[19 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For the last dozen years, Sweden’s Meshuggah has ranked among the very best in innovative, forward-thinking extreme metal. Centered on the wildly creative rhythm riffing style of guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström and the intricate yet punishing drumming of Tomas Haake, the band has become renowned for both its technical prowess and its tendency to surprise the hell out of us with every new release.
Moreso than any other band in the genre, Meshuggah has been going through a constant state of often radical evolution, reflected in the disparate styles of each subsequent album: the fusion of aggression, technicality, and jazz influences made1995’s landmark Destroy Erase Improve one of the definitive metal albums of the 1990s; 2002’s Nothing had the band experimenting with slower tempos and massive, downtuned riffs played on eight-string guitars; 2004’s I EP was a monumental, 20 minute prog metal epic, while 2005’s 47 minute, single-track album Catch Thirtythree took I‘s idea one step further. Simply put, if you don’t like change, then Meshuggah definitely isn’t your thing.
It’s funny how things have a way of working out, though. After years of experimentation and growth, controversial stylistic shifts and tinkering with technology, Meshuggah has taken a slightly safer approach on its sixth full-length album obZen, yet it easily ranks among Destroy Erase Improve and Nothing as one of the finest albums of the band’s esteemed career.
“This album is almost like a sample platter of everything that we’ve done through the years, and in that it’s less focused if you will, but that’s a good thing, I think,” explains Haake, on the phone from Sweden, where the band is rehearsing for its upcoming North American tour in support of Ministry. “Focus can easily turn into something too linear as well, like the Nothing album in retrospect, it’s kind of mid-tempo all the way through, but I think that album is more focused because of that.”
More preoccupied with the sheer physicality of the music than the lurching, convoluted guitar melodies of Catch Thirtythree, the ferocity of obZen, from the songs’ structures, to the taut performances, to the absolutely crystalline production, sounds like such a breath of fresh air, especially coming in the wake of the rather stilted and mildly disappointing Catch Thirtythree. But the key ingredient that the last album sorely missed, however, was Haake himself, who opted to record the extremely complicated album using programmed drums, which had many metal fans up in arms.
“For what that album was, even though each of our albums is to some extent an experiment, Catch Thirtythree was just so much more of that,” he says. “We also noticed pretty early on that for what we wanted with a more guitar-driven album, the programmed drums really worked well. So we just went ahead and did it.”
War Metal Battle Master, Lair of the Minotaur Southern Lord Rating: 8 The title of the Chicago band’s third album pretty much says it all: blunt, kind of lunkheaded, and imposing as hell. After making significant strides on The Great Destroyer two years ago, Lair’s new disc trounces their previous work, their chaotic concoction of death, thrash, black metal, sludge, stoner, doom, and crust (got all that?) sounding equally catchy and visceral, guitarist Steven Rathbone’s vocal range as awe-inspiring as the instrumental arrangements, alternating between black metal screeches, death growls, and hardcore roars. “Horde of Undead Vengeance”, the throttling “Black Viper Barbarian Clan”, and the phenomenal fist-pumpin’ groove of “Assassins of the Cursed Mist” all offer instant gratification, but the tio outdoes itself on the near-ten minute slogger “Doom Trooper”, during which the boys buckle down for some classic, crushing, Master of Reality-inspired doom. Recorded by the great Sanford Parker and mastered by Scott Hull of Pig Destroyer, this is the kind of battle metal that demands to be reckoned with.
He adds, “I guess to some extent also it’s so much of a taboo, especially in metal and especially in progressive music, and it kind of feels good to do it just to see the expression on people’s faces when you tell them it’s programmed. Because it is very much a taboo, and even though we know a lot of bands that do use programmed drums on albums, they would never admit to doing so…There seems to be a shortage of thinking as far as that it doesn’t really matter what tools you use to get somewhere, it’s all about the final product in my opinion. I don’t care whether a band programs everything or uses another vocalist on the albums. At the end of the day, if they’re a live band they’re going to have to go out there and play it live, and to me it doesn’t matter how you get there. If it’s a good product, who gives a shit?”
For all of Catch Thirtythree‘s hi-tech achievements (the programmed drums do suit that record), Haake’s presence behind the kit on obZen makes a monumental difference, and is the driving force behind Meshuggah’s most outwardly aggressive disc since 1998’s Chaosphere. “I’m really happy with how the drums turned out. I did spend so much more time than I’ve ever spent on any album, but at the end of the day now, looking back at it, it was definitely worth all the effort put into it, no doubt,” says Haake.
“For this one I didn’t have an engineer, I recorded the drums myself. I had a laptop computer…online, I controlled the control room so to speak. So I did all the takes by myself. The negative aspect of doing that, or what is really hard is to know when to quit. That actually made it take a lot more time to choose the takes and put every track together completely, as far as drums went. I did so many takes, I would just keep going and going and going…That was the hard part, I spent probably three weeks sitting in the control room afterwards just choosing the takes, just computer work for 12 hours a day. So in that sense it probably would have been better to have an engineer who would be, ‘Let’s scrap that take and do another one,’ but on the other hand I had a lot to choose from and it ended up good anyway.”
Ever the finicky studio band, Meshuggah has always worked especially hard in an effort to find the perfect mix that suits their albums, and while they remain as notoriously hard-to-please as ever (Nothing‘s complete overhaul in 2006 being a prime example), they’ve simply outdone themselves with obZen‘s near-perfect marriage of intricacy and brutality. Haake agrees, saying, “This is the first time that we really spent the time that we felt that we needed for the album, especially production-wise and doing mixes and all that. We spent months on mixing, and we did a shitload of different mixes before we felt that we nailed it, and I’m really happy with the final product. To me it’s everything, it’s powerful but it doesn’t just turn into this big wall of mud, you can still kind of make out what everyone is doing, and I think to achieve that is not too easy with the music that we play, especially with the more downtuned stuff, with the eight string guitars it’s sometimes really hard to get everything across.
