posted on 3/2008 By:
Few bands active today, if any, polarize the metal community quite like Meshuggah. Throughout the band’s existence, the Swedish outfit has inspired as many adoring fans as vehement, and I mean VEHEMENT detractors. I make no attempt to hide the fact that I love Meshuggah. There was a period of several years where I credited them as my favorite metal band, and while they’ve dropped out of that honorable position in recent times, I still couldn’t name my ten favorite bands without having them somewhere on the list. Every album they’ve released has mutated and progressed the band’s music while simultaneously helping to shape an instantly recognizable, often imitated but never replicated sound that has set Meshuggah far apart from the metal pack. The band’s unusual approach to songwriting and complete disregard for what constitutes “real metal” has earned this band about as much criticism as a legitimate metal band can get, and yet not once have these Swedes ever pandered to the elitist pricks of the metal community in the creation of their art. The band has proved how much they care about outside opinion with each successive album they’ve created, so I’m going to side-step the asinine accusations aimed at Meshuggah regarding lack of musical ability and being a “nu-metal” band (Haha!) and instead direct this review more towards fans of the band or first-time listeners. Because, lets be honest; we all knew before this album even came out that if you’ve never liked this band, nothing on ObZen would do anything to remotely change your mind.
In many ways, ObZen (all cracks about the capitalization wankery aside) feels very much like a summation of all of Meshuggah’s work so far. Don’t get me wrong, this album shows progressions in the outfit’s style like every album before it, but still feels like the most “familiar” work the band has released to date. Elements of the songs can be traced back to each of the band’s benchmark records; you’ll hear the odd-time thrashing of Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere, the crushingly bizarre thundering of Nothing, the mechanical atmospherics of Catch-Thirtythree--its all here in some fashion. This is both a good and bad thing. For fans of the band who loved the I EP but were disappointed with the direction shown on the last two full-lengths, this album could very well be the band’s ticket back into your good graces. Its tempo variation, song-based nature, and trademark machine-like heaviness should delight fans of the Chaosphere-era of the band (its my personal favorite release by them). However, those who have favored the relentless progression of the band’s latest albums may be disappointed by ObZen, as it almost feels like a compilation of unused riffs from various stages of Meshuggah’s career at times.
The album sure does start with a bang. After an eerily Tool-esque off-time clean guitar intro, “Combustion” explodes out of the gate with a noodlier riff and faster drum beat than anything on a full-length by them since Destroy, followed by a classic Meshuggah groove that gets things off to a ferociously head-bangable start. It's clear that the band was trying to immediately sway fans worried about more Nothing with this excellent opening song, so it's kind of confusing that the blinding “Combustion” is followed by a song like “Electric Red.” Lumbering and somewhat clumsy, with dull riffs and an ineffective spoken word passage, this song feels like a Nothing B-side. It's not horrible, but it's underwhelming compared to the track that precedes it, and unfortunately this isn‘t the last underwhelming moment on this album. Luckily, lead single “Bleed” picks things back up. “Bleed” begins with one of the heaviest grooves on the album (if you can‘t rock out to this, you have no ears), then gradually alters the tempo and riff construction throughout the course of the song with brilliant subtlety. This has always been what’s set Meshuggah apart for me; their ability to make small changes to a song that make a larger impact overall, not unlike the best ambient artists. “ObZen” begins with a dark groove and floaty lead section before transitioning into some great angular riffs and then a brutal breakdown at around the 2:00 mark. Definitely one of the best songs on here.
“This Spiteful Snake,” while faltering with more of those Nothing-reject riffs, contains some oddly melodic riff/lead sections that point towards interesting directions for the band. Epic closer “Dancers To A Discordant System” continues this trend in its middle section to great effect, and helps keep that track interesting for its long duration. This melodic sense is further explored in Fredrik Thordendal’s solos. Thordendal’s leads, often brilliant but occasionally aimless in the past, continue to bewilder with their interesting blend of atmospheric simplicity and jazz-like shredding. His smooth, discordant leads on “Pineal Gland Optics” are particularly compelling and save that song from being more dull than it is. Thomas Haake is up to his usual standard of excellence on the drum kit, keeping flawless time and continually challenging the confines of metal drumming--no surprise there. Jens Kidman’s vocals sound…well, exactly the same as they’ve always been. While I’ve always defended his vocals as suitable to the music, even I have to admit that this element of the band’s sound is in desperate need of growth. At least on Catch he experimented a little here and there; on ObZen he retains the same exact tone throughout, and after six albums it's starting to get a little tiresome. Conversely, his voice has become such an iconic part of Meshuggah’s sound that it's damn near impossible to imagine someone taking his place at this point.
