For all intents and purposes, October 2016 was a complete goldmine when it came to releases in and around the more experimental side of metal. For starters, we were treated to releases from both Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan, two highly respected bands that have both spent decades pushing the very boundaries of metal music as we know it. Although both bands’ trailblazing innovation within their respective subgenres has had an enormous impact, Meshuggah in particular has inspired legions of younger bands to try and either imitate or build on the songwriting techniques explored in their discographies.
Part of Meshuggah’s mystique and enduring success is their ability to truly capture the essence of certain themes like few before them. Their sound ranges from a calculated assault of mind-bending riffs to dark, ambient atmospheres, sometimes featuring cascading clean guitar parts that are somehow just dissonant enough to send chills down one’s spine. On the lyrical front, Meshuggah’s thematic approach has followed suit: drummer and primary lyricist Tomas Haake often deals with topics such as existentialism, the subconscious, and — where our focus lies today — the intersection between man and machine.
The idea of the fusion between biology and industry is one which has troubled the collective unconscious of the Western world since the 19th century (and perhaps even earlier). The nascent industrial revolution brought to mind not only the servitude of flesh to the machine, exemplified by the factory’s tight regime on time for example, but also of the inherently blasphemous fusion between bodies and machines. Thus, representations moved away from the tyranny displayed in, let’s say, the classic film Metropolis to the more anathema representations of Akira.
As the years progressed, this unholy union was pushed more and more into the realms of body-horror and the grotesque, where it found natural allies within horror fiction and science fiction. There, the ideas were met with futuristic fervor, as ways to escape the confines of the biological. However, the natural process of deconstruction (and then, reconstruction, but that’s a stage for a later post) began, and the fearful, malicious and dark tinge returned to the idea of man-machine interface. Meshuggah stand at the edge of that process, as a band that was formed in the 80’s, when the dark age of man-machine characters was in full swing. Thus, their music has always displayed a very sinister aspect to this fusion, twisting mankind and corrupting it.
However, the fact is that Meshuggah are getting, well, old. Which is not to insinuate that aging is inherently a bad thing, or that they’re growing irrelevant as a consequence of it. In fact, it’s extremely impressive that they have remained an active, full-time band for a whopping twenty five plus years, especially considering their relatively niche appeal. But let’s not deny that as far as sonic evolution goes, The Violent Sleep of Reason is still a fairly comfortable album. Aside from the fact that it was recorded live, which in itself is obviously very praiseworthy, the album’s songwriting doesn’t really trek down the unbeaten path at anywhere near the level some of its predecessors have.
Although a lack of innovation doesn’t necessarily make for a bad album, it’s apparent that Meshuggah are approaching a point where their reputation as the resident trailblazers has changed; a point where they’ve effectively reached a sort of mythical status, wherein the legend of Meshuggah has almost become bigger than where the five piece themselves currently are. The ongoing establishment of Meshuggah the myth — as opposed to Meshuggah the actual band — has meant that they can release something comparatively ‘safe’ like Violent Sleep, which is solid but doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, and still be judged far more for how it adds to their existing legacy instead of how it stands on its own terms.
As Meshuggah transition more into that role, the position of resident innovator is arguably once again up for grabs. And this is where Car Bomb come in: capitalizing on both Meshuggah-style songwriting techniques, yet ‘inverting’ the man-machine trope, and thus potentially solidifying themselves as the heirs to Meshuggah’s mantle.
1995’s Destroy Erase Improve is commonly seen as the moment Meshuggah’s now-signature sound was truly realized for the first time. Shedding their strong Metallica influence for a much heavier and more technical approach, the album laid the sonic blueprint for nearly every Meshuggah album to come.
But DEI also brought with it a new theme — that of the intersection, and eventual fusion, of humanity and machinery. Although “Future Breed Machine” is really the only song on the album to make explicit reference to this (“Human patterns/Copied dissected distorted/Completed to fit the machine/The nerve fibres give in to cords/To the unknown“) it is still immediately evident from the album’s title and art, which depicts a human figure being obliterated before its apparent reconstruction on what resembles a motherboard.
