Most metal bands do not have particularly lengthy discographies; this is fact. Aside from the obvious yet unfortunate reason that being in a metal band generally isn’t the most sustainable career path for a musician, the scene itself is in constant flux, and trends often die as soon as they arise, or, perhaps more frequently, evolve so rapidly that those who can’t keep up simply fall by the wayside. Swedish giants Meshuggah, however, occupy a particularly unique niche within that context: having spawned legions of imitators and even entire subgenres, the band are one of the few that have truly established themselves as being ahead of the curve in their two plus decades of operation. Despite this, they have somehow retained a sense of consistency throughout their numerous releases, staying true to their original goal of taking all sorts of musical deviance — particularly in a rhythmic sense — to all sorts of extremes.
That being said, within the time span between 2008’s obZen and 2012’s Koloss, a particularly significant and now rather infamous shift occurred within the realm of prog metal: namely, an unprecedented amount of ‘djent’ bands began to surface, heavily incorporating some of the Swedish band’s otherwise trademark style. As that phenomenon has gone on to evolve further and permeate all sorts of styles, from impeccable jazz fusion (Animals as Leaders) to maniacal mathcore (Car Bomb) and even synthpop (VOLA), Meshuggah’s place within the scene has been increasingly called into question, with some fans even expressing disappointment that Koloss did not necessarily change the game like its predecessors did. But four years on, suffice it to say Meshuggah truly have retooled their approach to their own music with eighth album The Violent Sleep of Reason, and leave any competition in the dust once more.
Any discussion of The Violent Sleep of Reason should probably start with how the band recorded it. For the first time since 1994’s None EP, The Violent Sleep of Reason was recorded live for as ‘organic’ a sound as possible, with any and all minor flaws retained in the final product, quite unlike how the vast majority of metal is recorded today. Ironically enough, however, everything somehow sounds more precise and focused as a result — the guitar tones are at a whole new level of monstrous, with each low-tuned riff sounding even more colossal than anything from the past few records. The balance struck here is really kind of mind-boggling to think about; grooves lock in with calculated, mechanistic precision as always, and yet the overall execution feels downright raw at times. It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s actually somewhat reminiscent of Obscura‘s Akroasis, which did something similar with its analog production, and Meshuggah execute it beautifully, bringing a very old-school energy and feel to their music without ending up wallowing in some kind of self-indulgent nostalgia. Ultimately, this is an album that sounds best absolutely cranked; every element of the music has an extra bite to it that was somehow not nearly as present before, and most of that bite clearly owes itself to how the music was put to tape.
Also, while we’re tossing out big, sweeping statements here — The Violent Sleep of Reason borders on being Meshuggah’s most technical album overall. Sure, this may be something that’s impossible to quantifiably demonstrate, but a few listens are sufficient in making that fairly evident, as the band goes on to take their signature rhythmic trickery à la Catch 33 to jaw-dropping heights, all while consistently staying at tempos that are far more analogous to the sound on Chaosphere or Destroy Erase Improve. One could perhaps make a case for obZen being just as technical, which is a fair counterargument considering that that album featured “Bleed” and “Pravus“, but there’s no denying that The Violent Sleep of Reason is right up there with it at the very least.
Furthermore, it bears mentioning that the rather short length of first single “Born in Dissonance” is quite misleading: in fact, the song lengths on the album average out to about six and a half minutes, for starters, which is something not even the downtempo groove-fest Nothing (which has now become their second longest album) can claim. Longer song lengths mean that the band really take their tendency to introduce a rhythmic motif before twisting it through all sorts of riffs to another level. Although the standard 8-string grooves (“By the Ton”, “Stifled”) are still present, Meshuggah rely on them significantly less than usual this time around, opting instead for a more diverse and chord-heavy riff style (“Clockworks”, “Into Decay”) that results in the riffs ultimately coming across as substantially more technical. Of course, obZen accomplished something similar back in 2008, combining the experimentation and grooves of its immediate predecessors with a thrashier approach, but The Violent Sleep of Reason, bolstered by its production and recording style, truly takes that combination to its logical conclusion.
Riffs aside, lead guitarist Fredrik Thordendal should be singled out here. There are roughly more leads on The Violent Sleep of Reason than on obZen and Koloss combined, made all the more impressive for their live style of recording. Most of them are not too dissimilar from his signature spastic, free-flowing jazz fusion style, somehow bringing out entire motifs and even musical movement over the usual barrage of fantastically atonal riffs from rhythm guitarist Marten Hagstrom. Overdubs frequently cascade in and around riffs as well, adding an almost ethereal effect to the punishingly heavy guitar work, which itself strikes a precise balance that should easily satisfy fans of both thrashier and groovier Meshuggah alike.
It’s particularly interesting to note that Meshuggah have been around for over 25 years now. They’ve survived all sorts of changing trends and even the rise of entire subgenres directly inspired from their own innovation. And yet they don’t seem to be trying to take that on, or even acknowledging it, really. Rather, by deconstructing their sound and building it right back up again, they’ve pushed it forward yet again simply by focusing on themselves, consequently putting together one of their heaviest and most intricate works through a way that’s become quite unorthodox in this age of digital recording. Those who have already written off Meshuggah as becoming increasingly less relevant may still remain largely unconvinced with the band’s eighth effort, but the fact remains that there is no band out there that is capable of writing an album that sounds quite like The Violent Sleep of Reason does. Or an album that goes nearly as hard.
Meshuggah’s Violent Sleep of Reason will be available October 7th via Nuclear Blast Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.