Within every style of metal, there’s a kind of unstated mission to push extremes. To be the darkest, heaviest, loudest, most evil. And more often than not, that includes pulling off the most technically dexterous feats of world-record-breaking musicianship. Tech-death, prog-metal, djent —there are entire worlds of music devoted to just how utterly bonkers the musical abilities of the players are. A similar thing can be said of mathcore, a genre marked by its shifting time signatures, atypical meters, rhythmic complexity, and often dizzying speeds. But because the music is still rooted in hardcore, the end result is still something that packs a wallop.
Though there are similarities between most mathcore bands, including a general aversion to being called mathcore (I mean, I get it, who wants their music to be compared to their least favorite high school class?), the field is incredibly diverse, from the cyber-metal warfare of Genghis Tron, to the tuff grooves of Vein, to the sultry freakouts of Daughters. Perhaps it’s a style of music defined by its showboating, but there’s a whole world to explore simply beyond its intricacies. Here are the 20 best albums to come from the realm of mathcore.
Antigama – Discomfort
Poland’s Antigama have made a career out of pushing the extreme farther than any other grind or hardcore band, and on Discomfort they accomplished that in under 20 minutes. A searing, continuous blast of fear and loathing in the vein of The Locust, but beefed up with the deathgrind treatment of Pig Destroyer, Discomfort is terror on 45. Yet as fearsome as their unholy ruckus is, it’s performed with a staggering precision, the group providing each treatment of bile and venom with a surgeon’s touch. An elegant torture chamber of an album, with the added bonus of being the only record to feature a song titled “Shit from Arse.”
The Armed – Only Love
The greatest asset at The Armed’s disposal isn’t, in fact, their tendency toward total sensory overload—that, indeed, makes their blown-out frontal assault unforgettable in its own right. But beneath the layers of distortion, the synths filtered through analog effects and vintage guitars wrecked by digital treatments is a really great pop band that just so happens to use blistering hardcore freakouts as a delivery vessel for some impeccably honed hooks. Make it through the deafening hazing ritual first side of their third album Only Love and be rewarded with some stunning highlights like the razor-blade power pop of “Fortune’s Daughter,” hypnotic post-hardcore anthem “Ultraglass” and shoegazing closer “On Jupiter.” The involvement by Converge’s Kurt Ballou and Ben Koller in helping to craft the sound of this record certainly doesn’t hurt, but this Detroit band have come into their own as an unstoppable force.
Botch – We Are the Romans
Judged by each member’s projects from the past two decades—Narrows, Minus the Bear, These Arms Are Snakes, Russian Circles, Sumac—Seattle’s Botch look something like a supergroup in reverse. So it’s saying a lot that their collective greatest moment is still this juggernaut of an album, a two-LP crash course in savage, yet snark laden progressive hardcore. While the band’s absurdist song titles are memorable enough on their own (“Frequency Ass Bandit,” “C Thomas Howell as the ‘Soul Man’”), the songs themselves are as impeccably constructed as they are complex, smuggling covert hooks into riff-fests designed to disorient and disrupt. Perhaps not every detail will register on a first listen, but the full expanse of We Are the Romans only grows more stunning with each listen. A hell of a high to go out on.
Candiria – Process of Self Development
By the introduction of jazz trumpet on “Pull,” the third track on 1999’s Process of Self Development, it’s only natural to wonder whether you’re still listening to a hardcore album anymore. In its 70 minutes, Brooklyn progressive shape-shifters Candiria manage to take every possible opportunity to explore a new style or genre, from prog and psychedelia to more left-field takes on jazz and hip-hop. They even find room for a set of bagpipes on “Mathematics,” though it’s the small-m mathematics that form the core of the group’s third album. Stop-on-a-dime rhythms and shifting time signatures are the band’s bread and butter; it’s the endless curiosity and willingness to take risks that makes this Candiria’s most endlessly entertaining and unpredictable record.
Coalesce – 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening
In a year marked by a number of remarkable metalcore breakthroughs (Botch, Cave In, Dillinger Escape Plan), Kansas City’s Coalesce put a distinctively Southern sludge spin on mathcore with 1999’s 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening. Are there guttural screams, time changes, and punishing aggression? Yes, yes and yes, but just within the first track “What Happens On the Road Always Comes Home” there’s also an undeniable boogie. “Burn Everything That Bears Our Name” is downright bluesy, and the sliding riffs of “Sometimes Selling Out is Waking Up” have the noise rock churn of The Jesus Lizard. It’s not quite as if Corrosion of Conformity or Eyehategod made a mathcore album, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get.
