Fanciful Animals songs often begin the same way most rock songs do: with a riff.
While jamming during band practice a while back, Will Ashby picked out a riff on his guitar and it sounded unusually cool. “Play that again,” said bassist Ryan Marley Grant, and so Ashby did, over and over and over again, for about 10 minutes.
As Ashby played, Grant listened closely to count out the time signature—like most of Ashby’s riffs, this was in an unusual meter—so that the band could build more instrumentation around it. Initially, the piece was in 13/8 time, or maybe 13/16 time, Ashby recalls, and at some point, he dropped that 13th beat and started grooving on 12, accidentally bringing the jam into a new meter, thereby creating a new direction and a whole new mood.
After a bit of work from Ashby, Grant and drummer Sebastian Green, that song grew into “1312 BCE”—named for two of the time signatures it traverses over the course of two minutes and 33 seconds—one of the tracks on Fanciful Animals’ debut EP, Digital Pangea, released last month.
Playing around with time signatures is par for the course for Fanciful Animals, a rock band influenced by blues, jazz, experimental, electronic, pop, punk and math. Yes, math.
Math rock is more of a musical technique or perspective than a genre, Grant says—it’s not a specific sound or mood, but a mode of composing and playing while musically “trying to intentionally do something very different from what’s been done before, including what you have already done,” says Grant. It’s about structuring the music—and not relying on effects pedals and other gear—to create difference of sound both for the musician and the listener. That’s where the math comes in.
“What makes playing in odd time signatures so interesting is that it’s unnatural to the musical part of your brain,” says Grant. “My understanding is that music originated with walking, which is a regular 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, so it’s sort of natural, for any musical genre, anywhere in the world, to be based with these square features. When you intentionally break that, it makes it stand out, and to some extent, your brain doesn’t want to deal with it—it just feels wrong; it’s a little unsettling.”
But an odd time signature doesn’t necessarily mean odd listening, Grant and Ashby say, citing Pink Floyd’s “Money” (in 7/4 time) and “Theme from Mission: Impossible” (in 5/4 time) as examples of songs so groovy you don’t even notice the uncommon meter. Finding the middle ground between the two “is such a mental game,” says Grant, and it’s one that he, Ashby and Green all like to play. And then, they consider what they’d like the music to say—since Fanciful Animals is an instrumental band, there’s no vocalist, no lyricist to convey any sort of message.
With instrumental music, “you’re connecting on a different level than conversation, and I think that’s a challenge for listeners,” says Grant.
Adding it up
Math rock is more of a musical style or a technique than an actual genre, one that developed when bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd began breaking out of the usual 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. Bands like Don Caballero, Hella, Tera Melos and Chavez are often regarded as quintessential math rock bands, though the math mentality can be found in all genres of music, including jazz, pop and especially metal (Meshuggah is a go-to example).
It can also be exciting. When listening to “Brutal Rutabaga,” a Digital Pangea track comprised of three seemingly disparate parts (in three different time signatures), a listener can’t help but follow along on the adventure: How did they get from the lounge to a swarm of bees? Wait, now they’re storming a castle? How’d they get there? Where will they go next?
Part of the challenge of being an instrumental rock band is finding a way to convey a shift in mood, tone or atmosphere in order to keep a listener’s attention. When a band has a vocalist, there’s always a new lyric for the listener to focus on; jazz bands have frequent and distinct solos from different instruments. And while Fanciful Animals aims for no particular emotion or thought from track to track, or even from song segment to segment, the band hopes to evoke something—at the very least, curiosity—within the listener.
Changing up the writing by constantly working in new time signatures, and by merging seemingly disparate parts into a single, cohesive and groovy track through a mathematical musical mending process “is a way to keep it fresh, to give the listener and ourselves something to think on,” Grant says. “It’s preventing any ideas worth putting out from getting too stale.”