The new Modeselektor album is out this week, and if you’re into cerebral electronica, well, it’s going to nestle happily alongside the likes of Squarepusher and Autechre in your music collection. There’s something to be said for music that’s bewildering at first listen, but reveals its charms over the course of repeated listens — music you have to work at, in other words. Although it’s electronic music that seems to have had nerdbait locked up in recent years, thanks to the advent of “intelligent” dance music and the efforts of labels like Warp, highbrow music pre-dates synths and DAWs by a long way. If you’re up for a challenge, there’s a selection of similarly mind-bending music awaiting you after the jump. Turn on, tune in, and see if your brain doesn’t just melt.
We might as well start with the band who — along with Warp contemporaries like Squarepusher — kinda embody the whole idea of IDM, and who amuse themselves by doing things like programming drum patterns such as the one above. There was a picture doing the rounds a while back of a patch that Autechre programmed on Max, before it got wrapped up into Ableton as Max for Live. If you’re interested, you can see it here — do let us know if you can make any sense of it.
And, of course, no discussion of intimidatingly complicated electronic music would be complete without mentioning Aphex Twin. His complex polyrhythmic beats have that weird quality of somehow almost making sense, although you can’t quite put your finger on how. He also has a gift for wrapping an eminently hummable tune in an accompaniment that’s somehow both technically fascinating and a perfect fit for its melodic contents. He also managed to embed his face into the above track.
Behold: the band who once wrote a song based around the Fibonacci sequence. Normal bands just don’t do this shit.
And, indeed, the other great home for complex musicianship over the last couple of decades has of course been the world of metal — there are technical death metal bands who play the sort of instrumental parts that’d probably make your hands and/or feet fall off it you tried to emulate them, while prog metal bands have given the world songs that change time signature 128 times. This isn’t to say it’s all particularly great in a songwriting sense — this is the genre that gave us Yngwie Malmsteen, after all — but when bands manage to combine their crazy musicianship with songwriting prowess, the results can be spectacular. The best example for this for our money is Meshuggah, who combine intimidating technical skill with crazy song structures and even crazier concepts.
Elsewhere, there’s mathcore, whose name rather alludes to the sort of thing you can expect from its proponents. Bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Between the Buried and Me and Fall of Troy seem to be engaged in a constant arms race of complexity, both in terms of their songwriting and their instrumentation. Ye gods.
The Mars Volta
And while we’re on time signatures: go on, tell us what time signature that middle section is in. We dare you.
Indian classical music, generally
But for all that the aforementioned bands are musically impressive, there are genres around the world that can put this lily-livered Western stuff to shame. Indian classical musicians, for instance, train from basically the moment they can walk, and the degree of technical accomplishment the best of them attain is intimidating — as is the complexity of the music they play, based on improvisation around various esoteric modes and melodic figures, often set against similarly complex rhythmic backings.
Of course, Western classical music isn’t exactly all straightforward, either — particularly some 20th century composers like Rachmaninoff and Ravel, who seemed to delight in putting unfortunate musicians through all sorts of grueling technical examinations. Even their work pales in comparison to Nancarrow’s, though — he specialized in writing pieces for the player piano, pieces that a human simply wouldn’t be able to play. You’re welcome to try — just don’t blame us if your hands fall off.
Meanwhile, an article in the Guardian a few years back insisted that according to some sort of scale designed by researchers at Wesleyan, Javanese gamelan music was the world’s most complex. Listening to the clip above — and reading things like this — we’re not about to argue with them.
And finally, a pioneer whose worked blurred the boundaries between music and mathematics (and yes, there are boundaries between the two disciplines, albeit not ones explored very often), Xenakis’s compositions are some of the most extreme music written by anyone, anywhere — and particularly his 1953 masterpiece Metastasis. The Wikipedia page about the piece is fascinating reading, if you like sentences like “Xenakis wished to reconcile the linear perception of music with a relativistic view of time” or “Xenakis, an accomplished architect, saw the chief difference between music and architecture as that while space is viewable from all directions, music can only be experienced from one.”