Of course, this wasn’t a particularly new idea, even as far as metal alone goes. As early as 1990, Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” featured the iconic opening verse “Faster than a bullet/Terrifying scream/Enraged and full of anger/He’s half man and half machine“, and there are doubtless other examples that predate even that. But what made Meshuggah’s take on it special was how their sound, featuring angular, distorted riffs full of extremely low-tuned chords at odd rhythms, took the theme and — likely for the first time — restated it musically. The riffs were punishing and frequently even dizzying, but brought with them an almost mechanical precision in the instrumentation. The cherry on top, in turn, was the decidedly human-sounding rawness borne out of vocalist Jens Kidman’s delivery.
Meshuggah clearly recognized the winning formula they’d stumbled upon, and DEI‘s follow-up Chaosphere took this all the way. Album highlight and instant classic “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” continued in a similar thematic vein, recounting the creation of a mechanical god (“I’m a carnal, organic anagram/Human flesh instead of written letters/I rearrange my pathetic tissue/I incise, I replace, I’m reformed/I eradicate the fake pre-present me/Elevate me to a higher human form“) while “Elastic” featured themes of a mechanical reincarnation (“Assembled from dead incompatible pieces/Livid fragments regenerated/Decomposing bits/Of organic matter/Brought to life“).
Chaosphere‘s musical end took on a darker and slightly more atmospheric tone as compared to DEI, frequently featuring larger-than-life overdubs over the riffage, almost as if to contrast the sheen of a mechanical exterior with the complexity of its inner workings. Kidman’s vocal delivery also became even harsher and far more prominent in the mix, as opposed to the Hetfield-inspired tone he maintained on DEI. Ultimately, Chaosphere truly brought its thematic underpinnings to life, and one needs to look no further than just the chaotic, ‘looping’ opening of “Concatenation” to hear it.
Meshuggah entered the twenty-first century with a fairly significant shift in their sound. 2002 brought us Nothing, and with it inhumanly low, downtempo grooves in place of the thrash-inspired chaos that characterized its predecessors. The lyrical end of Nothing had much more to do with existentialism than the man-machine concept, and the instrumentation followed suit, shooting for a massive, lumbering, larger-than-life approach. Meshuggah’s trajectory since then has only led them to stranger and stranger places, but the man-machine themes have more or less remained dormant since Chaosphere.
Which brings us — over a decade later — to Long Island four-piece Car Bomb. The band’s sophomore 2012 album w^w^^w^w (pronounced ‘w click w’ or ‘waveforms’, depending on who you ask) has often been characterized as mathcore, featuring overly chaotic songwriting held together by an inhumanly precise sense of rhythmic timing. Guitarist Greg Kubacki’s lines generally approximate what might be considered ‘traditional’ breakdowns, but then find themselves repeatedly chopped up and reanimated over the course of a particular song section, with the rhythm section in bassist Jon Modell and drummer Elliot Hoffman working closely in tandem.
w^w^^w^w is an album that appears, from start to finish, as if it’s about ready to burst at the seams. Sounding for the most part like Calculating Infinity-era Dillinger Escape Plan combined with the best of Meshuggah and Ion Dissonance, it’s a punishing listen that offers little respite through its runtime, as vocalist Michael Dafferner’s roars and howls pierce through the thick, suffocating riffage.
But Meta, its 2016 followup, is a different sort of beast. Where w^w^^w^w sounded like pure uncontrollable rage, Meta‘s approach is comparatively more subtle and streamlined, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong: it’s no less crushing (it just might be even more so, in a roundabout sense) but Joe Duplantier’s production comes off as a lot cleaner-sounding. The guitars are significantly more defined, losing some of the raw character from w^w^^w^w in favour of a newfound clarity.
