A Devil’s Dozen – Meshuggah

Meshuggah is about much more than rhythmic trickery.

That isn’t to say that they aren’t very much about rhythmic trickery, because with all their polyrhythms and irregular phrase lengths and odd time signatures, they definitely are about rhythmic trickery. It was these achievements, of course, that attracted attention in the 90s—attention that spanned from the metal underground to the Guitar World/Modern Drummer sphere and even into academia (and that’s only the most prestigious and prominent example of the latter).

But Meshuggah didn’t start out by playing around with listeners’ ability to headbang in sync with the music. Their roots were much more humble, however brief that humble period was, because…

Meshuggah is about evolution.

Two fifths of the current lineup of the band ‒ vocalist Jens Kidman and guitarist extraordinaire Fredrik Thordendal ‒ formed Meshuggah way back in 1987 in Umeå, Sweden, and drummer / primary lyricist Tomas Haake joined soon after. Their early material and 1991 debut Contradictions Collapse were more of a groove-aggro-thrash form, a bit like …And Justice for All with more beatdown, although there were certainly hints at what was to come, especially on Contradictions. When second guitarist Mårten Hagström joined up in 1992, the Meshuggah core was complete.

Their ascent was as rapid. The None EP in 1994 represented a monumental leap, and the following year’s Destroy, Erase, Improve served as their official arrival. Now viewed as a watershed moment in progressive metal, the album saw the band rise to their full power, if not quite yet their final form. A combination of that early aggro groove/thrash, quieter, progressive passages, a lot of very jazzy soloing, and a whole heap of polyrhythms, the record remains Meshuggah’s legend-making moment.

They have not made even a passing glance backwards since. Chaosphere upped the intensity and madness to near death metal levels in 1998, stripping away even more of the obvious thrash roots while really embracing their weirder tendencies (especially in the lead department). 2002’s Nothing then dropped the tempo and increased the heavy—a lot. The riffs often took on a stretchy, elastic vibe without the songs losing any of the previous records’ impact or progressive scope. It was their final form, or at least the earliest version of their constantly-shifting final form.

A couple years later came the I EP, a single, 20-minute song that felt like an extra complex missing link between Chaosphere and Nothing. 2005’s Catch Thirtythree was then the ultimate in self-one-upmanship—a hugely ambitious 47-minute composition that seemed to evolve as it progressed while also expanding the band’s dynamic scope, and is still likely their artistic peak. (Oh, and at some point early in the millennium they also started using 8-string guitars. Because of course they did. Because they actually use all 8 strings.)

Photo by Olle Carlsson

They were not (and are not) done. Still to follow was the combination of fierce rippers and weirdo intense prog numbers on obZen; the breadth, occasional creepiness, and thoroughly balanced brilliance of Koloss (my personal favorite); and the surprising band-together-in-a-room, ultimate headbangability of The Violent Sleep of Reason. And while they have kept evolving and finding variations on their vision and sound, one thing has remained…

Meshuggah is about RIFFS.

For all of their constant evolution and fun with polyrhythms, none of it would matter if it wasn’t for the elite quality of Thordendal and Hagström’s bottomless bucket of riffs. They find a way to make the simplest lines a source of suspense, and the heaviest, most colossal parts catchy and rubbery (not to mention Scorsese-able). They often repeat a riff while growing it, with the development of each motif and passage as much a key to their complexity as the polyrhythms, leading to airtight compositions that have more secrets than are initially obvious. And none of it would be possible without a perfect seed: the riff.

Eventually the uniqueness of their riffs ‒ in combination with the polyrhythms ‒ led to countless followers, and at some point the word “djent” was invented by a bunch of Guitar Center geeks. I kid, to a point. There are a lot of extremely talented musicians that consider their music djent as a genre, but the majority of them seem to rip off the riffs and place them in something shredder, more atmospheric, or more metalcore-y. Meshuggah themselves don’t seem to take the term (or their imitators) particularly seriously, making jokes about it from time to time, as their biggest impact on metal isn’t necessarily an entire form of music, but a riff style. Maybe all those bands realized that trying to beat Meshuggah at their real game was pointless, or maybe they simply couldn’t replicate the real thing, because…

Meshuggah is a singular state of mind.

Way back in 2001, I joined some friends at an amphitheater outside of Indianapolis to see Tool on their Lateralus tour. For nearly everyone in attendance, including my pals, it was only about seeing Tool, who had just released arguably their finest album and were at the top of the rock world. I was there to see Tool, sure, but Meshuggah was the opener, and live, even from back on the lawn, they were intense. Judging from the reactions ‒ which ranged from indifference and confusion to outright anger that Tool would bring along a band so aggressive ‒ I was one of a very scant few that viewed this as a true multi-band attraction. There was no one like Meshuggah 20 years ago, and no matter how many imitators they have collected over the decades, there is simply no one like them now.

