Meshuggah need little introduction. Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable to say that at this point in time, shades of the Swedish five-piece’s work permeate the vast majority of modern metal acts in some way or another. The band’s complete and utter disregard for the traditional rhythmic playbook and unwavering focus in writing their own rulebook has rightfully earned them a reputation as one of the most (if not the most) influential bands in progressive metal history: and over two-and-a-half decades after their inception, they are showing no signs of slowing down.
On the occasion of their aptly titled recent box set announcement, I’m joined in today’s Half Life by fellow Heavy Blog staffer Kit Brown, as we traverse through some select moments in the band’s illustrious discography in an effort to contextualize some of the more significant instances of their ongoing sonic evolution.
Ahmed Hasan: None is not Meshuggah’s first release, having been preceded by the Psykisk Testbild EP and debut album Contradictions Collapse. But it’s the one where the band finally shed their heavy Metallica influence and began to display signs of the heavily rhythmic sound that would come to define who they would eventually become. Vocalist Jens Kidman’s voice is still more reminiscent of James Hetfield’s delivery than the robotic bark that would later become his signature, but the rhythmic trickery and heavily palm-mute low end-intensive riffs are present in spades. And then there’s “Aztec Two-Step” which remains one of the heaviest songs the band has possibly ever written. But the best was only yet to come.
Destroy Erase Improve
AH: Despite what the 1995 release’s title may imply, Meshuggah did not destroy nor erase the sound they had at the time: but improve it they did, and quite substantially at that. As soon as the razor sharp assault of opener and instant classic “Future Breed Machine” kicks in, Destroy Erase Improve’s changes to the Meshuggah sound are immediately apparent. Indeed, the album launches itself off the new sound the band began to establish on None, in being that much heavier yet more intricate than any of its predecessors. DEI is arguably where the core Meshuggah sound finally locked itself into place, from Tomas Haake’s dizzying polyrhythmic drumming to Fredrik Thordendal’s inimitable command of improvised solos over Marten Hagstrom’s rhythm guitar wizardry. (And — last but certainly not least — Kidman’s vocal delivery finally stopped sounding exactly like James Hetfield’s!)
Kit Brown: Now that the band had strayed further away from their thrash metal roots and concentrated more on pummeling grooves, Meshuggah essentially took the formula and style from DEI and turned things up to 11 with 1998’s Chaosphere. This album, while only eight tracks, is an exhausting endeavor that’s filled with some of the fastest, techiest, and most crushing material that the band has ever put out. While fans of the band the world over know the classic banger “New Millennium Cyanide Christ,” this album is chock-full of completely underrated and almost forgotten moments. Honestly, every metalcore band in existence should probably be paying royalties to the ‘Shug for their pioneering breakdown in “Corridor of Chameleons.” And who could forget the terrifying atmosphere created during “The Exquisite Machinery of Torture” that would come to be replicated in future Meshuggah tunes and Thordendal’s solo material? Plus, the end of the album is the most terrifying moment in the band’s history, straying into complete noise territory. Chaosphere is essential as fuck, make no mistake.
KB: So this is it, boys and girls. This is where the entire modern metal style of today started. Literally no other band in 2002 was venturing this low, grooving this hard, and experimenting with polymetric grooves all at the same time. Nothing has been basically the entire blueprint for the djent movement of today, and it’s also still the crowning achievement of the style. While numerous other bands have been undeniably influenced by the head-bobbing riffs of tracks like “Stengah” and “Straws Pulled at Random,” no other group in metal has even come close to matching this level of quality, consistency, and innovation. Plus, this was the first Meshuggah record in which the band tuned their guitars all the way down to F-standard, a tuning that was once preposterously low but is now almost the standard for a lot of their prog metal peers. We could go on about how much of an utter fucking classic Nothing is, but we’ll spare you. Just buy it. And if you already have it, spin it again. You can never have enough of this album.
AH: After basically reinventing the wheel perhaps a decade too soon with Nothing, Meshuggah apparently figured that resting on their well-deserved laurels was something they didn’t really feel like doing, opting instead to wade further into more experimental waters. And so the I EP, an ‘experiment’ that consisted of a single 21-minute track covering all the hallmarks of their sound till that point, was soon unleashed to the world. Yet Meshuggah decided to do what Meshuggah do and take that concept one step further: Catch 33, in turn, is a single 47 (!) minute musical piece, which admittedly begins on somewhat awkward footing before — come “Mind’s Mirrors” — turning into what is perhaps one of the most intense listening experiences put to tape. “Shed” remains one of the most haunting and atmospheric songs the band has ever written, while “Dehumanization” and “Sum” together provide a monstrously explosive climax to an already crushing album. But that’s not to say the grooves are somehow less present — the 14-minute centrepiece that is “In Death — Is Death” brings them in spades, and is notable for almost always being the closing song for their live set since the album’s release. It bears mentioning that aside from being the band’s most experimental album release, Catch 33 is also notable for being the first major album of its kind to use programmed drums, wherein drummer Tomas Haake’s drumkit was sampled in order to record the drumlines on the album: a practice now almost too ubiquitous in modern progressive metal, a decade later.
AH: And this is where it all came together. 2008’s Obzen, released after what was then the band’s longest gap between albums, was where Meshuggah firmly established themselves as the monolithic entity they had always been leading up to. In short, Obzen combined the experimentation and slow-burning grooves of its predecessors with the uptempo immediacy of their more thrash metal roots as explored on DEI and Chaosphere. While it most prominently featured “Bleed”, whose punishing groove (which drummer Tomas Haake has said was so difficult to master that he has never stopped playing it live, lest he ends up having to re-train for it) has since made it their signature track, the album runs the gamut from Meshuggah at their most experimental (the legendary 9-minute closer “Dancers to a Discordant System”) to their most heavy (“Pravus”, “obZen”). While most fans seem to pick their favourites from Obzen’s predecessors, it’s not unreasonable to say that should one have to pick from Meshuggah’s existing discography, the 2008 release is truly their career-defining album. Most importantly, it speaks to the band’s enduring talent that they were even capable of releasing something of Obzen’s caliber on their sixth outing.
KB: While Obzen was one of the band’s most musically-dense records ever, Koloss saw the band returning to what they are now undeniably linked to: dat groove, son. Koloss might not be anywhere near the band’s most ambitious or groundbreaking piece of work, but it’s also one of their most consistent. We are living in the age of Meshuggah, the band that is essentially our generation’s Slayer when it comes to influence and sheer brutality. The band doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone; they’ve been doing that for over two decades now. Instead, Koloss is just a killer batch of songs that are all almost perfectly set for a live setting, the place where the band truly shines. Plus, if you don’t think “Break These Bones…” has one of the heaviest main riffs of all time, you just aren’t listening hard enough. Take the band’s word for it, and do not look down. That’s Meshuggah’s job.
As we wind this piece down to a close, Meshuggah are preparing to release their latest album sometime this year, with only teasers to tide us fans over at the time of writing. But this is a band that has held tightly onto their throne even through the rise of countless imitators within the entire subgenres they have spawned, and given their history, the legends seem poised to once again leave all competition in the dust.