Again the machinery rumbles. The malignant cogwheel pulses anew at rhythms undecipherable to ordinary human senses. Mechanical war-beasts somewhere between the ravaging monsters of the early VoïVod albums and the superhuman sterility of Kraftwerk’s Man-machines, devoid of human flaws and erroneous emotions, enlightened with a merciless bare-scraped logic, marching from their non-Euclidan dimensions. Or, the new Meshuggah album. Cold and antihumanly brutal, but with the melancholy of Fredrik Thordendahl’s guitar leads haunting over this organized chaos like some wailing ghost of races extinct by their own inventiveness and greed – the same path mankind is walking down. Or maybe I’m just reading too much science fiction.
Anyhow, Meshuggah has returned to the album format they’ve left untouched since 2002’s Nothing (no, Catch 33 is not a full-length, it’s a song divided into tracks with names, rather than a collection with individual songs, which is what defines an album). They have refined and perfected their particular type of metal (see my review of Nothing for further explanations, or just listen to them while doing some head-counting), brilliantly infusing ObZen with all the traits of it’s predecessors – the black sludge of Nothing, Chaosphere’s fierce attack, the thrashy catchiness of Destroy Erase Improve. Every snare hits like a jackhammer to the skull, each scream a monster tearing your face of. And the riffs… still as nonsensical as always; microtonal bends, impossible time-signatures, subsonic heaviness on a tectonic scale. Yes, it is more melodic than for example Nothing, if ‘using more tones in a riff’ equals ‘melodic’. Someone might in lack of faith cry ‘wimp-out! Cheesy bitches!’, but I swear, the melodies only makes it nastier. ObZen has more ‘face’ than Nothing, but it’s not a pretty, nor human one. Listen to the deranged epic nine-minute finale “Dancers to a Discordant System” – it’s downright scary, far from the cosy tonality usually force-fed to us as ‘evil’. No kidding, this is seriously dark, far from the humanities we usually encounter in this blessed world of metal.
Initially, it seems as if the opening and closing triads of songs are the peaks of obZen, leaving the title track and its adjacent pieces in a slightly unfocused blur of massive yet rather uninspired Nothing-like riffs, a bit faceless compared to the other, quite progressive, tracks. They only needed some more time to digest, of course, after a couple of more sit-throughs ultimately unfurling their stark menacing splendour – the title track is particularly bludgeoning. Or why not the break and swift turn three minutes into ‘This Spiteful Snake,’ adding a new dimension into what would otherwise be the nadir of the album? I must also congratulate Meshuggah at finally using artwork that doesn’t quite frankly suck – the first good-looking cover since their debut EP from 1989. The meditating man covered in blood is a symbol for what this album – and Meshuggah’s lyrical theme in general – is about: in obscenity, the lowly human finds her harmony, her Zen. Thus the title obZen was a bit more profound than the first impression of a cheap word game.
A mistake many seem to do when dealing with Meshuggah, which I frown upon, is to focus on the physical and technical aspects. It is often the case of people worshipping them or despising them for the musicianship, rather than the musicality. Yes, they are of course skilled to a degree beyond most musicians, but still – the point of Meshuggah isn’t how stupendously complex Thomas Haake’s drum patterns are. It is the feeling, the inhuman – and equally antihuman – machinelike malevolent gloom and brute force that makes Meshuggah what they are. The odd time signatures and weird incomprehensible rhythms are means to achieve a certain goal, not the goal itself. It isn’t technical for its own sake, and if you think so you’re doing yourself – and Meshuggah – a major disfavour, regardless whether you laude or taunt them. And while I’m at it, I thought I’d give some specific kudos to Mårten Hagström, the guitarist too often forgotten behind Thordendahl’s and Haake’s fame. Not to say that they don’t deserve being hailed as master musicians, but it must not be forgotten that Haake rarely writes any of the music. It is Thordendahl and Hagström who writes the music, telling Haake what to play (mostly). He is indeed a damn monster behind the kit, but Hagström must not be overlooked as a major part of the creative core of Meshuggah.
If you haven’t given Meshuggah a chance before, then ObZen is the place to start before back-tracking. If you don’t like this album, there might be a big chance you’ll never enjoy Meshuggah. Eerie (oh! the lead in ‘Pineal Gland Optics’!), bludgeoning (oh! the opening of ‘Bleed’!), and most of all dynamic (oh! the whole damn album!), this might very well turn out to be, if allowed to ripen for a few months, the strongest and most perfect Meshuggah release as of yet, elevating their legacy into new levels. But only time will reveal whether or not this is a fact or just the ambitious statement of an overzealous reviewer. Until then, just listen to obZen, at a seriously high volume, and prepare to be beaten into a bloody pulp.
02. Electric Red
06. This Spiteful Snake
07. Pineal Gland Optics
09. Dancers To A Discordant System