Because of all these reasons, they have built an fierce and extremely dedicated following that ‒ while it certainly hasn’t given them headlining crowds like those they saw opening for Tool ‒ has allowed them to live off the music, particularly with all the endorsements that guys like Thordendal and Haake have received during their career. Some members of that fan base include the Guitar Center legions that launched all the djent forms. Others are like the guy I once saw making a very obvious show of perfectly fist-pumping every rhythm of “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” right up front at a show. And many, many others are just adrenaline-fueled metalheads that love the feeling they only get from listening to Meshuggah flatten skulls and move asses. (Include in this group my wife, who played “Neurotica” on the internet juke at our wedding because it’s the only song she definitely wanted to be part of our nuptials.)

Above all else, Meshuggah inspires dedication through their consistent excellence. No one can compete with Thordendal and Hagström’s endless well of golden riffs, Kidman’s infectious and timely roar, or Haake’s practice-it-until-you-go-insane drumming. To many a massive fan (hi), they are nothing short of perfect, a vision of the future that exists permanently just out of reach to the rest of us. Below are 13 good examples of why they are the once, future, and infinite overlords of this vision. [ZACH DUVALL]

I EP

[I, 2004]

Looking back on it now, it’s almost tempting to look at the 2004 single-track EP I as a test run for the longer-form Catch Thirtythree which followed in 2005 (and in fact, much of the press at the time made precisely that argument). And while it’s not hard to imagine that Meshuggah might have felt encouraged by the successful experiment of I and curious if and how they could extend some of that experience, I is very much a free-standing testament to an elite band pushing itself to a new level. The song’s scene-setting opening frames Meshuggah’s endgame nearly as well as anything: it’s roughly 90 seconds of frenetically chugging rhythm guitar against a steady fill on the toms. It stretches time just as it punishes it, and every time your mind has a fix on what’s going on, it slips just out of reach. 

Even if the attention-span-starved listener takes nothing else away from I, the breakdown that erupts around the 3:30 mark is one of the most fuck-OFFingly heavy, grimiest, meanest, Stank Face-iest moments in Meshuggah’s career. And although standout moments like this are scattered across the full 21 minutes, and it’s pretty easy to mark the breaks between discrete movements (a particularly excellent movement-transition happens at exactly the midpoint when the band straight from an off-kilter stutter rhythm to a neck-wrecking, straight-ahead pummel without skipping a beat) , I truly does work as a whole, particularly when appreciated in its chronological placement in the catalog. That is, I can almost be seen as a hybrid of the incredibly different two albums which preceded it. This piece is nowhere near as caustically overwhelming as something like Chaosphere’s “Elastic,” but it also amps up the live-wire intensity notably from the thick alien trudge of Nothing. If Chaosphere was a faceful of shrapnel and Nothing was a tidal wave of molten rubber, I is a set of sharpened projectiles inside a trapezoidal prism being launched into the sun. The final five minutes of the song, then, function like an extended, anguished dirge as the prism succumbs to the inescapable pull of the gravity well.

I understand why Meshuggah has ardent detractors, but I can’t grant their sentiment even if I understand their logic. Meshuggah exists in a musical space that somehow manages to be both jazz and anti-jazz at the same time, where it sounds like a brain-fried free jazz eruption from some Eastern European pirate radio station circa 1965, but where the band can also sound like a set of robotic arms using pistons to try and play a big band swing chart. Friends, don’t you crave that kind of masterful ambiguity? Meshuggah have meshuggot you covered.

[DAN OBSTKRIEG]

FUTURE BREED MACHINE

[Destroy, Erase, Improve, 1995]

It’s 1995 and you’ve spun up Destroy, Erase, Improve for the first time, expecting some competent but derivative thrash. Instead, an alarm clock klaxon announces that this is anything but what you expected. The rhythms! They’re all misshapen. The drums enter and exit at unexpected beats. “I cannot wake!” shouts the vocalist, “I’m not asleep!”

It’s 2021 and you’re spinning Destroy, Erase, Improve for the uncounted hundredth time. The grooves and counter-grooves are familiar to you now. People always joke that “you can’t headbang to Meshuggah,” but you can, because while the polyrhythmic complications make the music feel chaotic, it’s not random, it’s structured.

“Future Breed Machine” doesn’t demonstrate the extremely down-tuned, high-gain sound that would later come to be associated with the djent movement. Instead, Thordendal borrows heavily from jazz fusion pioneer Alan Holdsworth for his guitar tone, with a slight dash of Buckethead thrown in to truly express the computerized chaos of the future.