However, from a songwriting standpoint, Meta is wickedly precise, and almost mechanically so. On the surface, the instrumentation is so tightly plotted that it’s hardly left with a ‘human’ touch — which, ironically, is a a criticism some metal listeners often levy against the music borne out of heavier and more technical subgenres. However, this decidedly works to Meta‘s benefit, and is exactly the basis on which it works the way it does. Sure, the album features the usual fare: low-tuned single note breakdowns, blast beats, dissonant pick scrapes and the occasional presence of dissonant electronic sounds as achieved through various effects pedals and whatnot. Again, it’s not as chaotic as w^w^^w^w, but the fundamentals remain unchanged, and the dialling back of the chaos arguably makes Meta seem even less ‘human’ than its predecessor. If anything, the tightly plotted precision throughout the album is almost analogous to a well-oiled machine.
But any more than a cursory listen reveals a certain off-kilter quality to the guitars; a sense of rhythmic timing and pitch that belies something a little less mechanical. Take “Sets” for instance, a bit of an oddball track in the second half of the album, featuring none other than the legendary Frank Mullen of Suffocation. “Sets” begins with what could be considered a fairly standard metal riff, built out of nothing but a pitch harmonic alternating with a low chord. (A good baseline comparison for this type of riff might be “Demiurge” by Meshuggah.)
But there are two things to note about the intro of “Sets”. First, the two elements of the riff (i.e. the high note and the low chord) gradually move away from each other, presumably through some sort of pitch shifting, with the low note gradually moving lower while the high note increasingly approximates a pained shriek. On top of that, the elements also drift further apart rhythmically: with each repeated iteration, each note’s duration is extended by just a bit, until the measure has more than doubled in length.
The resultant effect of these two additions is that the riff, which would otherwise be rather run-of-the-mill in quality, sounds like it’s quite literally being torn apart. However, its gradual nature seems to imply a more human element to the riff. A uniform machine consisting of one single component is either functioning or it isn’t; there is no in-between. It is either on or off. Yet somehow that proves not to be the case here, and a so-called mechanical sound is given an organic feel simply through pitch shifting and rhythmic trickery.
On the other hand, “Constant Sleep” brings wth it a different approach. Although the song itself is a solid banger in its own right, the extended outro of the song (from 2:20 onwards) is what truly steals the show.
After a massively punishing breakdown, made all the more dizzying for its lack of an anchoring snare drum, the song slows down momentarily to make room for some ominous, menacing chords. But right at 3:15 is where the magic begins. Kubacki starts off by simply playing a low note, bending slowly into pitch, and then begins to introduce effect after effect on top of it. The odd, almost robotic overdubs then increase in frequency, as the low note drops further and further in pitch until it might as well be a black hole.
Here, one is left with the impression of a machine collapsing in on itself. The breakdown at 2:20 is sharply precise, and all the more so without the snare drum hit in between. But the slow, gradual collapse vividly conjures images of machinery falling apart, kicking and sputtering as it desperately tries to stay alive, and ultimately dying a very human death.
Of course, these are only two examples out of a wealth of jaw-dropping moments all across Meta‘s runtime. But it is clear that taking a momentary step back from the chaos on w^w^^w^w and subsequently crafting an album that is instead laser-sharp in its attack has allowed Car Bomb’s innovation to shine through. The magic of Meta is ultimately that while it mostly remains a metallic, inhuman assault on the senses (“Gratitude” excepted, perhaps) it is the only album of its kind that sounds as if it is in fact straining to be more human.
A caveat to all this necessitates voicing. Michael Dafferner’s lyrics, although chilling and excellently delivered, don’t explicitly align with the man-machine theme we’ve discussed. They’re rather vague to begin with, but even a closer look does not reveal much in the way of referencing the concepts above.
Even then, it remains that Meta‘s musical end harnesses the energy and innovation Meshuggah brought in the 90’s to create something that truly stands out in this day and age. Considering extreme metal’s focus on technicality and mayhem, one might expect that the Western world’s fascination with a man-machine interface would logically be a very ripe area for the genre to explore, and Meshuggah finding themselves first on the mark contributed heavily to their early successes.
In 2016, Meta‘s inversion of that trope therefore feels like a modern, refined take on it, and brings to the album a strong thematic backing that elevates it above the vast majority of modern metal releases today. With a comparatively simple cocktail of ingredients, Meta still manages to be powerfully evocative, and definitively establishes Car Bomb as prime innovators for a new generation.