Thursday, 15 April 2010

Meshuggah - The massive Review

Meshuggah are a crazy band, and one that have divided my opinion. I used to love them, and then just as quickly as I fell in love with them, I began to fall out of love with them. As crazy and intense as they are, their lack of dynamic quickly became boring to me and I never really went back to them.

First, a word about Meshuggah for the uninitiated. I'm not going to try and pidgeon-hole them into any particular genre, but some tag words which you could use to describe them are "Math-metal", "Progressive Metal", "Experimental" and "Downright insane".

Have you ever heard a down-tuned guitar? Meshuggah took it a step further, going almost an octave lower than the standard guitar tuning (yes, practically a bass) and now play guitars with 8 strings on them. Ever heard an odd time signature? Meshuggah again took it a step further and play music which is pretty much a consistent jumble of polyrhythms, usually over an implied 4/4 backbeat on the drums to allow you to headbang along. Despite this, they also have moments of very sparse, ambient and sometimes disturbing soundscapes.

So what's my current opinion of the band?

Its not background music for sure. Meshuggah are a band which you have to sit and listen to, you can study it and find a whole wealth of crazy ideas or you can just let it drag you in - its quite hypnotic in a certain way. However, this is what I've always had a problem with. Despite it being deep music which is great for sitting and listening to, its unique over-the-top level of relentless brutality gets tiring. There are only two dynamics within Meshuggah's music - insanely heavy metal, and its-quiet-almost-too-quiet bad-LSD-trip infused ambient gaps.

I'll probably address this again and again as I listen, but its one of those marmite qualities about their music. Some like this incredibly stark contrast - I myself love a lot of music with stark contrast. However, the fact that Meshuggah takes it to both extremes makes it a fatiguing listen for me. Its so heavy and relentless, and needs some dynamic, but when you get to the quiet but it tends to feel like its dragging on too long and all of a sudden you're wanting the brutality back. Its tension and release, but I feel that its tension and release taken too far.

These are just my own reactions to the band, though. They have a legion of fans who love this tension and release, and who could listen to the brutality on repeat all day. To those people, I give kudos. My brain can only handle so much extreme complexity within a space of time under normal listening conditions.

So anyway, I've decided to come back to them now. I'm going to listen to every single album, in no particular order, and give a fair subjective review on their work. Perhaps I'll come out of this with a new found love, perhaps I'll think they're boring and pretentious, who knows.

Here goes.

Before we start, a reminder that these are my thoughts and opinions. The point of reviews on this blog is not to rate music with a numerical value,  but to simply share my thoughts and opinions with you. If my thoughts encourage someone to check out the music I review, then that's fine.

Catch 33

As I said, no particular order. Or rather, alphabetical order, since thats how they're organised in my iTunes library.

This is the album that should interest me more than it did. Upon first glance, most of the tracks are under 2 minutes long. Hyper speed punk rock? No way.

This album is one long, long, long ass song. Roughly 47 minutes in fact. I like how this is implimented - the few times I've had my library on shuffle (which I don't do anymore for this particular reason) sometimes a track from this album would come on, and it just sounds disjointed. Its as if someone's flipped channels on the TV in the middle of a tune, and then flicked it off a couple of minutes later. Its literally just a long song that's been cut up and given titles for each phase of the song.

They could really have just made it one single track, and in a way I'd have preferred this. Rather than disguising it as a compilation of songs with chapter titles akin to a DVD movie, making it one pure piece of music with no way to skip ahead would encourage serious listening, which is something I encourage, especially with artists who make the effort to produce a start-to-finish album as opposed to lots of songs on the same CD. But that's just me, perhaps there's a story behind each title and section? I don't know.

Anyway, enough about how its presented, how about the music? Its Meshuggah, so as with most of their albums you know what you're getting straight away. I'm liking the production on this album, the guitars are more defined and I can hear a lot of the notes, despite it still being in  plucked-piano-string 'gow gow gow' territory. The neverending flow of this album does serve Meshuggah's style a lot better than their other albums, albeit with a strange break in 'Mind's Mirrors' and 'In Death Is Death'. I feel these tracks are unnecessary as it breaks up the well established hypnotic vibe, but it does add some dynamic which is fair enough, as this is something I've always criticised of Meshuggah.

Nevertheless, its still an extreme shift of dynamic, which is arguably creating stark contrast, but I always prefer bands who know how to seamlessly switch between the two, varying dynamic and tempo with more natural sounding fluctuations. Meshuggah seem to start and stop here, making you wait for ages before hitting you in the face with another sledgehammer. Which could be a good thing I guess - it just seems too much like an afterthought to my ears, something added after the album was written to create some space, rather than an intended cycle written for that very purpose from the beginning.

