Sweden’s Meshuggah have done well lately. Though they are an extreme metal band — one that actually straddles a number of umbrella sub-genres in the metal genre — and have been fairly underground for many years, the group’s last album, 2012’s Koloss, debuted at No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot 200 albums chart. That’s a pretty high position for a metal group, especially out of the gate, and it seems that American success has beckoned. To that end, as a victory lap, and the fact that it generally takes three or four years for the outfit to deliver studio album, Meshuggah has now come out with The Ophidian Trek, which is a double-CD live album paired with a DVD or BluRay of concert footage, as a stop-gap measure to tide fans over. Performed and filmed at a 2013 stop in London, England, The Ophidian Trek pulls a lot from the album they were touring behind, naturally. Now, some may think this set is entirely superfluous, as Meshuggah put out a live album in 2010 called Alive. They may be right to a degree, but The Ophidian Trek only shares five tracks with Alive, and this collection acts as a pretty good primer or greatest hits collection for those curious about the band after buying Koloss, inviting new fans to explore the group’s back catalog all the way back to 1998’s Chaosphere. So victory lap or not, this live set works as an introductory calling card for newcomers, and I suppose old fans, some of them, will find much to like about this release, too.
Now, I didn’t get the DVD of the concert for review consideration, so I can’t talk about that aspect of this release. However, I can say this about the music: Meshuggah doesn’t talk to the audience very much, and when they do, it is very, very briefly. And it only happens twice: a hello and a goodbye. So anyone coming to this album looking for evidence of the dynamic between the band and the audience will be disappointed. And, as far as the audience goes at this gig, they’re politely receptive. Basically, the album takes a song, audience cheer, song, audience cheer approach, so there are no sing-alongs here or stunts pulled by the crowd, at least audibly. That may lead you to wonder what the point of this album is, and why not release a studio greatest hits package? Well, there are some differences in the material. “Demiurge” runs a minute shorter here than it does on its Koloss counterpart, for instance. The album does work as a means to appreciate how versatile Meshuggah’s members are on their instruments in a live setting. You listen to The Ophidian Trek and gain a greater appreciation of how much rehearsal went into moulding these songs for a live audience. Per the metal genre, the band is incredibly proficient and virtuoso on their instruments. And listening to how Tomas Haake handles the complex drum parts on “Bleed”, programmed or not, is a revelation in itself.
Basically, anyone coming to Meshuggah probably knows that the variations between songs can be subtle at best. This is a group with a bass-heavy, thudding, mid-tempo style of metal. However, the disc is interesting in how the band positions its material in a live setting. For instance, the group leaves its longest songs, the 10-minute “Dancers to a Discordant System” and the 14-minute suite “Mind Mirrors / In Death – Is Life / In Death – Is Death”, to the very end of the concert. So this is indeed a trek to the epics. And it’s interesting in how Koloss tracks “The Hurt That Finds You First” and “I Am Colossus” segue into each other, showing the band shaking up and repositioning the songs. It’s also intriguing to listen to this and understand the group’s trademark sound and how they’re able to convey that throughout a 90 minute set without making things boring. You can really hear the care and craft that went into the band’s live act, and that everything Meshuggah does in a concert setting has a purpose to it. As for the performance, The Ophidian Trek seems to capture the guys on a pretty good night. There are minimal flubs and editing errors, and the playing is impassioned.
Being a live album, the sound of The Ophidian Trek is a little on the thin side when compared to the studio versions — there’s not as much meatiness to the band’s guitar sound here, though the bottom end still stands up — and the vocals are a notch lower in the mix, but since they’re guttural moans, it probably doesn’t matter unless you have a lyric sheet and are following along. Meshuggah capture the essence of what they’re about with The Ophidian Trek, which makes it particularly valuable to a new fan. There’s much to think about here in the performance, and, besides that, things are pretty balls to the wall, providing much auditory pleasure. Now, if you’re a long time Meshuggah fan, and tend to really prefer the early stuff, you might think a little less of this, as there is some overlap between this set and Alive; The Ophidian Trek additionally leans pretty heavy on Koloss as six songs (out of 15 performed) come from that record. However, even though you can be cynical and call this a cash-grab for following so relatively soon on a previous live release (and God knows that Rush fans, for instance, now get a live album after every studio album and tour, so the live album in the metal/hard rock sphere is almost becoming a cliché), it’s a great summation for those who really want to get at what Meshuggah is about either in concert or musically. Old fans get to relive concert memories, new fans get a sampler of where they might want to dive next into the Meshuggah discography. Overall, The Ophidian Trek is, despite the fact that the band isn’t very talkative and you can’t heard the crowd mosh and bang their heads, an apt summary of where the band now stands. It seals the deal on the fact that Meshuggah is a pretty big and important group in the metal community, Sweden or otherwise. If you don’t know that, and are looking to understand why, this live disc set is ultimately a great place to gain enlightenment.