Meshuggah — obZen

7 05 2007

Many thanks to Sasha Koegler who sent in a great review of Meshuggah’s latest called obZen. I must admit that even though I am no fan of dark or heavy stuff, the review has certainly made me want to give them a listen. Enjoy!

Megha xx

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meshuggah.jpg

Imagine that, in the interest of challenging his creative capacities, a man locked himself in a box with a set of tools. Amongst the collection of tools there are many capable of penetrating the box and thus permitting the man to walk free. His goal, however, is not to break out. It is much the opposite in fact. This man intends to remain within his restrictive self-imposed confines, but always will he be experimenting with different means by which to place himself as close to the world outside of the box as possible.

It is such a challenge which Meshuggah have imposed upon themselves musically. For 20 years Meshuggah have been toying with a slew of approaches by which they can push on, slam into and manipulate the floor, walls, and ceiling of their contextually restrictive musical cage. It is truly an unparalleled experience to behold anything this band has composed, but one cannot fully appreciate the depth of the abstract concepts this band employs until one has come to terms with the fact that Meshuggah will never leave the framework within which they have confined themselves.

Unlike their previous two releases, Catch Thirtythr33 and I, concept albums which sought to explore growth through repetition, obZen consists of nine distinct tracks, each comprised of numerous memorable riffs and some instantly unforgettable lead guitar work, one of the sources of Meshuggah’s distinctly atmospheric sound.

All the sludgy, droning, dissonant guitar riffs that a Meshuggah listener would expect are present on the album, yet with exceptionally crisp production, a trait which developed significantly with Catch Thirtythr33 and the partially re-recorded and re-released version of Nothing (on which the band utilized their custom built 8-string guitars).

The heightened production values adorn Meshuggah with a transparent clarity, pleasantly revealing the layers of their complexity. Every instrument is individually distinguishable, and the listener comes to perceive Meshuggah as the oxymoronic mechanical organism that they are, constantly weaving in and out of themselves, but always securely and with purpose.

Of the countless engaging concepts Meshuggah employs throughout obZen, it is a challenge to find even one which has not been nurtured thoughtfully and then logically retired once it has served its purpose. This is a refreshing step away from the arguably redundant repetition sometimes prevalent on catch thirtythr33, and Meshuggah demonstrate that though they are confined to a rigid framework, they still have plenty of colors left with which to paint their walls.

That said, the familiar slow drone of indistinguishable chords through verse sections, as well as the customary use of guitars operating out of sync with more (but not much more) straightforward drum and vocal patterns, are prevalent throughout the album. The return of such commonplace techniques is not unwelcome, however, as they are thoughtfully crafted and employed with a vibrant and assertive tenacity, always pushing into thematically consistent but uncharted territory.

Without a doubt, one of the most pleasant surprises that obZen manifests is its impeccably timed transitions from one rhythmic or atmospheric idea to another.

Implemented throughout the album are versatile arrays of concepts which are likely to leave any fan of Meshuggah deeply satisfied. Without sacrificing their rigid boundaries these Swedes have managed to create nine distinct but cohesive tracks which thrive with life. Each track blossoms into a colorful and versatile series of polyrhythmic portraits of sound, striving always to present the listener with fresh ideas but never deviating from the bio-mechanical paranoia which characterizes this band’s music.

Every song weaves together like a complexly balanced organism comprised of mechanical parts, and this monstrous melding of biology with mechanism both unsettles and intrigues.

Meshuggah’s slow drones are both sublime and threatening, obscuring the air with apprehension, while the faster and more complex riffs are consistently piercing in their abrasive purposefulness. The lead guitar parts on obZen are approached from countless angles. There are deceptively simple leads such as the one at 2:20 in Electric Red, which resonate slowly and subtly over a rhythmically complex chugging drone, creating a justified apprehension for what is to come.