In a way, this is the only album where I would have liked Meshuggah to carry on with their lack of dynamic all the way through. With its one-big-song feel it would have worked better for me as a massive impact, a great statement of what Meshuggah are and what they do best, all contained in one gigantic explosion of crazy metal.

Thats just me though. The gap does give breathing room which, if I was watching them perform this album live, I would definitely appreciate. I suppose it works better as a continuation of their work rather than a statement, which is the way I would have liked it. But they're not going to make music just for me, so thats fair enough.

Perhaps the gaps emphasise the fact that despite its continuous nature, its not just one long song. It does feel more like two or three with the gaps. If I had the band here I'd ask them.

Anyway, this is quite a good Meshuggah album in my opinion, one which I'd probably reach for first if I got in the mood.


Wow, this album opens with a frenzy. The odd metre almost makes you think your record player is skipping. Which is odd when its all on my computer  >_>

Its also got the track "New Millenium Cyanide Christ", which is still my favourite low-budget music video of all time. Watch it here.

The first thing I noticed is that I don't like this guitar sound as much as what I was hearing on Catch 33. Its more gainy and fuzzy, and doesn't quite carry the same impact. I'm trying not to compare albums to albums, this is just my first thought.

You've got to hand it to them - playing these kinds of time signatures takes some coordination and technical expertise. Nevertheless, we all know that technical wizardry does not always equate directly to the best music, but it does help give you an edge. I've always respected Meshuggah because of this mastery over rhythm and metre, there's no doubt that they're fantastic musicians. Especially the drummer.

So, grating guitar tone aside, I'm actually enjoying this album. Amongst the crazily offset time-bending sections, there are moments where it seems to - dare I say it - groove. With such a bleak, dark and metallic outlook on music, Meshuggah seems to be the last place you'd find 'groove'. But its there, hidden away like a treasure only those willing to follow the map will find. It appears and then vanishes just as quickly, making it all the more worthwhile when it does happen. Touche, Meshuggah.

A word on their guitar solos. They seemingly come out of nowhere and fly around the fretboard in a flurry of atonal frenzy - hardly an emotionally-driven BB King solo, but this is heavy metal, where speed and notes-per-second rule the roost when it comes to lead breaks, so in that sense it fits. I can't help but feel that they're just filling up some space with a quick noodle, but in a sense I feel Meshuggah is all about the riffs so the lack of emphasis on a solo seems to work well in the context. Some are better than others, some are more tastefully implemented, but against the backdrop of crushing, downtuned riffs in strange time signatures, its hard for them to have any power of their own.

Also a word on the vocalist. I've always thought of him as unnecessary - a frontman for the sake of having a frontman. In essence, he's just yelling disjointedly over the most hard-to-follow backing track; of course, what else can he do? There's no real harmonic rhythm for melody, and its hard to follow this many different rhythms. So he's doing as well as he can - I just personally feel that its still a little unnecessary. I think Meshuggah would still be as interesting to listen to without him, but he does add that human element - in pure rage form too - which gives that wider appeal, and is vital for an engaging live show. So I don't know. He works but then again he doesn't. Its hard for a vocalist to find a place to fit within such a strange musical outfit.

Overall, this album still delivers the same Meshuggah, but in a way is more the crushing statement that I thought Catch 33 was going to turn out to be. Despite not being one long song, its got more of an impact and definitely packs a higher powered punch as a collective piece. Its definitely surprised me.

Contradictions Collapse/None

I've got this as a single album, but I hear that its a release of the first album and an EP combined onto one album. As I've never seen the box for either I don't know where one finishes and the other starts, so I'm just going to review it as if it were an album in itself.

This is certainly different. Theres a lot more 4/4, and we don't have the ridiculous low tuning. Of course, that all came later - this is the first album. I'm actually hearing a lot of old school Metallica influence here, which was unexpected.

Since Meshuggah were always "ridiculous low tuning and crazy time signatures" to me, I never really gave this album a dedicated listen before. There are elements of the time modulation which comes in on their other albums, but the guitars are nowhere near the downtuned bass-guitar territory of their other work. All in all, it sounds and feels like a classic metal album; if someone played this album as your first impression of Meshuggah, you'd probably get the wrong idea. Whilst you can hear where they're going to go once they discover the wonders of downtuning way too far, its still very, very different. Plus, you can hear the bass guitar!

