Originally written by Chris McDonald
Few bands active today, if any, polarize the metal community quite like Meshuggah. Throughout the band’s existence, the Swedish outfit has inspired as many adoring fans as vehement, and I mean VEHEMENT detractors. I make no attempt to hide the fact that I love Meshuggah. There was a period of several years where I credited them as my favorite metal band, and while they’ve dropped out of that honorable position in recent times, I still couldn’t name my ten favorite bands without having them somewhere on the list. Every album they’ve released has mutated and progressed the band’s music while simultaneously helping to shape an instantly recognizable, often imitated but never replicated sound that has set Meshuggah far apart from the metal pack. The band’s unusual approach to songwriting and complete disregard for what constitutes “real metal” has earned this band about as much criticism as a legitimate metal band can get, and yet not once have these Swedes ever pandered to the elitist pricks of the metal community in the creation of their art. The band has proved how much they care about outside opinion with each successive album they’ve created, so I’m going to side-step the asinine accusations aimed at Meshuggah regarding lack of musical ability and being a “nu-metal” band (Haha!) and instead direct this review more towards fans of the band or first-time listeners. Because, lets be honest; we all knew before this album even came out that if you’ve never liked this band, nothing on ObZen would do anything to remotely change your mind.
In many ways, ObZen (all cracks about the capitalization wankery aside) feels very much like a summation of all of Meshuggah’s work so far. Don’t get me wrong, this album shows progressions in the outfit’s style like every album before it, but still feels like the most “familiar” work the band has released to date. Elements of the songs can be traced back to each of the band’s benchmark records; you’ll hear the odd-time thrashing of Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere, the crushingly bizarre thundering of Nothing, the mechanical atmospherics of Catch-Thirtythree–its all here in some fashion. This is both a good and bad thing. For fans of the band who loved the I EP but were disappointed with the direction shown on the last two full-lengths, this album could very well be the band’s ticket back into your good graces. Its tempo variation, song-based nature, and trademark machine-like heaviness should delight fans of the Chaosphere-era of the band (its my personal favorite release by them). However, those who have favored the relentless progression of the band’s latest albums may be disappointed by ObZen, as it almost feels like a compilation of unused riffs from various stages of Meshuggah’s career at times.
The album sure does start with a bang. After an eerily Tool-esque off-time clean guitar intro, “Combustion” explodes out of the gate with a noodlier riff and faster drum beat than anything on a full-length by them since Destroy, followed by a classic Meshuggah groove that gets things off to a ferociously head-bangable start. It’s clear that the band was trying to immediately sway fans worried about more Nothing with this excellent opening song, so it’s kind of confusing that the blinding “Combustion” is followed by a song like “Electric Red.” Lumbering and somewhat clumsy, with dull riffs and an ineffective spoken word passage, this song feels like a Nothing B-side. It’s not horrible, but it’s underwhelming compared to the track that precedes it, and unfortunately this isn‘t the last underwhelming moment on this album. Luckily, lead single “Bleed” picks things back up. “Bleed” begins with one of the heaviest grooves on the album (if you can‘t rock out to this, you have no ears), then gradually alters the tempo and riff construction throughout the course of the song with brilliant subtlety. This has always been what’s set Meshuggah apart for me; their ability to make small changes to a song that make a larger impact overall, not unlike the best ambient artists. “ObZen” begins with a dark groove and floaty lead section before transitioning into some great angular riffs and then a brutal breakdown at around the 2:00 mark. Definitely one of the best songs on here.
“This Spiteful Snake,” while faltering with more of those Nothing-reject riffs, contains some oddly melodic riff/lead sections that point towards interesting directions for the band. Epic closer “Dancers To A Discordant System” continues this trend in its middle section to great effect, and helps keep that track interesting for its long duration. This melodic sense is further explored in Fredrik Thordendal’s solos. Thordendal’s leads, often brilliant but occasionally aimless in the past, continue to bewilder with their interesting blend of atmospheric simplicity and jazz-like shredding. His smooth, discordant leads on “Pineal Gland Optics” are particularly compelling and save that song from being more dull than it is. Thomas Haake is up to his usual standard of excellence on the drum kit, keeping flawless time and continually challenging the confines of metal drumming–no surprise there. Jens Kidman’s vocals sound…well, exactly the same as they’ve always been. While I’ve always defended his vocals as suitable to the music, even I have to admit that this element of the band’s sound is in desperate need of growth. At least on Catch he experimented a little here and there; on ObZen he retains the same exact tone throughout, and after six albums it’s starting to get a little tiresome. Conversely, his voice has become such an iconic part of Meshuggah’s sound that it’s damn near impossible to imagine someone taking his place at this point.
So this is a long review, because this band is a big deal. Anything they put out is sure to make tidal waves throughout the metal community and inspire fervent debate between fans and haters. Personally, as a long-time fan who has heard virtually everything this act has put out, I feel somewhat let down by ObZen. None of the songs are bad by any means, but judging by the intensity shown in songs like “Combustion” and “Pineal Gland Optics“ and the promising melodic inclinations found in “This Spiteful Snake” and “Dancers To A Discordant System,” this album could very well have been the next major step in Meshuggah’s progression. Instead, it feels like they kinda went half-way, filling in the gaps with riffs leftover from the Chaosphere and Nothing sessions. Make no mistake, I love those albums for what they are, but following the positively groundbreaking nature of Catch-Thirtythree, ObZen almost feels like a greatest-hits album with new songs (if that makes any sense). At the peak of their success and popularity and with a huge and dedicated fan base, it’s time for Meshuggah to move forward, not back. ObZen is a very good album that will surely please any existing fans of the band–it delivers everything we’ve come to expect from these Swedish giants in spades and a little more. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Meshuggah failed to really take advantage of the opportunities they had here.