When Genres Collide
At its core, math rock embodies anti-pop sentiment. Its indiscriminate time signature changes, intensely syncopated rhythms, strident guitar tones and generally lo-fi production all run counter to the market-tested pop aesthetic, which prefers repetitive structures and pleasant timbres over any sort of musical complexity. Pop music, of course, is merely trying to appeal to as large a market as possible; who can blame it for emphasizing simplicity? However, when a band like Tricot come along, they upset this dichotomy. The Japanese trio maintain the rhythmic dexterity and harsh sound of math rock, as well as the high-octane energy of rock ‘n’ roll, however, underneath it all is an undeniable pop soul. While most math rock firmly emphasizes intricate guitar–drum interplay, Tricot shine a blinding spotlight on lead singer Ikumi “Ikkyu” Nakajima’s sugar-coated vocals. This undoubtedly will perturb fans of old-school, instrumentally-focused math, but, as the band’s recent ascension has proven, this best-of-both-worlds approach certainly has some appeal.
The trio’s most recent album, simply titled 3, remains faithful to the aesthetic established on their previous two works. The first track, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” reminds listeners of the breakneck pace at which Tricot are most comfortable operating. By and large, the album rarely deviates from this unrelentingly uptempo procession, affording listeners few moments to catch their breath. Yet what makes 3 — and Tricot, in general — so unique rhythmically are the rapid meter changes. “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” methodically avoids settling on a time signature, and rarely incorporates a bar of four. This creates a sense of rhythmic irregularity that consistently keeps the listener off balance. There are a few exceptions, like “Sukima” and “Pork Ginger,” that employ common time, but even these make use of intricate polyrhythms to prevent themselves from ever feeling like straight-ahead pop rock.
This rhythmic experimentation is juxtaposed by Ikkyu’s highly processed, highly melodic vocals. Whereas most math rock features vocals from guitarists who are pushing their expressive range — and much of math rock doesn’t feature vocals at all — Ikkyu’s commanding voice remains at the center of each track, amplified by layers of compression. Throughout “Yosoiki,” Ikkyu displays vocal acrobatics akin to Mariah Carey. “Sukima” sees her testing the limits of her lungs as she holds out some impressively lengthy, high-pitched sustains during the song’s exciting climax. “Melon Soda” offers an infectious hook during its refrain. Generally speaking, Ikkyu’s delivery involves frequent diva-esque intervallic leaps. Clearly, while Tricot may share some musical characteristics with the math rock genre, their considerable elevation of the lead singer’s role in their band is much more in line with pop music sensibility.
Yet, of course, there is a bit more going on here musically than on your prototypical Top 40 pop track. Particularly, lead guitarist Motoko “Motifour” Kida provides some delicious, six-string, math riffage. The energetic “Yosoiki” features deft guitar work that invites comparison to another Japanese math rock legend, LITE. While “Echo” might not contain passages that flow quite as smoothly as a toe song, it fades out into resonant, effects-laden arpeggios that nicely cut-up the staccato, sharply detached notes that, by and large, typify the album’s sound. And, on “Munasawagi,” the syncopated guitar interplay is on par with that of some of math rock’s most technically adroit players (e.g. Mario Camarena of Chon and Tim Collis of TTNG). Meanwhile, bassist Hiromi “Hirohiro” Sagane’s performance is equally noteworthy. Tracks like “DeDeDe,” the album’s first single, are driven by her steady, pulsing bass work.
3, while certainly “math” in many aspects, will not appeal to all listeners of that style of music. There is still an impressive level of instrumental virtuosity at play here, clearly. However, the math rock aesthetic has always existed as a foil to the monolith that is pop music. Therefore, those who enjoy math rock specifically for its rejection of overly accessible themes will probably do well to avoid 3, an album firmly steeped in pop. Yet, for any who enjoy the pop aesthetic, but would like to see it instilled with a certain level of musical complexity, Tricot’s newest release will surely please. And, if nothing else, it’s nice to see a genre that has become so saturated with, mostly white, men have some lady rockers join the party.