I'm overcome with a sense of nostalgia; its been years since I've listened to metal from this era and style, when Metallica were my favourite band in the whole word and Master of Puppets was an album of pure brilliance. I'm trying to avoid mentioning Metallica too much, but this album is really reminding me a lot of the pre-black-album era Metallica, albeit a lot more technical. The vocals and the guitar solos definitely fit a lot better into this style of metal.

As the album progresses, it opens up a lot more and gets darker and more technical. So its not Metallica all the way through, in case I implied that it is. This is definitely still Meshuggah, just a slightly different one.

This isn't necessarily Meshuggah at their best, but I don't feel like its Meshuggah at their worst either. Its certainly a sidestep from the Meshuggah we know today, but in its own right its not the worst metal album I've ever heard. You can definitely tell that its got some intelligence behind it, but instead of having the time modulations as the main feature of their music, its more of a sideshow, a sectional display of technicality which adds some flair to the songs but isn't the core mechanic. To me, this is a more accessible presentation of time modulation, since it allows the song to still be a song unto itself and not let technicality get in the way. However, Meshuggah's later material managed to take technicality as a core mechanic and still sell records and have a legion of dedicated fans, so I'm not going to argue with that.

Ah, I originally said I couldn't tell where Contradictions Collapse ended and None began, but its just hit me as I was typing away. Its a definite shift in the familiar Meshuggah direction, and fits quite nicely onto the end of Contradictions Collapse. Its not as full-on as some of the more recent Meshuggah, but still has more of the technicality and heaviness that appears later on. Its almost a transition from old to new, the vocals still retain a hint of the melody from Contradictions, but with all the aggression that is a staple of his current vocal style.

I wouldn't grab Contradictions Collapse as a pinnacle of Meshuggah's legacy, but its always interesting to hear 'the early years' and as I said, its a nice sidestep from the usual Meshuggah sound. Worth a listen.

None, despite its brevity, is still a strong EP. It still sounds different from most other Meshuggah I knew, but is an enjoyable listen. I'm quite impressed.

Destroy Erase Improve

 After a 5 minute break, a sandwich and a drink I return to Destroy Erase Improve. Like Chaosphere, the opening track is a belter of insanity, a frenzy of high speed brutality. This band sure know how to open an album with a bang.

The next track 'Beneath' begins with what I thought was going to be another long quiet bit, but it turned out to be an intro. Well implemented, perhaps they have a better grasp of dynamic than I previously thought.

This album feels a lot faster and more energetic, and also more melodic. For some reason I always heard Meshuggah as an atonal mess of heavy metal, but as with the groove in Chaosphere, it seems that there is melody and harmonic rhythm to be found if you persevere with it.

I'm starting to think that this is where I slipped up on my previous view of Meshuggah. They do have elements which really work and make plenty of sense, but they are well hidden; while this is rewarding when you find it and hear it, making it hard to access is a risky decision. It encourages detailed listening, but at the same time its important to remember that not everybody sits and listens as intently as I am doing now. Its all too common an occurence that somebody will switch songs just before it gets to 'the good part'. Hands up if you've ever played a song to somebody and they've lost interest and switched tracks right before the best part.

That said, "accessible" is never a word to be associated with Meshuggah. You have to like this kind of music, and you have to want to listen to it, otherwise it'll just fly straight past you. Whilst I appreciate technicality, my tastes have changed and for me a good song with a great melody will trump anything fashioned with the greatest technical intent. As this album is showing me, Meshuggah aren't completely separated from the melodic camp, but it is still secondary to their dedication to complex rhythms and intelligent heavy riffs. Its harder for someone like me to fully appreciate a band when the aspects of music which I love the most are hidden under something which I don't personally hold in such high regard - clearly Meshuggah's music is more for people who are otherwise inclined.

Then out of the blue, Acrid Placidity appears. I thought I was listening to Satriani for a fleeting moment. Gorgeous chords and textures and a well placed solo - this is definitely not like their other quiet bits. Its not boring, it doesn't drag. Its a small moment of beauty, a colourful butterfly which is quickly crushed by the military-issue boot of the next track. As quickly as I was taken aback by this small window into a lighter side of Meshuggah, I was thrust back into the maelstrom.

Very well implemented - I have underestimated this band. Its hidden away in the middle of the album, but when you get there its definitely worth the journey. As much as I'm tempted to suggest skipping to this track, the impact it has wouldn't be anywhere near as much as it is in the middle of a Meshuggah album. Its a well written transition, which is thought out in its design and excecuted with nothing less than the ferocity which this album throws at you.

