As a genre, math rock carries a somewhat pejorative connotation. After all, its origins was supposedly an inside joke by the members of math rock progenitor Chavez, whose friend decided to whip out (what I would imagine to be) a humongous calculator in a mock attempt to appraise how good a song is. Like the newfangled djent – a relatively new subgenre of progressive metal – math rock was all but a big hilarious gag, until some folks thought it wasn’t and decided to make music from it. It was then this definition evolved, referring to their musicians’ tendency to weave in complex rhythmic structure and haphazard time signature changes into their harmonies.
Of course, this may still reek of pretentious, elitist hogwash – particularly to the casual music listener. But the genre is more than just a penchant for sprucing up intricate melodies with numbers; it’s also about heady textures and intense emotions, be it dissonant and jarring, or melodious and meditative. Most of all, it exposes bands to almost limitless manners of composition. Contemporary math rock, like that of This Town Needs Guns and American Football, offers a more vocally driven interpretation of the genre than classic mainstays like Shellac and Don Caballero, which usually have guitars, vocals and drums careening and melding together towards a blistering finale.
Then there’s Asian math rock, which leans towards folding intrepid guitar riffs into light, melodic noise tinged with a distinctly Asian aesthetic. Hong Kong quartet GDJYB performs their unique brand of math-folk music with Honglish lyrics – a mix of Cantonese and English (if you’re wondering about the name, it’s an acronym of a Chinese dish called Gai Dan Jing Yuk Beng, which is steamed meatloaf with egg). The result is music that’s quintessentially GDJYB, which is breezy yet instrumentally astute, sometimes even verging on cinematic. It’s hard to deny the band’s impeccable chemistry and technical skills: the ethereal vocals of the singer Soft, the intricate, articulate licks by guitarist Soni and the luscious, resonant harmonies of the bassist Wing – with the trio backed by the elaborate and invigorating thumps of the drummer Heihei.
With vocals and lyrics often taking a backseat to the other instruments in this genre, math rock is often more about the musicians’ virtuosity rather than their politics.
Gentle and beguiling, GDJYB’s songs belie a potency, which is typically laden with impassioned lyrics that relate to societal struggles. One of their recent releases, “Why Don’t You Kill Us All?” is a lament about the growing global inequality, with quotes from American president Donald Trump weaved into the music at one point. Another tune, “Philip the Buster,” is a reference to filibusters, an allusion to Hong Kong lawmakers’ attempts to delay unpopular bills from being passed in a legislature – all as Soft’s melancholic vocals wafted through a skittering melody, set to an off-kilter beat. Yet it’s the band’s most volatile song, “Backspace,” that left a seismic impact on their audience upon its release, drawing on swelling layers of harmonies that eventually culminates in a stirring crescendo.
Speaking to Hong Kong publication Coconuts, Soft has said about her band’s songs, “I don’t always want to write so many songs about social issues. But every time you open the newspaper or watch the news, the only thing you can do is talk about how you feel about it. If you care about this city, and you love this city, you need to keep speaking out.” With vocals and lyrics often taking a backseat to the other instruments in this genre, math rock is often more about the musicians’ virtuosity rather than their politics. Complicating matters is GDJYB’s occasionally indecipherable lyrics, whose English becomes a direct translation from Cantonese vernacular. But that’s what gives their brand of math-folk its idiosyncrasy, a powerful, immovable identity that makes them distinct, even among their Asian math rock peers.