More so than perhaps any other extreme metal band today, delving into a new record from Meshuggah requires a bit of a history lesson. This alone is already credit enough to the band, whose trailblazing three-decade career has quite the resume to go with it: whether it’s spawning multiple subgenres and imitators, or outright kicking off the now-widespread use of eight-string guitars across the metal scene in general. Fortunately, however, the overall arcs of their sound are pretty easy to summarize — starting out with very rhythmically complex and game-changing thrash metal in the 90s (Future Breed Machine, Chaosphere), but, at the turn of the millennium, switching over to slower, atmospheric grooves and ambient experimentalism (Nothing, Catch 33). 2008’s obZen was the turning point where these two aspects then met, where the thrash of early Meshuggah and the colossal groove of aughts-Meshuggah finally came together, and the true potential of the band’s already-groundbreaking sound was fully realized.
That said, where obZen shook the metal world with its heaviness and innovation, let’s be honest with ourselves for a second: it very well may have been the last album in which Meshuggah did something radically new. Since then, the band seem to have settled into more comfortably riffing off the obZen blend throughout the third decade of their careers. Of course, this level of longevity is still remarkable in of itself; not least the fact that unlike how virtually all progressive metal is made today, their latest offering The Violent Sleep of Reason (2016) was recorded live and still sounds incredibly tight and unfathomably heavy. But the question still remains: where to go from here? What’s left for Meshuggah to even do?
Immutable’s title alone seems to offer a rather defiant answer. Perhaps this implication of there being no change left in the tank isn’t entirely surprising, both given how long the band’s career has spanned and how much fresh material they’ve already provided the metal world along the way. Surely, one might think, the reserve of fresh ideas must run out eventually. But let’s just get this out of the way early: if you’ve listened to a Meshuggah album before, then yes, you’ve already heard nearly everything you’ll find on Immutable. Now, this doesn’t automatically make the material bad by any stretch of the imagination — quite the contrary, especially if one is already sold on the post-obZen formula — so bear with me for a second here as we delve into it more.
Basically, Immutable provides very different listening experiences depending on one’s preconceived notions of what it ‘should’ be. If the music is considered in a complete vacuum, devoid of context, it starts out a solid modern metal album crafted by absolutely top-notch musicians; there’s a reason behind Meshuggah’s influence, and the talent on display here is utterly undeniable. The record kicks off on a strong note with the haunting slow burn of “Broken Cog”, a hypnotic track that immediately treats the listener to a rare Tomas Haake vocal feature to boot. It’s immediately evocative of the best Meshuggah’s Nothing-era material has had to offer, with claustrophobic grooves and spine-chilling overdubs throughout, and goes to remind us just why that record was such a game-changer.
The opening half of Immutable from then on continues to genuinely be solid material. “Light the Shortening Fuse” showcases a stunning midsection with massive chords sharply dipping in and out underneath a wall of lead guitars, while “Ligature Marks” will be on repeat for anyone who enjoyed the slower gravity-bending riffs of monstrous tunes like “Lethargica” in the past. Side A of the album culminates in “They Move Below”, a near-10 minute instrumental colossus of a song, where Thordendal and Hagstrom seem to take turns iterating on a simple rhythmic motif with extended lead work and syncopated trickery. It’s almost post-metal-like in its droning, arresting atmosphere, and one of the downright coolest tracks Immutable has to offer.
However, the novelty wears off at some point even for the most seasoned of Meshuggah fans, and “They Move Below” is probably where the album reaches its apex. At a mammoth near-70 minutes, Immutable is Meshuggah’s longest studio record by far, and it pains me to say that it just doesn’t have enough tricks in its bag to justify that runtime. By the time “Kaleidoscope” rolls around, we’re just hearing very little we haven’t heard before: not just relative to the band’s past releases, but also in comparison to the first half of the very same album. Where even a more recent release like Koloss showed a solid amount of diversity in its runtime — with mile-a-minute tracks like “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance” juxtaposed against, say, the nail-biting tension of “Behind the Sun” — Immutable’s most interesting moments are mostly reserved for its first half, and the drop-off past that point is noticeable.
So somewhere along the way, riffs start to plod; leads become comparatively sparser (likely due to Thordendal’s reduced involvement this time around); the songs begin to outright blend with one another. Although this latter half is bisected by another instrumental in “Black Cathedral”, the track offers little besides a wink and a nod to Sunn O))) with its two uneventful minutes of distorted droning before the album resumes entirely as one would expect. There’s at least a bit of an uptick at the end with “Armies of the Preposterous”, which is the closest Immutable comes to evoking the band’s classic thrash sound and briefly providing the record with an invigorating shot in the arm. Still, its intriguing prospects are short-lived, with a Catch 33-like ambient ending in “Past Tense” very quickly capping off the album soon after. 70 minutes have now passed. Where did the time go?
Perhaps this seems harsher than it’s meant to be, so before we go any further, let’s just make this clear one last time: Immutable is a perfectly good metal record on its own when held against the standards of any other progressive metal band, and any Meshuggah enjoyers will find sufficient material to sink their teeth into here. I know I certainly have, especially as far as the first half is concerned. The album opens with a string of genuinely solid material that can almost stand tall next to late-career triumphs like “Demiurge”, “Swarm”, “Clockworks”, and “Nostrum”. But under the weight of its own history and the precedent Meshuggah themselves have set, the album seriously struggles to reach the highs of its predecessors, to the point where it doesn’t seem like Meshuggah are necessarily trying to even get there at all. Instead, Immutable feels almost celebratory, a record that exists for Meshuggah to reflect on the modern iteration of their sound and little else. In fairness to them, there’s definitely something worth celebrating here: it’s incredible enough to take in that the band are capable of releasing an album with this level of fearsome energy this late into their careers, to the point where it’s still heavier than most material put out by many a younger band on the progressive metal scene. The issue though is that not only is there almost nothing new to take away from Immutable, but that what we do hear during its runtime, however decent it may sometimes be, has more often than not been done better already by the band themselves.
So yes, anyone coming into Immutable expecting Meshuggah to innovate like they have before will doubtless leave sorely disappointed. Anyone coming into it with no expectations at all will find an album that’s not bad but is still overlong and often underwhelming. Potential converts will be better served looking to any one of Chaosphere, Nothing, or obZen as an entry point, because Immutable won’t be nearly as convincing as any of those three landmark records. But should a more experienced listener treat Immutable like the hour-long victory lap that it is — an almost celebratory retread of the band’s genre-defining sound and accomplishments — then it still can end up being an enjoyable listen, and especially so for anyone who’s already been on board the Meshuggah train for a while now. Even then, the era of Meshuggah completely changing the game may be well and truly past with Immutable, as the band transition further away still from breaking new ground and instead continue settling comfortably into their long-held seat amidst the pantheon of greats.
Meshuggah’s Immutable dropped April 1st, 2022 via Atomic Fire Records and can be purchased at this location.