Overall, this album is more a salvoe of flaming crossbow bolts than a sledgehammer. Its deadly and packs a serious punch, but its also very fast. Sometimes it'll soar up in the air and you'll wonder where it went, before it slams down through your skull faster than you can say "golly". A pleasant surprise, and not what I was expecting at all.


Here is where its at - a single 21 minute long track.

The intro is very long, but it boggles the mind when you imagine what this must look like written out on a score. Then it explodes...literally. If you bottled up the A-bomb and unleashed it through speakers, It would probably sound like the first couple of minutes of I.

We're back into the incredibly low-tuned guitar territory, and whilst I've never been particularly fond of the 'gow gow gow' of the low string, Meshuggah have taken it unto themselves to define the sound of a guitar tuned this low. In my experience, its hard to tune this low and not start trying to emulate Meshuggah.

Anyway, back to the album, or EP. Whatever it is, its crazy. It moves from complex riffs to explosions to frenetic speed and back again, mixing up all three elements in a blender and concocting a Falcon-Punch milkshake with the results.

 Then it stops suddenly. Some strangely tuned strings are plucked. None of them seem to be in tandem with each other. You take a few breaths and try to figure out what's coming next. Then you suddenly realise you're still only halfway through your Falcon-Punch milkshake, and its not finished.

It jumps back at your ears, almost mocking you, punishing you for trying to enjoy that brief moment of quiet. You thought the brutality was finished? Meshuggah is never finished. The groove is back, somebody is routinely booting you to the chest in time with the downbeat and you feel your whole body shaking. Its infectious, but after a while it seems to stop. Another breather?

Not on your life. The boot stomping has just switched to becoming irregular, Meshuggah are still here, kicking your ass, just in odd time again. They give you another spot to breathe, but they won't let you. It's relentless in Meshuggah's usual relentless fashion. Its intense and complex and punishing, but you can't stop listening.

Another calmer section, except this time the guitar keeps pounding to remind you not to fall asleep. The clean interlude promises more, and this time you sit in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the next bit of aural punishment. Its like dirty S&M for the ears, except you love it.

It comes back in, but not in the same gut wrenching frenzy as before. They're finally letting you calm down and catch your breath, slowly easing you back into the next section. Its an apocalyptic atmosphere which pervades this entire track, one of autonomy and darkness. You almost feel like one of those imprisoned people from the Matrix, a little bitch in comparison to the machine army sucking the life from you. Its dark and foreboding, its eerie and warlike, its immersive and hypnotic.

Now I know why I never held Meshuggah in high regard. I never listened to I enough.

This is immersion at its best, the extreme of hypnotic and punishing music, a ritual flogging administered via headphones. This must be heard through headphones. This is what Meshuggah is about, this is the statement which I thought Catch 33 and Chaosphere were going to embody.

There is one downside to I. Its not long enough. I suddenly want more.


The opening track feels twitchy. Not as strong as the opening tracks I loved on the other albums. In a sense, this was the kind of track which I never really liked with Meshuggah, especially when the vocalist is stuck accenting the guitar accents. It just feels...twitchy. Not as flowing or heavy as their other offerings.

The guitar sound is very grating as well. Its very in-your-face. I'm not liking it all that much; for all its low tuning, its very bright and trebly.

Despite these niggles, the album is still heavy (as expected) and has more of that groove which I loved so much from Chaosphere. Whilst I describe a lot of the Meshuggah groove as being akin to a sledgehammer, this album seems to hold to that the strongest out of what I've heard. Its similar to Chaosphere in its relentless heaviness, but is more polished, refined and with some extra grit added for good measure. Despite my aversion to the guitar sound, it is without doubt a useful element in the aggression which this album is pumping forth.

Whilst "I" felt like I was being punished, 'Nothing' makes me want to go out punching things. Or lift weights. Or crush beer cans in my fists. I'm too weedy to do any of those things in real life, but if I could, I'd do them whilst listening to 'Nothing'. Some sections of it feel like a Titan stomping the shit out of the earth.

Listening to Meshuggah all day seems to have desensitised me to the repetitive nature of their music. In all honesty, its still some of the most monotonous and repetitive music I've ever heard. But I understand now that its probably meant to be that way. Where other albums had their breathing spots and moments to reflect, Nothing is pulling out all the stops. There's a gap between songs, but that's not for you to breathe in - that's for Meshuggah to breathe.