So this is a long review, because this band is a big deal. Anything they put out is sure to make tidal waves throughout the metal community and inspire fervent debate between fans and haters. Personally, as a long-time fan who has heard virtually everything this act has put out, I feel somewhat let down by ObZen. None of the songs are bad by any means, but judging by the intensity shown in songs like “Combustion” and “Pineal Gland Optics“ and the promising melodic inclinations found in “This Spiteful Snake” and “Dancers To A Discordant System,” this album could very well have been the next major step in Meshuggah’s progression. Instead, it feels like they kinda went half-way, filling in the gaps with riffs leftover from the Chaosphere and Nothing sessions. Make no mistake, I love those albums for what they are, but following the positively groundbreaking nature of Catch-Thirtythree, ObZen almost feels like a greatest-hits album with new songs (if that makes any sense). At the peak of their success and popularity and with a huge and dedicated fan base, it's time for Meshuggah to move forward, not back. ObZen is a very good album that will surely please any existing fans of the band--it delivers everything we’ve come to expect from these Swedish giants in spades and a little more. But it's hard to shake the feeling that Meshuggah failed to really take advantage of the opportunities they had here.
posted on 3/2008 By:
There’s something oddly troubling about writing about your favorite metal band. For some reason, you feel the need to constantly defend your decisions, like all of the credibility of your argument has been sucked out due to your intense favoritism and bias. So, you’re stuck in a reviewin’ quandary, answering unasked, imaginary attacks with really stupid knee-jerk responses, trying to get the heathens to see the light with braindead, hammer-smash-face obvious terms (Example: “Fuck you, this rawks!” Why? “‘Cause it fuckin‘ does, brah.”). But, as those of who have followed my philosophical crisis over the past year regarding how one should write about music while fully recognizing the subjective, “there ain’t no good/bad” horseshit it entails know, that’s something I just can’t bring myself to do. With that rattlin’ around your noggin, I present you two confessions:
1. I’m a Meshuggah fan-boy until death.
2. This really worries me.
More on the latter in a second. If you’re looking for detailed talk on obZen, look above. I’m right there with Chris with the exception that I like the groovy bits far more than the speedy bits. I agree though, this is a decent entry into Meshuggah’s discography. Yeah, a decent one. Is it still a must buy for fans? Yep. Is it still a good starting place for those that are interested in what the groove-infused stylistic period might hold? Yep. Yet, it’s still just decent in my book. It’s not their best by any means due to a lack of memorable on-the-surface parts (more on this in a second, too) and songwriting growth. What made Catch 33 such an absolute joy--the tongue-in-cheek approach to clever metal molding (sections that last thirty-two seconds, etc.), the Derek Bailey-derived weird licks, the dynamic brilliance and the sublime rise and fall of the album on the whole--have been excised in favor of something that’s still interesting, but lacks the same dramatic flair and eh-who-gives-a-fuck experimentalism of their recent work. Still, it’s Meshuggah, so you know the drill; pleasingly neck-snapping and string-bending riffs sit next to staccato chugs, their unique sense of timing still reigns supreme, and Tomas Haake’s inhuman control still astounds. But, obZen is almost like another Nothing in design rather than sound in that both albums’ overall consistency is their downfall with nothing really reaching above and beyond (This quote from Catch 33 sums up this part of the band's career nicely: "The struggle to free myself of restraints/ Becomes my very shackles.“ Bingo). In a way, it’s almost Meshuggah-by-numbers, something that’ll sate fans, convert a few here and there, and spawn yet another wave of bands that will take what they’ve learned from obZen and apply it to their own music (Meshuggah metal is damn near on its way to becoming its own subgenre as the kids add a bit of poly to their rhythms). But then, there’s the subtle differences, the details, and that’s where we get into confession numero dos.
