It’s very well known that every band you enjoy has songs that define them. These songs may not necessarily be their best, but they are the most essential when trying to understand where they came from, and how they got to where they are now. This is the idea of “8-Track.” In case you missed our first installment featuring Dream Theater, here’s the basic premise, in a nutshell: We choose a band that we know has a storied history, and identify the eight songs that define their strengths as a band, musically, lyrically, and conceptually. This is not merely a “Favorite Songs of (Insert Band Here)” list, though for some writers, there will be overlap with the two. This list is meant to show anyone discovering the band songs that really speak volumes of how they are as a band, and songs that are essential to their development and evolution as a band. With that being said, let’s get to talking about Meshuggah!
MESHUGGAH. This band is so massive, so influential, so god damn huge, that the capitals are almost obligatory. These guys don’t only have their own sound that’s completely inimitable, but they’ve also been consistently producing it for almost 30 years. That’s right, Meshuggah has been one of the heaviest bands around since the early 90’s, stretching the technical boundaries of what’s heavy, what’s groovy and what’s sane. Their infuriating blend of deceptive simplicity, hiding untold complexities beneath it, is only equal to their subject matter: robotic limbs snap, bodily fluids flow over terminal banks and the psychic landscape contorts.
Take a dive below into the discography of one of the most influential bands around. There will be no “maturing”, there will be no “experiments”. Only the abyssal sounds of the churning deeps, the visceral permutations of syncopated drums and the unstopping waves of guitar madness. Turn those speakers up, max out that bass and prepare for the band who has spawned a whole genre from between their twisted loins. This is MESHUGGAH.
“Cadaverous Mastication” – Contradictions Collapse 
It’s a bit odd to me that for most fans of the band, their adulation begins with Destroy. Erase. Improve. After all, that was the band’s second studio record and came after a few EP releases as well. The band really began to explore their sounds on Contradictions Collapse, but it still sounds way different than today’s version of the band. This studio record was the first full length and began to explore some new territory, such as odd time signature and beginning the signature guitar sounds of Fredrik Thordendal. The most interesting thing, however, is the band’s obvious affinity for thrash and death metal, as there are some songs that have tons of thrash inspired riffs. “Cadaverous Mastication” is the epitome of this album, and features some of the band’s most groovin’, thrashin’ and heavy music. After the short lead section from Frederik, the band break into an Anthrax-inspired groove, and continue to explore thrash further by having some mid-tempo riffing that sounds reminiscent of late-80’s Anthrax, Megadeth, and even a bit of Metallica at times. The song’s prowess lends itself to not only the leads of Thordendal, but also the heavy rhythms played by vocalist Jens Kidman, who had a hand in a lot of the recording and arranging of these songs. Make no mistake that while this is definitely the band’s most different album stylistically, at its core, it’s still the Meshuggah we all know and love.
“New Millenium Cyanide Christ” – Chaosphere 
Aside from maybe “Future Breed Machine” or “Bleed,” no other song perfectly encapsulates the true essence of Meshuggah’s sound quite like their Chaosphere classic, “New Millennium Cyanide Christ.” Now 17 years old, this song still pummels and pulverizes harder than damn near any other bounce-heavy metal song in existence, and does so with an instantly memorable song structure. Despite the main groove of the song being five bars of 23/16 and one bar of 13/16, everything always adds up and resolves so that the listener can easily lose themselves in the technicality without ever being completely overwhelmed by the rhythmic complexity. It’s accessibility is one of the main reasons why it’s become one of their most frequently-played songs live, and it always gets a vicious reaction from the crowd. The end of this song should also probably still be receiving royalties from the hordes of djent and deathcore bands who all realized they should rip off one of the greatest breakdowns ever put on tape. Have you never heard Meshuggah and have no idea what they sound like or where to start? This is the song to cut your teeth on. Plus, it’s also complemented with metal’s ultimate performance video.
“Rational Gaze” – Nothing 
For me, and many other fans, Nothing represents Meshuggah at the absolute height of their powers. Nowhere else is Meshuggah’s fury so well tempered, lending it an astounding ability to explode all it once, seemingly from nowhere. Such is the case with “Rational Gaze”; accompanying some of the best lyrics the band has ever written, the music for most of it creates an unbeatable sense of tension. Utilizing the usual tricks of the trade (syncopated drums, thick bass and more), the first few minutes of “Rational Gaze” are suppressed rage in a can.
But it’s when we arrive at the end of it that we see this track’s true genius: it contains an impossibly massive breakdown. Ushered in by Jens’s monstrous “Never stray from the common line”, the entirety of the pent up energies collected in the beginning of the track simply washes over us in two directions: from outside and from within. It’s impossible not to break out into furious dance, obliterating whatever may stand in your path. “Rational Gaze” is, for me and many other fans, the ultimate example of the bewildering blend of simplicity and complexity that Meshuggah do best.
Straws Pulled At Random – Nothing 
During its initial moments, “Straws Pulled At Random” has all the makings for a standout Meshuggah track. Jarring, mind-bending rhythms housed in mechanical tones and coiled tightly in discordant harmony under Jens’ hypnotic barking. However, it is a bit of a rarity in the Meshuggah discography due to the atmospheric shift halfway through its five minute runtime that sees the band adopting an unusual melodic focus. Only three or four notes chime in repetition, but it’s almost unheard of for Meshuggah to play in this non-chaotic style. To further put weight on “Straws” as one of the most important Meshuggah tracks, Thordendall plays a beautifully harmonic guitar solo that is uncharacteristically emotive and eschews his usual technical and atonal style. This song may well be the prototype from which the djent scene spawned.
