbook, but the genre is not dead. Far from it. If Mathcore Index Fest is any indication, the style is exploding with youthful exuberance and has fostered a community of earnest fans and remarkably skilled musicians. To mangle a phrase from music critic Bernard Shaw: we mosh better than our grandparents. It would be presumptuous and hyperbolic to say that any of the bands that Segerstrom and company booked are ready to take the torch from The Dillinger Escape Plan, but they have kept the fire alive and ready for the next generation to rise and lift it up.

Epilogue: Death Metal Night at Trans Pecos

Doug Moore is scowling. The Pyrrhon singer (and former Invisible Oranges editor) is having a tough time making conversation over the deafeningly loud music playing before his set at Trans Pecos. While the show itself features four death metal bands, the music playing sounds like it’s set to Chiodos radio on Pandora.

“Someone is very angry about having to work a death metal show,” Moore says, barely audible over the angsty teenage din. “I kind of respect it.”

To be sure, Pyrrhon, along with fellow NYC death metal acts Artificial Brain, Voidspawn, and Aeviterne, are an odd fit for the hip bisexual lighting and potted plants of Trans Pecos. The show is technically a part of Mathcore Index Fest, however it is as aesthetically removed from the proceedings of main event as its Queens location is from Saint Vitus in northwestern Brooklyn. Luckily, incongruity is one of death metal’s sweet spots. At its best, the genre can feel wholly alien to the human experience. There’s something oddly egalitarian about this. Whether the mic was given to Artificial Brain’s towering singer Will Smith or the petite A of Voidspawn, the guttural roar was much the same.

Death metal knows no gender, no human form. It is music of the beyond, happily going about its own business on the margins of the known world and audible only to those who make the effort to hear it.

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