Friday, October 28, 2016
Warm blood: Why Meshuggah are better than ever on 'The Violent Sleep of Reason'
The riff that opens "Ivory Tower," the sixth song on Meshuggah's new album, The Violent Sleep of Reason, unfolds for 25 seconds before repeating. That doesn't sound like a lot, but listening, it feels like a small eternity. The band — I was about to type "the rhythm section," but in Meshuggah, that's pretty much everyone aside from vocalist Jens Kidman, and in some ways, he's a part of that mix as well — sort of half-stumbles, half-trudges through this section, as the notes emerge, relentlessly, up and down and down and up, and the syncopations intrude with stubborn constancy. It's a bumpy but strangely soothing ride. The band is, in their strange, singular mecha-prog way, cruising.
Meshuggah has, for some time, been a canonical band. I mean this more or less objectively. During the past, say, 10 years, the band has attained a certain elite status that's difficult to come by these days: a large and devoted "civilian" fan base, a decent amount of critical respect and that hard-to-pin down quality that I might define as street cred, wherein discerning musicians of many different persuasions regularly offer props, not just accepting Meshuggah as one of their own but designating them as one for the ages, a genuinely, deservedly legendary band. (Among jazz musicians, especially, they've "broken through" much in the way that Radiohead or Björk once did.) Meshuggah in 2016 are nominally a metal band, recording for a metal label, touring with metal bands, but they've attained something like the Ellingtonian designation of "beyond category."
Sometimes this process of saturation, canonization, etc., wherein a band's value to the larger world of music and the consistent integrity of their product becomes a fixed, almost objective truth can create a sort of tedious kind of consensus. Such and such an artist becomes Important, rendering moot the question of whether or not they're actually Any Good or still producing work that's worthy of the formative material that won them this reputation in the first place. (I'll admit that the suffocatingly ominpresent and often pompous assertions of Radiohead's Importance have probably gotten in the way of me really engaging with their more recent music, though I did enjoy The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A in their time.)
So Meshuggah is, I'll admit, a band I've had a little trouble really embracing in the past. I'd heard a decent amount of their music; favorably reviewed their 2008 album, obZen; and seen a live show in 2012 that I enjoyed. But I felt myself standing apart from the cult, my hard-to-pin-down skepticism about the band maybe intensified by the fact that I felt that this was a band that I, as a drummer and an avowed fan of progressive/aggressive/"mathy" music, was supposed, even obligated to blindly worship. I could quibble with this or that feature — for a long time, I found that Kidman's vocals, "harsh" but monochromatically so, with very little sense of any emotional toll being taken, kept me at arm's length — but I think that, I'm not all that proud to admit, my deep-seated contrarian impulses may have had something to do with it.
I have this tic, and at this point I'm not sure if it's a handicap or an asset, wherein I don't simply discard but sometimes actively resist received wisdom. The more ironclad the Consensus surrounding an artist becomes, the more ubiquitously they're praised, the more taken-for-granted their objective Relevance becomes, the more I shut down, turn away. I'm all for discernment, but honestly, this is a pretty childish characteristic in a lover of music, art, etc. You need to get to the thing itself, not the commentary or the culture surrounding the thing. (Hear the Dead, for example; don't get hung up critiquing/ridiculing Deadheads.) Moreover, it's important to note that Consensus is often pretty accurate. Bruce Springsteen really is as good as They say he is, a fact that I woke up to some years back after a long period of pointless resistance.
But we hold on to these ideas because we feel that our concerted dislikes are somehow an asset. And maybe in certain cases they are. Maybe Good Taste is really about not just what you embrace but what you exclude. But I'm wary of clinging too tightly to my prejudices; I often feel a kind of giddiness when I find that one is evaporating before my eyes. I was not in any sense anti-Meshuggah before, more just somewhat indifferent. I took them for granted as That Swedish Metal Band That Does That One Thing That Everyone Loves. (This response, skeptical and pompous, is perfectly parodied at 1:35 in this incredible Professor Brothers short by Brad Neely: "It's one of those ones — one of those [weary laugh] — [with whoop-dee-doo sarcasm] one of those fucking animated movies that everybody goes and sees and fuckin' eats their shit and loves.")
