In the entire genre of heavy metal, the epic song is something that has always been tried by many, but perfected by few. Going all the way back to Deep Purple’s “Child in Time” (or even farther back, perhaps, to Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”) heavy bands have always loved to see just how huge they could make a song; after all, part of metal’s appeal over the past 35-plus years has been the bombast, the sheer spectacle of it all. If you don’t count the mastery of such ’70s progressive rock tracks as King Crimson’s “Starless” and Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, metal’s gradual evolution in the epic song realm has been slow, with many of the best songs clocking in between eight and ten minutes. Between 1975 and 1978, you had the astonishing one-two punch of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Rainbow’s “Stargazer”, Black Sabbath’s great “The Writ”, Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”, and Rush’s masterpiece of an instrumental, “La Villa Strangiato”.
As the 1980s rolled around, songs became considerably sleeker, as bands like Rush and Judas Priest opted for simpler arrangements, and it wasn’t until 1984, that Iron Maiden dared to take the epic song to the next level with their 13 minute opus “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Several years later, German power metal stalwarts took things even further with the phenomenal tracks “Halloween” and “The Keeper of the Seven Keys”, but again, when heavy metal was forced back underground in the wake of the grunge fad, finely-tuned, tightly executed, 15 minute exercises in metallic monstrousness seemed to fall by the wayside once again Old-schoolers like Iced Earth did their best to carry on the tradition (their much-loved 1995 song “Dante’s Inferno” stands out), but until now, very few bands have been able to do anything new with the format.
If there was one metal band who could take the epic song to its most extreme heights yet, it’d be Meshuggah. Arguably the finest metal band in the world today, this group of Swedes have been turning the genre on its ear for well over a decade, most notably over the course of their three most recent albums, 1995’s stunning Destroy Erase Improve, 1998’s aptly titled Chaosphere, and 2002’s superb Nothing. Employing plenty of vertiginous time signatures, astounding drumming by Tomas Haake, the rapid-fire guitar work of Marten Hagstron and Frederik Thorendal, the robotic cadence of vocalist Jens Kidman, and a host of musical innovations, such as Thorendal’s famous “breath controller” device (used most famously on 1995’s groundbreaking “Future Breed Machine”) and the eight string guitars used on the ultra-heavy Nothing, this is one band who generates excitement among the metal community, their fervently loyal following, and their fellow musicians, every single time out. Their new EP I continues that streak of first-rate recordings, with jaw-dropping results.
While it’s not an official album, I might as well be. Comprised of one single, 21-minute track, it combines every element of the band’s last three albums, be it the mathematical precision of Destroy Erase Improve, the all-out speed of Chaosphere, or the slow, tuned down, drawn-out notes of Nothing, compressing it all into an extremely taut, endlessly thrilling opus. Quite frankly, I could be the finest piece of work the band has ever recorded.
Made up of no fewer than 15 separate passages, “I” is colossal, both in its structure and its sound. Opening with a highly intricate pattern of a single chord, staccato riff and a thunderous tom tom performance by Haake, the bottom suddenly falls out, the band pausing for a split second, and unleashing 22 seconds of pure, unadulterated chaos. The effect is like one of those Drop of Doom amusement park rides, but instead of landing safely, this is like the express elevator to hell, and the next thing you know, you’re greeted by the snarling voice of Kidman, as the song kicks into high gear: I/ this fractal illusion burning away all structure toward the obscene!”
The band is absolutely relentless throughout the song, highlighted by Thorendal’s solos, which are always more jazz-oriented than the usual metal shredding, and Haake’s characteristic syncopation, the hi-hat and ride cymbal keeping simple, 4/4 time, but the snare and double bass drum possessing minds of their own, with their mind-boggling polyrhythms and rotating time signatures. Five and a half minutes in, the band takes off on a pure speed metal exercise, one of the fastest pieces they have ever recorded, before segueing immediately into a middle break, featuring chiming, discordant notes by Thorendal and Hagstrom. The second half of the song heads straight into math metal territory, interrupted briefly by a glorious, 3/4 time death metal riff at the 10:34 mark, before sinking deeper into the intricate, sinister, rumbling tones the band pulled off on Nothing, concluding with a mesmerizing jam.
Lyrically, the band has never been stronger; Hagstrom describes his lyrics as being “about a self…a psyche trying to decide if he is put on this earth to be a human or to be the nemesis of mankind.” Throughout the song, Kidman spouts words and imagery that sound like a demented hybrid of the darkest of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up novels, and the insane rants of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “A dead universe… A snail along a straight razor… drenched in the bile of millions… Shrouds stained with tarblack vomit… I devour this manure of existence.” It’s like a post-millenial, metal portait of the collapse of one’s mind, the words and images adding the final blow to what is an all-out assault of a composition. Monstrous, prodigious, apocalyptic, “I” is quintessential Meshuggah, and some absolutely vital 21st century metal.