Connectivity and the colossus: Swedish metal mavens Meshuggah on alternate musical pathways

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meshuggah_kolossMeshuggah: Koloss (Nuclear Blast, 3/27/12)

“Do Not Look Down”


The average brain of an adult human has 100 to 500 trillion synapses. Each new electric impulse, each wrinkle that develops in our minds, leads to our understanding of the world around us. How this is done is still a mystery, and our experience of music is at the forefront of this complex puzzle. Somewhere between vibrations in the air hitting our eardrums and memory, we each confront and interpret the sounds of our surroundings and perceive the phenomenon of music — that which is made of rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics.

Formed in 1987 in the northern Swedish city of Umeå, Meshuggah has reached for new musical experiences and new conceptual understandings of the phenomenon of metal for the better part of 25 years. The band’s impulses and constantly shifting approaches to making brutal, esoteric music are instinctively multi-rhythmic and uncompromising. Over the course of eight stunning albums and various other releases, the gentlemen of the “djent” sub-genre have adopted and abandoned labels like thrash, death, and math metal. All labels, in fact, should be discarded; this is an experience best felt without restrictions and identifiers. For if our minds are to fully perceive and interpret, it must go deeper than our linguistic understanding of popular concepts.

There may be no better starting point to revolutionize the abstraction that we call metal than Meshuggah’s merciless new record, Koloss. Containing and manipulating elements from myriad sub-genres, the album marks Meshuggah’s return to the front lines of experimental and extreme metal, a spot that the group has occupied since its early days of blending potentially ill-fitting pieces together.

As the rhythmic foundation of Meshuggah, drummer Tomas Haake has been integral to the group’s style since 1990. Haake himself has become an influence and is considered one of the top performers by his peers and critics. His defining use of polyrhythms (the simultaneous use of two individual rhythms) and his devastating tempo changes and compound timing make Haake one of the most mesmerizing percussionists playing today. Though he maintains that he works around simple 4/4 structures, the kind found in most popular music, his rabid take on metered percussion is anything but simple. And more than anyone, Haake understands the importance of rhythmical and stylistic advancement to Meshuggah.

“Our strength as a band is that we are always searching for that something new,” he says, “a different take that is still within the framework of our signature sound. We always want people to be able to put on a Meshuggah record and recognize it as ours, but we never want to stay in one place, or exist in one category. People are always trying to compartmentalize us, but we can’t be caught up in that.”

Very early on, Meshuggah was known for its intense tempos and fusions in style, merging the extreme end of metal with a Metallica influence for a punishing blend. But the band’s sound soon became unlike anything in this world or beyond, as its unique sense of rhythm and dueling down-tuned riffs (from specially made seven- and then eight-string guitars) became permanent fixtures. That evolution hasn’t been easy, according to Haake, who describes the process of creating each new album as almost torturous — yet necessary for continued growth.

“With every album, you try to renew yourself, and it gets harder every time,” he says. “As the years go on, there’s less time to sit down and take things in and think about stuff.

Koloss really has a lot of different things going on,” Haake continues, describing the band’s first album since ObZen in 2008. “It’s much more collaborative, everyone adding little pieces to every song. With this record, we were going for something with a bit more space between the hits. It’s a little groovier, with less of the staccato guitars and more tricky tempos.”

Indeed, Koloss contains many moments that break from or are rare within Meshuggah’s 25-year history. The album’s second track, “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance,” is a return to the speed of the band’s formative years, only with math riffs that are more plainly counted. (In one instance, 3-3 / 3-6 / 3-9.) The next song, “Do Not Look Down,” unleashes a shredding solo that Haake describes as “Meshuggah goes rock and roll,” and closing track “The Last Vigil” is completely devoid of percussion and distortion, instead consisting of glistening, spacey guitars in a free-floating haze.

Of course, the album holds many identifiable Meshuggah marks as well. “Behind the Sun” lives in a low-end growl, “Marrow” steeps in staggering syncopation, and “Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave it Motion” is a steadily chugging beast, written during the ObZen sessions. But even “Break Those Bones…” takes a break from the band’s conventions, letting the bass handle all the distortion for a stretch.

Throughout the 10 tracks, the band combines its breakneck pacing and menacing atmospheres to register on a deeper, more visceral level. There are more differences in tempo and riff range — including an expanded and higher palette for the low-end melodies. On the surface, it may sound like a musical mismatch, but the shifting expressions only make it more engaging to the mind. “It’s a good mix and a bit more diverse artistically,” Haake says. “Not every song being super tuned down means that those songs will have more of an impact, and the music pops out more.”

In addition to the influential drummer, Meshuggah is comprised of founding members Jens Kidman (vocals) and Fredrik Thordendal (guitar) as well as longtime members Mårten Hagström (guitar) and Dick Lövgren (bass). Working from its home studio, the band records and produces its material in a veritable bubble, minimally aware of outside influences and invariably focused on its own high standards. But beyond this, its songwriting process isn’t quite the norm. Typically, different members will write parts or map out complete songs on a computer — a practice that the band began in the late 1990s.

For Koloss, though the initial process began much the same way, the songs were arranged or altered with a greater group dynamic. Each member wrote at least some part of Koloss individually, but Haake notes that the band tried to find solutions to the songs together. Furthermore, Haake credits Kidman, who acts as a standalone vocalist but still plays guitar, with a larger share of the work, and he singles out Thordendal as the album’s MVP.

“Fredrik [Thordendal] was really the spider in the web on this album,” he says. “He really coordinated the work, figuring which take to use or [which] guitar track needs to be redone.”

Thematically, Koloss is not a record concerned with narrative and message as much as it is an exploration of impulse and action. Haake, who acts as primary lyricist, writes only when inspiration grabs hold. “The lyrics on this album are from three or four years of writings,” he says. “What I thought two years ago is different from where I am today in my head.” Even the Swedish word koloss, for colossus, is less about specific images and more about the overall enormity of the record’s tone and style.

And enormity, of course, has been at the band’s core since its inception. Broad in scope and open in interpretation, Koloss is both Meshuggah’s most accessible album and most complex. After all, the infinitely possible connections and intrinsic artistic perceptions that crafted the album — the synapses working in tandem — are as mysterious as anything in the known universe, and so singular as to be completely irreplaceable. Though, for all the mystery, there is no denying that Koloss is a phenomenon of pure and profound metal.

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