When one has a deep history with a band, a traditional critic’s review is damn near unthinkable. Intentional or not, our very own Dan Obstkrieg touched on this in his recent review of the newest effort from Neurosis, Fires Within Fires, and such is my situation with Meshuggah. Our pasts with these bands render objectivity — already a futile endeavor — virtually impossible. We can no more erase our histories with them than they can erase their past albums. Readers likely understand this, and because opinions of these types of bands are often long held, very few folks read reviews to find out if the albums are good, but rather to share in the experience of obsessively analyzing this new music from artists we already hold dear, while reflecting on our histories with them.
Bands also reflect, and may find themselves either hamstrung or inspired by their past works. From a strictly musical perspective, it is fitting that we have new albums from both Meshuggah and Neurosis this fall, not just because they are two of the greatest and most groundbreaking bands in extreme and heavy music, and not just because both present the sort of long-career-analysis-conundrums described above, but because in a lot of ways, they are at similar points in their careers. Both have seemingly passed up the peaks of their creative ambition, being content with more more song-oriented albums after the sprawling music of their masterpieces — Meshuggah the I EP and Catch Thirtythree, and Neurosis with about everything from Enemy of the Sun through The Eye of Every Storm.
But Meshuggah is clearly weathering this transition better than Neurosis. While each of the last two Neurosis albums feel truncated and constricted, giving off the impression of a slightly exhausted band, Meshuggah has refocused. 2008’s obZen not only reaffirmed their ability to balance rhythmic nuttery with overall catchiness, but seemed to free them from having to go further down their self-made rabbit hole. Koloss, meanwhile, kept the song approach but invited back in much of the artistic expression, resulting in probably the most dynamic album of their career. It never forgot how to rock, but it also got plenty weird. Two legendary bands on two very different current trajectories, and for the guy reviewing Meshuggah, not nearly as much trepidation about attacking the new music before him.
While most Meshuggah fans have little differences in opinion on the band’s catalog, very few think that any of their albums even approach being bad. One could actually make a good argument that the band has been peaking ever since the release of Destroy Erase Improve, so now for over 20 (!!!) years. Well, after plenty of reflection of past albums and all the raised fists and growling-while-driving and out-of-rhythm headbangs and amazing shows and everything else that has been Meshuggah to me all these years, The Violent Sleep of Reason sunk in. And it’s pretty easy to report that it does nothing to slide the band off of their peak, nor does it cast any doubts about the strength of their future. If anything, they seem reinvigorated as an actual band, if less so as a group of visionaries. They sound almost at ease and relaxed here, proving as obZen did that they can draw back from a deeper artistic goal without losing one bit of their mettle.
“Relaxed” is of course a very relative term when speaking of Meshuggah; nothing here changes their status as an absolute giant of pure, colossal heft. But relaxed in terms of the obsessive precision and perfection with which they have become associated. Drummer Tomas Haake even stated that the album was largely recorded live in the studio as a full band, allowing them to not only sound like five guys in one room (or really, separate studio rooms), but to invite a bit of a human factor into the process. Same humans, (mostly) same music, different angle.
The result is an album that might as well be called “Meshuggah: Jam Room,” as if the mentality was to write a shitload of riffs and rock their socks off. Again, this is all very relative, and because being “normal” isn’t in their vocabulary, and because they’re simply better at this metal thing than 99.99 percent of all other bands in existence, The Violent Sleep of Reason still ended up being a crazily technical, rhythmically mind-boggling, and oppressively heavy album. But the differences remain: The guitars have a far more earthy, analog tone, Jens Kidman’s vocal performance is more raw and spontaneous, and the soloing of Fredrik Thordendal is not only common, but downright brash at times. Beyond that, there is little of the dynamic brooding of Koloss, with the only appearance of the band’s eerie clean guitars coming during the the transition from “Stifled” into “Nostrum.”
Like all Meshuggah albums, however, the quality of The Violent Sleep of Reason is still dependent on the band’s ability to write irresistible riffs, solos, grooves, and rhythms that move into your brain and sign a lifetime lease. And as usual, there is zero shortage. The planet-sized “By the Ton” (Best. Meshuggah. Song title. Ever.) is like the continual dropping of a colossal riffhammer that somehow gets even more colossal as the song goes along, while also somehow maintaining a minor sense of melody. “MonstroCity,” with its upward and downward bouncing, is second maybe to only “Do Not Look Down” in terms of pure Meshuggah swagger. The title track is a constantly growing slab of menacing intensity, “Ivory Tower” is like some huge structure that shifts, crumbles, and reforms all while gaining consciousness, and “Our Rage Won’t Die” finds them in twitchier, staccato mode with a hefty dose of throwdown courtesy of Kidman. And so on.
The whole thing is just so goddamn muscular, and the earthier guitar tones may actually have made Meshuggah more burly, beefy, and brawny than ever before (really). It’s enough to distract from the fact that there is some variety hidden in here, if you can get past being constantly pummeled with unpredictable patterns of left-right uppercuts.
In the broad scope of Meshuggah’s career, The Violent Sleep of Reason falls on the side of their more straightforward albums (how many times do I need to say “relative” here?). It’s a groovier, less rigid obZen, or a slower, less brutal Chaosphere performed with the hindsight and wisdom of their years. To some fans, this may come as a disappointment, particularly after Koloss, where they seemed to be re-upping on their ambitious nature. But nothing about Violent Sleep happened as an accident; the band’s plan all along was to do something a tad more natural, and the results are as spectacular should be expected.
In his Neurosis review, Mr. Obstkrieg described Fire Within Fires as sounding like aging. If that’s true, then you might say the opposite of The Violent Sleep of Reason, which often feels like a band rediscovering its youth and loving every minute of it. Never before has Meshuggah sounded this much like an actual group of human beings, and while that may seem odd to long time fans that have grown used to their “malevolent, malfunctioning robot” sound, know that they lose nothing in the process. On Nothing and Koloss their inherent Borgness was dominated by the mechanical side. Here, the human side, flaws and imperfections and full indulgence in rockin’ soloing and all, takes center stage.
Meshuggah has a clear vision as they move into their veteran years, which apparently is to only occasionally have a vision. They know that they have nothing to prove, and that simply being themselves ought to keep things exciting for band and fans alike. It’s a level of self-awareness that only comes from the kind of obsessive reflection typical of long time fans. After all, if Meshuggah weren’t fans of themselves, they’d have long ago split or turned into some stale tour-for-life band. Let’s hope that never happens, because for over two decades now, they have remained one of the most unique and invigorating acts in all of metal. Long may they reign.