Meshuggah possess a distinguished ability to lull a listener into a specific state of expectancy, creating an atmosphere that serves as the foundation for whatever abstract concept is to follow. At 4:12 in Bleed, a lone guitar, reminiscent of that in catch thirtythr33’s Mind’s Mirrors, opens a void out of which life comes spilling 33 seconds later. At this point Fredrik Thordendal sets free a guitar solo which flows fearlessly and purposefully through the obstacles provided by a palm muted chugging and a lonesome lead pattern which dances artfully through the chaos.

Successfully, Meshuggah have employed a restrictive use of clean guitar parts as well, adding to their dynamic range while always retaining the unique intensity by which they are characterized. Twenty-nine seconds into Pravus, a riff reminiscent of Perfect Drug era Nine Inch Nails sets the tone for one of the most vicious onslaughts Meshuggah has ever put forth. Combustion, the first track on the album, opens with a riff reminiscent of Tool and then shifts in and out of what can only be described as thrash metal filtered through the Meshuggah maze. But diehards needn’t fear. Meshuggah may be painting with a larger array of colors but the canvass is still the same.

It is worth noting that Tomas Haake has forsaken his programmed drums, returning to a natural and organic approach with obZen. While the computer charted percussion of catch thirtythr33 was a unique experiment which emphasized Meshuggah’s mechanistic sound, Haake here demonstrates the superfluousness of digital precision by providing a consistent and flawless performance with his hands and feet.

His relentless percussive attacks instill images of mechanization while acting as the foundation for chugging riffs, but also wander with a confident freedom through the web of sounds which this five-piece is constantly weaving. It becomes apparent in tracks such as Pineal Gland Optics, that there is no one instrument which acts as the foundation of Meshuggah’s sound. It is their ability to piece together a musical puzzle with constantly morphing pieces that allows them to establish an intricate coherency, and every piece of instrumentation acts to both stabilize and simultaniously confound the whole.

Jens Kidman’s vocals can be easily overlooked when one is focussed on the unique complexity of the instrumental arrangements, but once acknowledged, they will not be forgotten. His percussive assault is extraordinarily raw and yet feels refined as it blisters with unsettling confidence. Rather than stand out above the instruments, however, it instead holds its integral place in the web of sounds through which it is constantly navigating.

Kidman’s vocals often, but by no means always, remain in time with the percussion, and one will regularly find oneself absorbed by the rhythmic patterns produced by mouth and drum. This paves the way for a unique dissociative effect that occurs when the listener suddenly recognizes that the droning guitars, which seem to be supporting Kidman’s intimidating vocals are, in actuality, travelling along an entirely different course. These divergent paths brought to light, one will naturally try to follow them simultaneously, only to discover that merely one path can be given a listener’s full attention through the course of any of these perplexing segments.

This is the beauty of Meshuggah, and Kidman’s ability to wail relentlessly through a devastating maze of instrumentation makes the experience all the more exciting. There is not a split second at which his integrity as a vocalist can be questioned, and at moments such as 1:12 in Pravus, Kidman’s piercing screams are exceptionally ferocious, tearing through the droning guitars as a wolves teeth would tear through raw meat.


This track also showcases some of the most fabulous bass guitar work on the album, Dick Lövgren’s rich tones reverberating in a manner reminiscent of Primus, but in a darker and more sophisticated context. Lövgren and Mårten Hagström (rhythm guitar), together, create some of the sludgiest sounds heavy metal has ever heard, and it is a craft which they have perfected on obZen. While bands such as Gojira and Mastodon, have experimented with droning and sludgy tones and techniques, Meshuggah have mastered this art, essentially creating an instrumental language of their own.

Listening to obZen, it is difficult to imagine that these musicians know any other way of approaching their instruments. They are one of the true innovators of heavy music, who, rather than mimic and replicate current trends, have sought for decades to produce a distinct sound to call their own, and with obZen, it has been mastered. Scene kids and trend followers may be turned off by this band’s narrow focus, as while popular trends in metal currently lean toward cramming as many ideas into as little space as possible, Meshuggah retain a narrow focus and develop ideas thoroughly within their narrow confines. Those willing to recognize the skill necessary to craft such diverse songs within a restrictive context, however, are in for a treat, as each song that is put forth on obZen is ripe with ambitious life and atmosphere. It is albums such as this which help to define the line which separates mere music from art.

