[11 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
No matter what musical genre, there’s always the odd artist or band that comes along operating within the template of whatever style of music, but whose approach is so unique and inimitable that it sounds like an alien life form attempting the music of earthlings: Cecil Taylor, Frank Zappa, Can, My Bloody Valentine, Quasimoto, and yes, Meshuggah. More than 20 years into their career, only just recently has Sweden’s Meshuggah started to attract attention from people from outside metal circles. A combination of the powerful and the avant-garde, the band is as visceral and imposing an act as you’ll ever see and hear, guitarists Fredrik Thordendal, Mårten Hagström, and bassist Dick Lövgren hammering out lurching, monolithic riffs as they headbang in robotic unison, vocalist Jens Kidman barking out surreal verses like a twisted drill sergeant while gesticulating like a puppet on strings.
At the same time, there’s a startling delicacy to their music that complements that astonishing physicality. Tomas Haake’s drumming is forceful but incredibly lithe, his hi-hats and ride cymbals holding one time signature as his kicks, toms, and snare add herky-jerky, complex cadences and polyrhythms that seem impossible for a layman to pull off. Then there’s the lead guitar work of Thordendal, the band’s hidden strength, delivering delicate hammer-ons and thin, melodic sustained notes that feel more like jazz fusion than extreme metal, coming off as strands of gossamer juxtaposed against scenes of utter brutality.
Needless to say, live shows by Meshuggah are not to be missed, but although they tour with regularity when they put out a new record, it’s not like they go on three-month marathon treks. Most of the time it’s three weeks and out. So despite building a very devoted fanbase especially over the last decade (2008’s obZen debuted at #59 in the US), there are a lot of Meshuggah fans in smaller towns and cities across North America who have yet to experience this extraordinary band in concert. Thankfully, the band has set out to appease their global fanbase with the release of Alive, their first ever comprehensive live DVD release.
While fans might have secretly wished for something more thorough, nobody will be disappointed with this two-disc package. The centerpiece of it all is the 90-minute, Ian McFarland-directed concert film, which follows Meshuggah to Tokyo, New York, Montreal, and Toronto in late 2008 and early 2009. Beautifully shot and tastefully edited, devoid of rapid-fire cuts, it’s a visual feast, offering us unfettered views of the band, including plenty of close-ups of Haake and Thordendal for those who want to get a closer glimpse of their techniques.
Interestingly, though, this is not a complete live set, instead a collection of a dozen songs filmed in the four cities, shown out of sequence. However, McFarland’s filming is so consistent in the four vastly differing venues, from the cavernous Saitama Super Arena to Montreal’s cozy Club Soda, that the film doesn’t feel disjointed at all.
One could say that the documentary clips reveal little, which is true, as we only hear briefly from Haake and Hagström, the band’s de facto spokesmen, but as mundane as the clips of the band yawning backstage or writers asking asinine questions are, they are kept relatively brief, and before long we’re off to the next song. That’s what matters most, too, as the band obliterates the four crowds, sounding incredibly tight on such favorites as “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” and “Rational Gaze”, as well as newer material like the primal “Combustion” and the phenomenal “Bleed”.
Credit must be given to McFarland as well; as a former hardcore musician, he clearly knows what it takes to make a great concert film. Not only are his camera angles exceptional, but we get plenty of glimpses of the crowds as well, not to mention the interaction between the band and their fans.
There are flaws on this otherwise superbly assembled feature, however, ones that will annoy some of the more die-hard fans. As clean as the stereo mix is, it’s surprising that Alive is not presented in a surround mix, which we know would have hammered home the band’s live power even more. Also, and more curiously, despite being a staple of the band’s live set since the mid-1990s, the classic “Future Breed Machine” is an inexplicable omission. The fact that the band would leave off their most popular song is strange, and surely McFarlane must have had quality footage to use from at least one of the four cities. And no, tacking 60 seconds of the original version of song on to the closing credits is no consolation.
As far as extras go, they do the job even though they’re on the scant side. The DVD’s booklet is definitely better than what we usually get these days, its 24 full color pages neatly designed like a regular tour book. For the tech nerds, we’re treated to glimpses of the band’s gear, but while the guitar tech’s descriptions of Thordendal’s and Hagström’s lavish, custom eight string guitars are far too brief, Haake delivers with a very detailed run-down of his elaborate kit.
Also present is the bizarre video for “Bleed” along with a “making-of” documentary about the clip. Meanwhile, the accompanying CD is very handy, giving us superbly mixed audio versions of the same performances on the DVD. With a band like Meshuggah, there will always be those who will keep clamoring for even more DVD content, but that’s just like this friendly yet enigmatic band: they always defy convention, and always leave us wanting a lot more. For now, this is without a doubt essential viewing for fans of metal and experimental music alike.