Which is all a protracted way of saying, I'm not really sure what changed recently, whether it was Meshuggah or me, but The Violent Sleep of Reason has jarred something loose. Hark, the wall has come down, and I'm all in. During the past few weeks, following my blissful Crowbar saturation, which has barely waned, I've listened to little else other than this band, trying to piece together how they got to a place, on Violent Sleep, where they are functioning at a level of excellence that seems, honestly, hard to fathom.
As it turns out, Meshuggah has been really good for a really long time. (I'm sure any pro-Meshuggah reader more reasonable than me is probably sitting here saying, "Duh" to themselves over and over, same as when I went public with the shocking (!) revelation that AC/DC were, in fact, a great band; yes, I realize how ridiculous I sound, and I'm doing my best to own it.) Once their mature sound crystallized around the time of 2002's Nothing, they've been marching pretty steadily toward true, top-of-their game command. And I fully see the appeal of their ante-up statements such as Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere too, though to me, these now sound like the work of an extraordinarily hungry, talented band still growing into greatness, putting all their insane, frantic ideas on the table at once rather than embracing the idea that occasional restraint or dynamic tension might actually make their full-on moments that much more scarily intense.
The obZen album is, in context of their larger discography, a standout. The vicious, churning turbulence of their early work is still there, but the band has come around to the idea that songs matter, not just Awesome Parts, that space and variety are needed to realize an album that's really worth savoring all the way through. (For the record, I think obZen's suitelike, mostly continuous predecessor, Catch Thirtythree, earns the same designation, but I find the obZen material much stickier and more memorable.) Koloss, from 2012, maintains obZen's high standard but seems in some ways like the sound of a band in a holding pattern. The great benefit of the band's epic 2014 live album, The Ophidian Trek, is that it culls together many of the best songs from this later period of the band with gems from throughout the prior 15-plus years, shuffling them together in a beautifully paced, gritty-sounding mixtape.
That "gritty-sounding" part is key to what would come next. If you care about Meshuggah in the slightest and have read anything about The Violent Sleep of Reason, you know that it's the first album they've recorded live — i.e., as a band setting up and playing simultaneously in the studio — since Chaosphere. In the almost two decades that separate that album from the new one, Meshuggah has, in some ways, operated like the world's heaviest electronica project, with each member writing full songs individually on computers, recording occurring piecemeal and non-digital instruments seeming almost incidental to the band's working method. In an interview in the November of Decibel, drummer Tomas Haake notes of Koloss that "If we didn't play it good enough, we would make it sound good enough." Meshuggah was never a band that concealed its allegiance to the Pro Tools era: programmed drums, digitally re-amped guitars, sound replacement. Listen to most of Meshuggah's catalog, in other words, and you're hearing something that's more synthetic than not.
That's not a value judgment. OK, maybe it is a little. I'll admit that I love warm, raw, live sounds. But on the other hand, I don't view Meshuggah's decision to go full-on high-tech with their process as some kind of compromise. For quite some time, they've been writing some of the more demanding, painstaking music on the planet, and I can completely understand why they've wanted their recordings to be as precise a representation of what that music is meant to sound like as possible. There's nothing punk about Meshuggah; in keeping with their overall sci-fi aesthetic, they really are after a certain kind of futuristic perfection.
Again, I return to that question of whether it was Meshuggah that changed or me. Having spent a good deal of time with Violent Sleep, I'd have to say that the former, namely their decision to go "real time" on this one, to let a little bit of natural grit in, has a lot to do with it. I think all the Meshuggah albums I've heard are worthwhile and that some of them achieve true greatness. But Violent Sleep really feels like a bar-raiser to me.
The band has always been after a kind of shock and awe, a sensation of protracted intensity and insanity and precision and just utter, overwhelming, iron-fisted control over the listener. But, for me, at least, the idea that I'm looking at a somehow synthetic sonic picture — whether that's super-apparent, on an album like Nothing, or subtler but still detectable, on an album like Koloss — stands in the way of me really feeling those earlier albums the way I think I'm supposed to feel them — or at least the way that I want to feel them.