Converge – Jane Doe
An intense feat of human endurance, crushing emotion and physical dexterity, Converge’s fourth album Jane Doe is widely considered the greatest mathcore album ever made. That is, coming from everyone except from Converge themselves—when asked to rank the band’s records, vocalist Jacob Bannon went in reverse chronological order, placing this one essentially in the middle. It’s only fitting for a groundbreaking band to never be entirely satisfied—to always be reaching a little bit higher each time. That being said, creating a hardcore album of this level of complexity and with so many diverse moving parts so early in their career speaks to why they’re one of the greatest bands in heavy music. The first two tracks alone—“Concubine” and “Fault and Fracture”—provide enough aural chaos to last most bands an entire album. But between Jacob Bannon’s moments of soul-baring catharsis and Ben Koller’s eight-armed rhythmic assault there’s groove-laden psychedelia (“Hell to Pay”), droning shoegaze (“Phoenix in Flight”) and punchy noise rock (“Distance and Meaning”). Converge could have stopped here and been legends; they recorded several more masterpieces instead.
Daughters – Hell Songs
Daughters have released four albums during their chaotic and eventful career, and all of them sound pretty different from one another. There’s the industrial art punk one, the noise rock one, the one that’s only 11 minutes long, and then this: the sound of hardcore being assimilated into a Borg cube. From the moment that “Daughters Spelled Wrong” begins, Hell Songs just feels off in the most appealing way, its woozy, seasick progression starting things off not with a bang but with a dry heave. By the time “Fiery” kicks up, however, Nick Sadler’s screeching guitar leads have taken over and the motion sickness has turned to abject terror, with a level of danger that only grew in intensity when the band was onstage. While Hell Songs might not necessarily represent the pinnacle of Daughters’ songwriting or arrangement, it’s their most unfiltered onslaught—each track an unkillable cybernetic invader hell bent on making you really uncomfortable.
Deadguy – Fixation on a Coworker
New Jersey’s Deadguy didn’t invent mathcore, but they did deliver one of its first essential documents. A half-hour of metallic hardcore that occasionally trafficks in the kind of post-hardcore groove that Helmet and Quicksand were carving out just a little ways north on Interstate 95, Fixation on a Coworker’s viciousness comes delivered in an intricate, complex package. Every direct hit like “Die With Your Mask On” is balanced out by a twitchy bruiser like “Baby Arm,” and for every relentless gallop such as “Nine Stitches,” there’s a jerking roller coaster ride in the form of “Riot Stairs.”
Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
The Dillinger Escape Plan’s debut album, widely regarded as the band’s finest hour (though that is, to some extent, a matter of stylistic preference), is something of an outlier in their catalog. For one, it’s the band’s only full-length record with vocalist Dmitri Minikakis, who preceded the group’s long-term screamer Greg Puciato. And for another, it’s almost entirely free of anything resembling a radio-friendly single. Not that The Dillinger Escape Plan ever had pretenses of being “pop,” but here the focus is on running a treacherous gauntlet of intricate hardcore arrangements, which more often than not segue into passages of cosmic jazz fusion, as on “Sugar Coated Sour” and “43% Burnt.” It’s a testament to the band’s abilities how seamlessly these aesthetic choices come together, though in hindsight there’s something incredibly ballsy about the New Jersey group making their debut with a record so uncompromisingly weird.
Every Time I Die – Low Teens
Few metalcore bands have reached an audience as broad as Every Time I Die has, the Buffalo band’s eighth album Low Teens climbing as high as number 23 on the Billboard albums chart—an impressive feat given how rare it is for any heavy band to pull off those kinds of numbers. But there’s a good reason as to why that is: Few bands within a technically complex realm have as impressive a knack for hooks and rock ‘n’ roll immediacy as Every Time I Die does. Low Teens is their greatest song-for-song achievement, merging the groove and boogie of Southern rock with the visceral assault of hardcore, as evident on a hot-rod ripper like “Two Summers.” Yet it’s in the manic sprint of “I Didn’t Want to Join Your Stupid Cult Anyway” and “Petal” where ETID let their chops do the talking.
Fuck the Facts – Stigmata High-Five
It’s only natural to expect that a band named after a song by John Zorn’s jazzgrind band Naked City would engage in similarly chaotic bursts of giddy destruction. On that point, Fuck the Facts more than live up to their iconoclastic namesake. Yet on Stigmata High-Five, the band follow that thread to manic heights of violence and virtuosity. A song like “The Wrecking” does more than simply wreck—it’s utterly head-spinning in its constant rotation of BPMs and relentless showcase of technical dazzle. There’s plenty of swing in their butchery (“Carve Your Heart Out”) and chaos amid their calculus (“What’s Left Behind”), but throughout the entirety of the album you can practically see the smoke rising from Topon Das’ fretboard.
Gaza – I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die
I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die is a face-first plunge down a blistering hot spiral slide into the depths of nihilism, studded and spiked at irregular intervals. The sheer, bleak mayhem of the album is inherent in its title, each track a harrowing onslaught of sonic terror and methodically precise sonic violence. Gaza’s debut album is a fascinating case study of the most artful forms of pain, served up as a direct injection of dissonance (title track) or as a marathon of constantly shifting tempos, rhythms and time signatures. Making it through all 42 minutes in a single sitting is an invigorating, if tenderizing test of endurance.