“We have been kind of anal when it comes to the guitar stuff, everything’s been recorded I don’t know how many times, just to get everything synched and really nailed with the drums,” he continues. “That’s also a dangerous thing, I think…you can get somewhat of an edge when it’s not overly tight all over the place, the drums can go down or up in tempo and it can be a bit sloppy, and sometimes that actually brings more life to the music. But I think for this one, we really did spend a lot of time making everything really tight, and the production together with that just works really well. It doesn’t sound too dead or too cleaned up, in my opinion. There’s a certain amount of sludge in the guitar sound and in the bass.”
The band’s renewed life is encapsulated perfectly on the opening track “Combustion”, a song every bit as incendiary as its title would indicate. Centered around a murky riff that bears a striking similarity to the style of Tool’s Adam Jones, Meshuggah amplifies it a hundredfold, the entire band shocking listeners by settling down into a simple yet vicious 4/4 thrash arrangement, the staccato picking propelled by Haake’s maniacal drumming, his fastest work in many years.
“[‘Combustion’] especially is something that we really haven’t been doing in a shitload of years, it sounds like something from our first album, structure-wise, a really straightforward, fast thrash metal tune,” Haake elucidates. “That one is actually almost a bit of an homage to the Bay Area thrash and the stuff we grew up listening to…For me, it’s hard to play. It sounds like it would be so much easier because it’s straightforward, but for me, we’d dropped out of the path of playing music like that so long ago that I haven’t played a straightforward, faster beat like that in years and years. Initially I had more trouble with that one than with some of the more tricky stuff, which is kind of weird.
“What I think is cool with this album is that it is really advanced in a lot of ways, but a lot of the tracks don’t come out sounding like that, and that’s a really cool aspect,” he explains. “The tracks are really tricky to play, and some of them, for reasons like the very tempo they’re in…for example the title track ‘obZen’ is at 170 BPM, and for me that’s a super-awkward tempo for me to play. I have somewhat of a gap from 160 to 180, and then it’s cool again, but that tempo is really hard when it comes to doing double bass drum patterns. So some stuff is difficult for those reasons but most of the tracks are actually kind of advanced as far as the rhythmical structures and the guitar riffs and everything.”
On an album loaded with exceptionally strong tracks, like “Electric Red”, which continues where the deep, sustained notes of Nothing left off, “This Spiteful Snake” and “Pineal Gland Optics”, which both show that Meshuggah are still the masters of progressive metal’s more cold, mechanical side, and the brilliant, epic closing cut “Dancers to a Discordant System”, the one song that stands out above all is “Bleed”, a seven and a half-minute amalgamation of everything that makes this band so great. Along with the authoritative bark of vocalist Jens Kidman and the fascinating juxtaposition of Thordendal’s delicate, Alan Holdsworth-inspired solos with the muscular, galloping rhythm riffs, the track features drumming by Haake that can only be described as sick, his astonishing double kick drumming mirroring the central riff. It’s a spectacular display of metal percussion.
“Moreso than any track in the past, and any track on this album, I’d say ‘Bleed’ [was the most difficult to record],” says Haake. “I had to completely change the approach to how I play the kick drums. I usually don’t play really speedy stuff on the kicks, I usually hammer them with a lot of force, but for this one I really had to learn a more fluttery approach to how to play the kicks, it’s more like tap dancing or something. So I probably spent as much time on that track alone as I did on all the other ones combined. So that is a very, very challenging track to play. What’s cool with it, the very vibe of the track, the hands are going pretty much straightforward for the biggest part of the track at least, but all the underlying patterns, they just get more and more advanced the further you go into the song, and some of those parts, it took forever just to learn them.
“We’re rehearsing for it now,” he continues. “Every day we’re rehearsing that track, and we’re rehearsing ‘Pravus’ and ‘Electric Red’, and all those three have different aspects of being hard to play, but of course ‘Bleed’, we’re rehearsing it every day, and hopefully we’ll pull it off. It’s all a matter of not overworking yourself. Sometimes we have to skip rehearsing it for a day or two…for the guitarists and the bass player, it puts a lot of strain on the forearms and thumb muscles and you get cramps, we have to watch so they don’t get something serious going on in the forearms. It’s definitely a very physical track to play, both on drums and on guitar.”
The complexity of Meshuggah’s music is a big reason why so many people, from metal fans to musical theorists, find the band so appealing, but while fans obsessively deconstruct every new Meshuggah release with the attention to detail of quantum physicists, the last thing Haake wants to be known for is playing extremely difficult music, especially considering how music that seems so confounding to so many of us comes so instinctively to he and his bandmates.
“That’s always kind of funny,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of transcriptions and stuff, and I have yet to see one that is correct. It’s definitely difficult to make out exactly what’s going on when you hear an album… They usually try to complicate it too much I think. What they usually do is like, ‘Okay, the opening pattern is 17 16th notes.’ Well, we don’t see it like that. It’s a repetitive pattern, sure, and you can make into sometimes 23 or 19/16, or 17/8, or whatever. For us, it’s just straight 4/4, and then you have these permutations, the odd cycles going underneath or on top of that straight beat. Sometimes I just think analyzing things too much kind of takes the mystery out of it.
“There’s of course a big portion of our fans that are kind of into it for the technicality reasons, and that’s also cool if that’s what they listen to in music. But it’s way cooler to hear other people that go, ‘I don’t understand anything of what you guys are doing, but I really like the vibe, I like how it makes me feel when I listen to you guys’s music.’ That’s of course the best review that you can get.”
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.