On Violent Sleep, the beatdown is just so vivid, right from the start. Following the four hi-hat clicks that start off opening track "Clockwork," the band explodes into a signature stabbing riff as Haake human-tornadoes through the cyborg obstacle course, for the first time in his recording career seeming to focus on the idea of kicking up musical dust rather than eliminating it. You listen to Destroy Erase Improve, say, and it has no hair on it whatsoever. As I see it, aggressive music needs not just the gleaming, glossy, precision-engineered edges, but also the gristly sinew, the connective tissue, the ghost notes, so to speak. It's not that digitally scrubbed music can't achieve this sort of shading, this human complexity, but in the past, it often seemed like Meshuggah didn't want any part of it even if they knew how to reproduce it. And more power to them: They were busy remaking the spirit of metal, focusing all their energy on a maniacal degree of detail and order.
And, to be clear, that degree of detail and order hasn't lessened in the slightest on Violent Sleep. This is in some ways the most complex music Meshuggah has ever written. The band honestly sounds hungrier than ever, in a "how far can we take this thing without altering its fundamental DNA?" sort of way. The answer is, pretty goddamn far. The album contains enough peak-intensity/-density Meshuggh to satisfy any adrenaline-junkie fan. "Clockworks" alone is seven-plus minutes of glorious tech-prog hell, busy and badass enough to rival celebrated Meshuggah classics like obZen's "Bleed." The title track is another ultra-dense world-eater of a song — and, I've found, a perfect aural drill sergeant for the treadmill — featuring this almost comically awesome math-prog thresher of a centerpiece riff (it first shows up at :38 if you're playing along at home). To put it another way, this album will go harder than you every time — it's that massive, that complex, that vicious.
But there's also this other side to Violent Sleep, a sort of shadowy underbelly — and here we're back to the idea of contrast and shading that I mentioned above — that, for me, elevates this album from "mere" murderous awesomeness to something like sublimity. Describing the opening of "Ivory Tower" above, I alluded to this idea of the ever-unfolding riff, a concept the band takes even further on "By the Ton," one of the strangest and most refreshing metal songs I've ever heard. Like on "Ivory Tower," the band experiments here with a stumbling half-time feel, trudging during the verse riff through an seemingly endless series of ornaments and tangents so that the idea of any sort of "return to home base" seems increasingly remote and irrelevant. But when the band kicks into the next section around 1:01, which functions like some kind of chorus but is far too outlandish and slippery to really warrant that designation, they take this concept even further. The ensuing riff does, I think, eventually repeat, but the cycle is so lengthy and involved and relentlessly off-kilter that the only logical response seems to be to simply surrender to its slippery grandeur.
The most wondrous thing about this section for me — and about the sort of similar-in-feel-but-totally-different-in-content reprise that begins at 2:41 — is how gloriously bluesy it feels, as though by striving for the ultimate in jarring technicality the band had somehow fallen through a wormhole and ended up at the very heart and source of rock and roll, the bulbous, beating, bloody center of the thing, where music flows like quicksilver rather than clanging like steel. When I hear this section of this song, I can't help but think of Dr. Octopus's undulating arms, metal that writhes like flesh. The absolutely disgustingly deep and bass/guitar harsh tones that Meshuggah achieve on this record only intensify the sensation, common in the Meshuggah listening experience, that guitarists Mårten Hagström and Fredrik Thordendal (whose signature neon-rain leads sounds as bright and mesmerizing as ever throughout the record) and bassist Dick Lövgren are operating as a single gigantic cyber-snake.
To me, this sensation of Meshuggah's music as a living entity is a revelation. That a band could at once represent the pinnacle of technicality but find a way to inject their recorded work with warm blood, to drench it in hard-earned human sweat, is a cause for celebration for those of us who love our math but who also love our rawk. There's no substitute for that good, old human stink, and on The Violent Sleep of Reason, Meshuggah finally let us take a deep whiff.
*I love this Spotify "Metal Talks" playlist, which intersperses tracks from Violent Sleep and throughout Meshuggah's career with commentary by Tomas Haake.
*For more from Haake on the album, check out my RS colleague Kory Grow's recent interview.