[23 February 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Inspired by Meshuggah’s complete overhaul of the classic 2002 album Nothing, Adrien Begrand gives his original 2002 review a similar treatment.
When it comes to certain albums, the passing of time can often be a help, as the more adventurous records can slowly attract an audience after the initial shock they might have inspired when they were released. Anyone who listens to Meshuggah knows full well that you have to spend some serious time with their albums in order to fully comprehend just what the hell is going on. It was a shocking departure for some fans, especially those who loved the more furious aspects of such albums as Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere, but in the years since its release, Nothing remains one of the best metal albums of this decade, a beastly, ponderously slow excursion through tempos slower than molasses in January, and guitar grooves even thicker.
The Swedish four-piece are notorious perfectionists, however, and in the months following Nothing‘s release, the more we learned of the problems surrounding the recording process. The album was intended to be recorded using custom-made eight string guitars, but the prototypes by Nevborn were too faulty to work with, so guitarists Frederik Thorendal and Marten Hagstrom used detuned seven-stringers instead, which created additional problems, as they kept slipping out of tune during the sessions. For those of us who were enthralled by the final result, we thought it sounded just fine, but it was clear that the band didn’t feel the album sounded anywhere near massive enough. So when Ibanez provided the duo with special eight-string guitars that worked properly, Thorendal and Hagstrom wasted no time in scrambling back to the studio to make some significant alterations.
In a time where metal labels exploit the devotion of bands’ respective fanbases by reissuing albums constantly, the special edition of Nothing is something entirely different, serving as a perfect companion piece to the original, and the differences between the two are like night and day. Only the lead vocals of Jens Kidman and Thorendal’s solos remain intact. The rhythm guitars have been completely re-recorded, stronger cymbal crashes have been added, Tomas Haake’s drumbeats have been enhanced by triggered samples, one song (“Nebulous”) has been digitally time-stretched, slowing it down even further, and the whole shebang has been completely remixed. But although it is, sonically speaking, a radical change, the songs themselves have not changed one iota, and that alone remains the album’s strength. The rest is window dressing. Tooth-rattling, skull-crushing window dressing.
The combination of the off-kilter guitars of Hagstrom and Thordendal, the stuttering, jazz-like cadence of Thomas Haake’s drumming, and moments of ultra-low, subwoofer-rattling, golgothan notes get your attention immediately on Nothing, but then those insane Neil Peart-on-acid polyrhythms kick in, and we’re immediately thrown for a loop. The guitars and drums sound like they’re playing different songs simultaneously (very much like Coleman’s “harmolodics” experiments in the early 1970s), but oddly enough, they still sound in synch. It initially sounds utterly cacophonous, but essentially, it’s very simple, as Meshuggah bases its signature sound around “rotating time signatures”. The guitars and bass plow along in ungodly-sounding time signatures, but if you listen to the first thirty seconds of a song like “Rational Gaze”, and carefully count out drummer Thomas Haake’s beats, you’ll hear he’s playing a surprisingly simple 4/4 time, hitting the snare on each third beat, for 16 bars. At the same time, the guitars and bass are counting the same quarter notes, albeit in a different time signature, and eventually, both sides meet up again at the 64th beat. It’s simultaneously dizzying and mesmerizing, and it’s so precisely performed, it never veers out of control.
The eight-string guitars play a major role on the album, the low, grinding, bent-string notes hit during the opening of “Stengah” providing as menacing a sound as we’ll ever hear from a metal band. The rhythmic syncopation by the band during the verses of “Perpetual Black Second” is astonishing, as is the sudden, mellow interlude five and a half minutes through the relentless “Closed Eye Visuals” that goes for close to a minute before exploding into a chaotic, intense final verse. Haake’s polyrhythmic drum intro in “Glints Collide” is as much a feat of athleticism as it is an example of great musicianship. The very down-tempo, Sabbath-meets-Tool slogfest “Nebulous” is brutally heavy, as is the aptly titled album closing instrumental “Obsidian”, whose massive, repeating riff serves as a bit of a cool-down period (albeit a creepy one) after close to an hour of exhausting technical gymnastics. All through the album, Thorendal offsets the mechanical riffs and drumming with his fluid, jazz-influenced soloing style, infusing the otherwise rigid compositions with intoxicating, wonky melodies.
Written mostly by Haake, the lyrics are surprisingly contemplative; while centering on the tried-and-true theme of doom that befits the genre, they show great depth and creativity, the maturity best exemplified in the song “Rational Gaze”: “Our light-induced image of truth—filtered blank of its substance/As our eyes won’t adhere to intuitive lines / Everything examined. Separated, one thing at a time / The harder we stare the more complete the disintegration.” “Perpetual Black Second” has Haake musing about a split second of blinding rage, yet instead of taking this theme and going on an antisocial rant like most young metal bands would, Haake writes something more simple, and much more jarring: “Please forgive the evil in me.”
All the ingredients come together most perfectly on “Spasm”. Over an intricate, pounding riff that’s underscored by chiming guitar harmonies, Haake, temporarily replacing Kidman’s authoritative, almost robotic bark with a very effective multi-tracked snarl, singing lyrics that are as graphic as anything William S. Burroughs has written, and like the late Burroughs’ own speaking voice, there is a scary sense of clinical detachment in the delivery, as Haake sneers, “Vertebras and spinal columns unaligned / Joints shattered and torn apart. Spasm-rendered distortion / Organic spiral. Stretched and torn into a new creation.”
The re-recorded guitar parts make a huge difference. The tone is much fuller, far richer than the original, and when we hear that aforementioned descending riff in “Stengah”, it makes the 2002 version sound considerably weaker in the process, that positively evil note sustaining much more smoothly. The slowed-down rendition of “Nebulous” is far more effective, the signature riff in the refrain sounding absolutely commanding, and “Obsidian” benefits greatly from being nearly doubled in length. That said, because the guitars have been pushed so far up front the mix on the reissue, Haake’s drumming is far less punchy; instead of being on equal footing with the guitars as on the original, Haake’s masterful beats clearly play more of a supporting role here.
Which album is better is clearly a matter of personal opinion, as each disc has its own strengths. The orange artwork of the 2002 edition reflects the much warmer, organic feel of the original mix, while the blue art design of the 2006 version is indicative of the much colder tones of the re-recorded disc. Fans have grown to love the original, but the band clearly believes the special edition is the definitive version. In a perfect world, it doesn’t hurt to have both, but if a new listener was to chose between the two, the best option would be the 2006 version; not only is the new mix thrilling to hear, but it comes along with improved liner notes (with lyrics printed in the booklet this time) as well as a bonus DVD featuring promo videos (including some clips that show just how funny these guys are) and three live tracks filmed in 2005.
Meshuggah’s efforts on Nothing should thrill any fan of metal music who craves something entirely new and original, and nearly five years after its original release, it is still one of the most inimitable metal albums to come out in ages. The key is not to be intimidated by the music; with repeated listens, the album becomes more and more fascinating, and after a few weeks, it will hold you in its thrall. Nothing is, like Haake writes in “Rational Gaze”, “Where engines of the sane and insanity merge / The clarity. The unity.”
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/meshuggah-nothing/