“Shed” – Catch Thirtythree 
In a discography filled with untold levels of innovation, Catch ThirtyThree arguably stands out as the most experimental of Meshuggah’s studio albums. It’s not hard to see why: the album, a single, continuous 48-minute suite, balances out the crushing heaviness of Meshuggah’s sound with intricate progressions and unsettlingly well-timed ambient interludes. “Shed” kicks off the final third of the album, and despite being somewhat dissimilar to the vast majority of Catch ThirtyThree, it is easily a standout track amongst not only the album itself but also the band’s discography as a whole. A sinister atmosphere immediately dominates the track after the intro, and the song is then driven forward by a subdued yet constant groove. Jens’ eerie whispered vocals drift across the ambience and tribal drum work; the song gets progressively heavier, hinting at an eventual, distant climax, but knowing to hold back till the time is right. And then the time comes, and you know it’s here; “Shed” strips itself down, takes a sharp intake of breath, and completely explodes outwards. The ambience is scattered and lost; the subtlety replaced in an instant by Meshuggah’s characteristic fury, itself bolstered to new heights by the buildup preceding it. Thus “Shed” leads right into the breakdown of a next track that is “Personae Non Gratae,” perfectly setting the stage for the absolute onslaught that is the rest of Catch ThirtyThree, with the kind of finesse only a band like Meshuggah are capable of.
“Bleed” – obZen 
Does “Bleed” need much of an introduction anymore? The instant 7-minute classic practically grabbed the metal world by the throat upon its release, roaring ahead with its now-instantly-recognizable groove coupled with every last bit of Meshuggah’s unchecked fury. The band doesn’t waste a second in getting to work on “Bleed” — the groove immediately locks in, and drummer Tomas Haake’s incredible footwork is absolutely unrelenting from start to finish. (There’s a rumour that the band does not have any plans to ever stop playing the song live since playing it repeatedly on a regular basis is allegedly the only way Haake maintains the physical form to actually play the song) A brief respite comes in the form of a quiet ambient section three quarters of the way through, but then the song comes roaring back into form with one of Fredrik Thordendal’s greatest ever solos on top. “Bleed” is the essence of Meshuggah packed into one monstrously heavy package, and every bit of its lofty reputation is deserved; it remains, arguably, the ultimate Meshuggah song, and is easily the purest expression of their colossal sound.
“Dancers To A Discordant System” – obZen 
Nested in the discography of a band that delivered one influential album after another, obZen is a particularly infamous record even for Meshuggah’s standards – it almost single-handedly paved the way for what would eventually become the djent era we still love (or despise) today. Of course, the album had such a powerful effect on metaldom for good reason: not only is it as much of a classic, true-to-form Meshuggah record as any of their others, it’s also filled to the brim with surprises and leaps in style. The title track, for example, brought back the thrash influence from early albums in a big way, and the epilepsy-inducing “Bleed” remains the band’s most extreme piece in terms of its complexity and heaviness even today.
However, the true highlight of the album does not come until its very end. “Dancers To A Discordant System” displays a meditative quality right from its beginning that persists even as it delves deeper into rage and insanity, aligning perfectly with the album’s cover art in a way that makes it all the more vivid and memorable. It also features some of the band’s finest lyrics yet, with drummer Thomas Haake finding a poetic balance between burning vindictiveness and the bleakest of social commentaries. Jens Kidman augments the lyrics further with a hair-raising vocal performance, starting out with whispers that ultimately explode into a fury of the stone-cold screams that he is so well-known for. It’s this gradual buildup that makes “Dancers To A Discordant System” so effective, yet the aftermath following its climax is even more haunting. Conjuring up images of something like a nuclear fallout, the song slowly fades away as that same riff is battered into your skull time and time again, signaling the end of yet another work of genius by one of metal’s finest.
“Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion” – Koloss 
More than once, in magazine blurbs and message board comments, I’ve heard Meshuggah’s music described as “the sound of giant robots fighting.” While the band’s relentless and repetitive sound does often evoke larger-than-life mechanical imagery, to pigeonhole Meshuggah as purely robotic in nature is selling them short. Often, Meshuggah’s shining moments come when the whirring of the blades and gears ceases and sanguine vitality bubbles to the surface. Part of what separates the band from the legions of imitators they inspired is Jens Kidman’s singularly strange voice. His midrange growl is full of gravel and mucus, never wavering too far in pitch or timbre but effectively offsetting the oceanic depth of the band’s rhythm section. Kidman exudes an ineffable organic quality that helps make Meshuggah endearing in a way that many of their copycats aren’t.
On 2012’s Koloss, the living components of Meshuggah pulsate more audibly than usual, particularly on slower tracks like “Break Those Bones.” The foreboding and sparse intro, in which Fredrik Thordenal’s pick attack pokes through the mix on every note like a squeaky wheel on a grocery cart, lurches thunderously into a plodding, hypnotic death march. The procession of CHUN-ka CHUN-ka’s hits like a series of polyrhythmic shoves and uppercuts, and in typical Meshuggah fashion, the pattern never quite makes itself obvious. The confusing rhythmic antics, however, aren’t enough to bury the track’s undeniable seismic groove. By the time Kidman makes himself known in style – “TREMORS REVERBERATING! FREQUENCY OF DOOM!” – the listener is thoroughly dizzied, sinking helplessly into the sonic bog.
Lyrically, “Break Those Bones “ is an examination of the damaging effects of humanity’s thirst for vengeance. This theme is underscored by the rack’s nauseous riffs and grooves, which constitute a disorienting trek through the musical wringer. It evokes the impression of pain, and conjures as many thoughts of gurgling creatures in the mud as it does the clash of enormous mechanical limbs. Meshuggah’s music leaves a unique impression endemic neither to machine nor man, befitting only themselves: a seminal band whose unique footprint has made an enormous and relentless impact on the evolution of metal.