Note to long time fans: The Spiteful Snake 3:16

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7 responses

12 02 2008
Meni

Thanks for posting the review, I cannot wait for the new album from the greatest band in the world.

12 02 2008
Robert

Thank you. You are the first person to give this album a proper review. It may be my favorite Meshuggah CD, even beating out Chaosphere.

I read one review that said that they had abandoned their prior poly-rhythmic work. I beg to differ. A lot of the syncope that they do seems to have been reworked to not sound so obvious (much of it has switched from guitars to vocals, which is not quite as noticeable).

That’s the major theme I got from this album. The best stuff is buried in subtlety that you won’t notice if you’re looking for Chaosphere II. The riffs are incredibly discordant and have pieces here and there that throw the rhythms off from overly repetitive patterns, but they all have a strong direction.

Of course, if you’ve never before heard Meshuggah’s music, you’ll find it hard to believe anyone called it subtle. You may want to invest in some kind of helmet…

4 03 2008
jamie

Meshuggah is one of the most fascinating rock bands ever, and I’m glad to FINALLY read a worthy analysis of their work. Even insightful reviewers generally focus so much on how brutal and “chaotic” their music is that they miss the far more subtle and meditative effects that their rhythmic displacements create. Those rotating time signatures (….and who the hell else uses rotating time signatures anyway?) they use can really hypnotize you if you give them half a chance.

I also appreciate your discussion of the self imposed limits the band has created for itself. The metaphor I like to use is to describe it is visual…it’s like they are painters who only use different textures and thicknesses of black paint. Or sculptors who just use white cubes….their’s really a hell of a lot you could do with just black paint or white cubes if you put your mind to it….

I’m listening to the album on the band’s myspace page as I’m typing. I’ve been listening to it all night, and I’ll probably listen to it all night tomorrow night too. Right now I think it’s their all time best record. They’ve managed to shape all the experimenting they’ve been up to into more accessible, shorter compositions. It’s as interesting as Catch 33 or I, but it’s not such a chore to listen to. Those records were rewarding, worthwhile chores, but they did test one’s patience.

But yeah, newbies might want to get a helmet….this is one of the heaviest bands ever. Detuned, eight-stringed guitars, dude. It feels like getting punched in the back of the head….oh bliss……

4 03 2008
Robin

Good review. I’ve seen some utter crap written about this record. It’s pretty much where I reckoned Meshuggah had to go after considering their previous 3 releases, but the end result is brilliant. I and catch 33 were sort of reflections of each other or two stylistic extremes within Meshuggah – Meshuggah in two completely different places and the opposing elements have been brought together pretty neatly, in my opinion, and then some, in some kind of patterned anti-matter explosion or whatever. The new album is brilliant, anyway.

6 04 2008
Emmet

Excellent review. I really think you got it spot on! Every member of that band is a ridiculous freak and they should be punished one and all!!!!! AAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!

10 04 2008
Rob

Yeah I agree, excellent review!
I bought the album the day it was in stores and I have played it everyday since. A funny thing about this record is that the first time I listened to it I thought that it was great but I didn’t thought it was going to grow and open up like Meshuggha’s other albums did with repeated listening. Just after I had listened to it the first time I thought: Ok this is awesome stuff, but it is what it is. I felt dissapointed because of that notion and it felt less fun to play it again even if I was going to play it again. Sounds strange perhaps.
As of now ObZen is unfolding like some secret map of dark philosophical entries. It’s funny how much it blossoms with repeated listenings. I wonder where this shugga album will take me…

13 06 2008
the of 7 equal very yes

uhh…just wondering…isn’t that a picture of the original “Sunn o)))” members you have at the top of the page?

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