Quickie tangent: Once upon a time during my more lucid days, I remember reading a discussion on avant-garde classical. Two kids were arguing about its musical merits, particularly whether recorded “real world” sounds, in this case traffic, constituted music. Kid A claimed that it could be music because there was a hidden logic to the chaos which, sadly, is where I fall because I’m a pretentious douche. Kid B, quite justly, claimed that chaos was chaos and, kind of like B.F. Skinner’s pigeons, Kid A falsely found an underlying logic because he so desperately wanted it to be there. And, in a convoluted sort of way, that’s why I worry about being such a diehard Meshuggah fan. I’m worried that I’ve fallen into the trap that captures diehard fans, that I’m desperately looking for the elements I need to continue putting my favorite band on the highest of pedestals.
But, enough about moi (Gang shout: THANK GOD!). obZen, on the surface, makes those elements hard to find. There’s a natural been-there-done-that conformity that accompanies the first listen of any Meshuggah album, like the density of their guitar tone obscures some kind of greater, underlying truth about their music. Nothing changes here. The first listen was a let-down with only the tracks that were a real visceral experience making the grade. “Bleed” is designed to batter and bash and it does exactly that. Meanwhile, tracks like “Pineal Gland Optics” and the fine finisher “Dancers To A Discordant System” take a little longer to enjoy because of their attention to detail. And, really, I derive a lot of my enjoyment from those details. My fanatical love of Meshuggah is based on that very fact, that the details, to me, are what makes them good. Like the brush strokes on a fine work of art or the lighting in an amazing portrait, it’s those details that help bring out the bigger picture. And, honestly, a lot of the time I feel rather lukewarm about the bigger picture. When I pull back from obZen, it just doesn’t interest me that greatly. But, under the microscope, there’s a whole wealth of interesting shit swimming about, morphing, and evolving. To put it simply, there’s a lot of little things going on and, while it might be strange to say, the band’s ideology and history needs to be understood to really squeeze out any sort of meaning or appreciation from the tunes.
Here’s what I mean: While the math analogies are surely overlabored, here’s another: the first couple listens are like trying to decipher a new equation; it’s a terribly frustrating process until it clicks. I know this well because I hated math throughout my young adult life until I sat down with it and really studied not only the equations but why they existed in the first place. And I practiced. A lot. Until it finally clicked. Doing the same with Meshuggah is almost a prerequisite. Knowledge of the way they construct their rhythms seems to make the band click for neophytes. In the same boat, it's also worth knowing why Thordendal’s solos tumble out of the amp in the way they do. That understanding makes their masterful twists and turns that much more incredible. It’s like previous knowledge of Holdsworth and Bailey just increases your appreciation of ’em (Other jazz figures too. I‘m amazed at how freaking hard most of his solos swing. Like, I don‘t know, some mutant Sonny Rollins or something. YES, I HAVE LOST MY MIND). That’s asking for preparation and study though, which makes me sound like a disillusioned Cecil Taylor asking his audience to brush up on theory and ideas of tonality. In the eyes of most, that’s some straight bullshit. I understand that.
But, check it, this is kind of my philosophy on Meshuggah and previous knowledge of details in action: To these lightly trained ears, it sounds like Haake makes this shift in his drumming style during the album‘s second half. It’s like he’s no longer content to accent the downstrokes with his kicks. Instead, he starts hitting those marks with his snare. That’s enough to blow my mind. I’m dead serious. Just that simple shift turned my pants into the Boner Motel: No Vacancies. Will the shift do the same thing to you? I don’t know. Meshuggah has always had that divisive effect on listeners, a true love/hate separation that doesn’t have a middle ground. They’re the classic case of a band that you can’t decide if you like just by reading about them, you have to actually listen to ’em. So, in summation, asking for my critical evaluation of this album is something I don’t feel right about giving up because I really do feel blinded by favoritism and what I enjoy about the band seems so miniscule in the grand scheme of things. Pulling back, I can say that the album is decent and I’ll probably hear better things this year. Yet, I love it, solely because it’s Meshuggah. That’s about as honest as I can be.
Keep in mind these two things, though:
1. I’m a Meshuggah fan-boy until death.
2. This really worries me.
And maybe this third:
3. I’m batshit insane.
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