Genghis Tron – Board Up the House
The rare hardcore band that can get away with releasing five EPs’ worth of remixes, Poughkeepsie, New York’s Genghis Tron made their name on an uncompromising blend of mathcore with synth-driven cyberviolence. To date they’ve only released two full-length albums, but it’s hard to see where a band goes after delivering an album like Board Up the House, the closest that hardcore has ever come to the singularity. Man and machine are a singular organism on Board Up the House, manic fretwork synced in time with hyperspeed synthesizer sequences and beats that hit like murder hornets on a Four Loko binge. It’s the soundtrack to dystopia at 900 frames per second.
Ion Dissonance – Breathing is Irrelevant
It takes a mathcore band with a particularly strong sense of humor to name a song in binary, as Canada’s Ion Dissonance did with “101101110110001” on their 2003 debut album. Though by and large Breathing Is Irrelevant is a brief but substantial serving of meticulous bedlam. It speaks volumes that even among this lot of 20, this album is especially intense, each track rooted in the throat-burning confrontation of screamo but with an instrumental dynamic intended to cause total disorientation. A case study in “holy shit!”
Ithaca – The Language of Injury
There’s no question that the technical aspect of Ithaca’s music is staggering—at a bare minimum, Ithaca’s chops are enough to disqualify most musicians from being able to replicate the sounds heard on this album. But the London band’s debut is remarkable for an entirely different reason—even at their most visceral, Ithaca harbor a sense for melody, beauty and grace even amid vocalist Djamila Yasmin Azzouz’s most ferocious screams. The Language of Injury isn’t always pretty in the most conventional sense—the title track twists and turns through a labyrinth of riffs and feedback before ascending to its soaring outro. Yet closing dirge “Better Abuse” is among the most transcendently moving pieces of post-hardcore in recent years, a stunning climax for a young band finding new ground to tread in mathcore’s well-mapped terrain.
Keelhaul – Subject to Change Without Notice
On “The Gooch,” the instrumental first track from 2002’s Subject to Change Without Notice, Keelhaul put all their cards on the table. With no interruption in the form of Aaron Dallison or Chris Smith’s feral barks, the Cleveland band clear a path to attempt a non-stop three-minute sequence of instrumental acrobatics. Suffice it to say, this band could play the hell out of their instruments. Yet their mathematical mayhem is always expertly integrated into the songwriting, providing a slightly off-kilter tilt to a hook-driven groover like “Carl vs. the 10,000 Lb. Shadow” or adding even more tension to the dark, sinister “Shackletown.” It’s a remarkably diverse and well-rounded set of songs for a band ostensibly composed of showoffs.
Lethargy – It’s Hard to Write With a Little Hand
Before co-founding Mastodon in 2000, guitarist Bill Kelliher and drummer Brann Dailor employed their instrumental prowess in the showboating math-metal compositions of Rochester, New York’s Lethargy. Their debut album lines up one frantic breakdown after another, each track like a 40-minute ride through a Maytag’s heavy-duty cycle. Naturally, some of the intense and intricate sounds of Mastodon’s own progressive sludge metal have roots here, but the overall picture is more like a shred record you can listen to without losing your scene cred.
The Locust – Plague Soundscapes
It’s rare for any song by San Diego’s The Locust to pass the 90-second mark, so it’s all the more crucial that each of the masked icons’ noise tantrums packs in as much activity as possible. The 23-track, 21-minute Plague Soundscapes from 2003 is the band’s pinnacle of anxiety-inducing sensory overload, a game of temporal Jenga that always feels on the verge of collapse. The band’s compositions aren’t just tightly wound, however, they’re musically tight—perfectly constructed 50-second outbursts with names like “Solar Panel Asses” and “The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office.”
Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It
Rolo Tomassi hold the unique distinction of being the only metalcore band to ever hire Diplo as a producer. Yet that’s far from the only thing that makes them unique, their musical makeup evading easy pigeonholing even as they essentially perfect every style of music they pull off. As a mathcore album, Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It doesn’t offer easy answers; within the first three tracks they sound like three entirely different bands: an electronic instrumental project, a dreamy math-rock group, and a bloodthirsty hardcore band. The truly stunning moments on Time Will Die are those where all of these elements come together, as on the epic “A Flood of Light” and “Contretemps,” bringing together their melodic, technical and atmospheric elements into soaring, intricate anthems.
Vein – Errorzone
When Boston’s Vein released their debut album Errorzone, they seemingly couldn’t shake the nu-metal comparisons that ended up being cast their way. And to be fair, there’s plenty of Deftones and Slipknot groove to go around in tracks like “Virus://Vibrance” and “Old Data in a Dead Machine,” not to mention the occasional jungle breaks that would have made them a natural fit on the soundtrack to The Matrix. If anything that meaty, hook-laden immediacy only took a good thing and made it more fun. Errorzone, rather than being too esoteric for its own good, showcases a playfulness and versatility along with Vein’s finely honed musical abilities. These are mosh-pit anthems of the highest order, the kind that are likely to change direction at a moment’s notice.