I mentioned earlier that Meshuggah can sometimes be hypnotic; this is certainly true of Nothing. Except that with the offset nature of their rhythm, its the weirdest trance you'll ever find yourself in. You can't put your listeners in a trance unless you have some repetition.

Despite its relentless aggression though, I can't help but feel a little claustrophobic. The wall of sound is really up in your face, but it lasts longer and is even more relentless than before. Whilst "I" was enveloping and immersive, it moved and progressed and pulsated like a living being, whereas Nothing is more like the trash compactor in Star Wars Ep IV: A New Hope. Except without the weird eye thing. Or maybe with. Who knows.

My point being that whilst the souped-up aggression was exciting at the start, it begins to wear thin as the album progresses. They're grooving and they've got the crazy time signatures as usual, but there's nothing really here that makes it stand out, apart from the relentlessness of it, which for me is becoming more of a hindrance than a selling point.

That said, 'Straws Pulled At Random' does lean towards that beautiful dynamic pull that 'Acrid Placidity' had, but is still more a subtle hint than a shift, and once its done its straight back into the meat grinder.

Once you make it through the relentless assault, the last track treats you to that breathing point you always wanted. Its odd that this is at the end of the album, but then again it doesn't last long before the distortion comes back in for one final skirmish with the ears. Its like the point where the trash compactor stops and Luke Skywalker and company escape, except in Meshuggah's version somebody drops a grenade in there before they get out.

Overall, I didn't find this album as interesting as the others. It definitely has its own defining characteristic in its neverending crushing of the eardrums, but it has to be said that Meshuggah already does this so well that we don't really need an hour-long reminder of this fact. I wouldn't say its a bad album, its just not their most interesting for me.


 I seem to be consistently enthralled with Meshuggah's choices of opening tracks, and Obzen is no slouch. Its almost contemporary, which is a really dirty word to be using around Meshuggah. Its different in a nice way, and certainly draws you in eager to hear more of their most recent offering.

Then there's Bleed, the ultimate in displays of technical stamina and prowess (and also a great track to mix with Lady Gaga).

What I'm liking in particular about this album is how each track seems to offer something new. There's still no doubt as to who's playing each track, but there's a more interesting variation from track to track. There's a much more fluid dynamic at work, the songs flow very well, but its still Meshuggah through and through, heavy and experimental, time signatures be damned. This is a Meshuggah I could listen to more.

Its a very well balanced album overall. The riffs are a lot more melodic, some sound like they're actually saying something rather than being a garbled mess of very low notes, they groove along with the ever changing metre but still never let up on the Meshuggah signature heaviness. The quiet sections don't drag on too long, and actually flow very well into the next part of the song. There's little pieces from here and there which add a bit of variety to each new track, elements we've maybe heard before on another album as well as elements we've never heard before. There's the mid tempo grooves, the slow stomps, the thrashy paced snare-led sections. There's a little bit of everything here, despite it still being undoubtedly a Meshuggah record, through and through.

Most bands reach a point in their careers where they "mature", but usually this means "selling out". In Meshuggah's case, they've definitely matured, but haven't lost any part of what makes them such a unique band. Its stil there in spades, they're just using years of experience with writing songs and experimenting, which culminates in this neat little package called ObZen.

Yeah, I kinda like this album.

So...closing thoughts

I'm honestly surprised. I went into this thinking that I'd come out with the same opinion of Meshuggah, just with a more thorough understanding of their music. Whilst some of the things I disliked still remain, I've discovered a whole lot of interesting things that I didn't hear before, a lot of which I liked.

Its been a very enjoyable experience, immersing myself in a single band and hearing everything they've ever done (I hope to god I didn't miss anything...). So will I be listening to Meshuggah a lot more in my regular listening habits? Probably not. I'll carry on listening to whatever I feel like listening, and I don't often feel like listening to Meshuggah. But every so often, when I'm scrolling through my library, I might stop the bar at Meshuggah and have a dabble, instead of just blindly scrolling past.

Especially "I". Thats a definite trip for the headphones, I'm eager to give that one another listen with my HD600s.

I hope you enjoyed this (very lengthy) review! If you love Meshuggah, keep loving them ;)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions on Meshuggah too, feel free to leave a comment!


1 comment:

  1. mighty impressive reviews vin, really managed to capture the good and bad points about meshuggah.

    I've gotta say, you definitely need to watch alive, just to see how impressive they are live as well, I'll burn you a copy if you like :P

    You should consider doing album reviews professionally, you've definitely got a talent

    again thanks for the read :)