That this song kicked off a whole new musical trend isn’t surprising. What is amazing is that after 26 years and the veritable plethora of djent and math metal bands that have followed, not to mention Chaosphere, Catch Thirtythree, or Koloss, “Future Breed Machine” still feels fresh, vibrant, and inspiring. “An eternity defeated by a new machine” indeed. [MEGAN ASTARAEL]

RATIONAL GAZE

[Nothing, 2002]

Nothing is the perfect career-transition album for Meshuggah, particularly if you listen to the two versions of the album side by side. The original iteration offered a more fiery production befitting its orange cover, where the cymbals, snare drum and vocals all sit a little higher in the mix creating a crashing intensity hewing closer to the madness they unleashed on Chaosphere. The songwriting, however, had drifted away from Chaosphere’s staccato brain-splitting chops to add in even more rubber-band elasticity creating an undeniable groove that would permeate through all their future works. The 2006 remaster (blue cover) of Nothing offered a crisp and mechanical production that focused more distinctly on the guitars (now with eight strings) and bass, which gave them a significantly heavier tone; a lesson likely learned from Catch Thirtythree the year prior.

No song better encapsulates that desire to blend groove that belies the chaos they continued to inject with wonky time signatures and guitar leads that sound like a terminator short-circuiting than “Rational Gaze.” The opening immediately delivers one of the heaviest moments of the entire album as it drops laser-precise bombs on the guitar. The grooving riff repeats while the rhythms behind it terrorize your ability to lock any form of headbanging in sync. The first switch moves one guitarist into the background simply creating eerie sounds while the main rhythm continues to pulse forward before every instrument locks together and Jens Kidman’s steady shout takes over. Even Kidman’s vocals have come down from the unhinged nature of the past to provide a clearer and more precise attack. Every part of this song is a push and pull between offering some form of a hook for your ear while constantly setting it off balance, so you can’t settle in.

Any hardcore band knows the best way to get the crowd to go absolutely apeshit is to have all the music cut out, yell something cool and then drop a monster breakdown. While Meshuggah is no hardcore band, they absolutely nail that move at the end of “Rational Gaze.” At 4:05, a single note rings out when Kidman yells, “Never stray from the COMMON LIIIIIIINES” and that opening passage comes back with a vengeance. You’ll feel as powerful as Robocop when it hits. [SPENCER HOTZ]

DO NOT LOOK DOWN

[Koloss, 2012]

“Do Not Look Down” is the sexiest, hip-swingingest, ass-shakingest song in the entire Meshuggah catalog, but we’re not going to talk about that (yet). We’re going to talk about the lyrics. That’s right, lyrics. With all the attention the band rightly gets for their polyrhythms and galactic heft, the quality of their words ‒ most of which are penned by drummer Tomas Haake ‒ seems a little ignored.

In short, “Do Not Look Down” is a scathing critique on the repetitive and automaton nature of modern life, in which the worker is the consumer is the product is the worker. We are lucky to be allowed to strive towards the goals already set for us. We are privileged to be allowed to “fall into the coveted line.”

Great viable citizen
Are you happy now?
Then praise your god and bow

The god is wealth, capitalism, the empty recognition of one’s peers and always-judging neighbors—really whatever you imagine it to be. The point is that it’s all an illusion, we know it is an illusion, and yet we stay right in that line. Looking through the obvious cracks in that illusion might lead to madness. That way be dragons. So above all else…

Do not look down. Do not look down
Or the abysmal beast of nonconformity
Might stare some unpleasant truth
Into your desensitized mind

The fact that this song is so ludicrously infectious only makes its message seem that much more snide and bitter. It’s almost easy to imagine some conservative politician in the band’s native Sweden (let’s call him “Pål Ryön”) doing curls to it without ever really listening to the words.

Because holy schnikes, folks, with grooves and thumps this thick, it’s easy to ignore the underlying message, until you realize that all the rump-movements aren’t meant to be part of some Woodstock ‘99 debauchery, but good old fashioned catharsis. By all means, do look down, and then move your ass. [ZACH DUVALL]

BLEED

[obZen, 2008]

Meshuggah have often been a bit of a paradox – too brainy for the meatheads, too heavy for the mainstream, too brutish for most prog-fiends. While this means their appeal is narrower than it might otherwise be, it also means that their devotees often make an even deeper connection to the material, as if to make up for the presumption of its underappreciation. Nevertheless, at the time of its release – as has so often been the case – the general metal public (both fans and journalists alike) spent too much time mistaking process for product. Specifically, it was a grand hullabaloo that obZen marked the return of Tomas Haake’s live drumming after the programmed drumming excursions of both Catch Thirtythree and the re-recording of Nothing. By focusing too much on the tools they used, though, people seemed to pay too little attention to what those tools were used to craft.

To be frank, after the meandering sprawl and cosmic sheen of Catch Thirtythree, obZen was almost shockingly brutal, and although its opener “Combustion” rang the doorbell, it was really the third track “Bleed” that stomped the flaming bag of shit to really drive the point home. (This is a good thing; please keep up.) Although the shorter edit worked fine as the album’s lead single, you really need the song’s full, seven-plus minutes of throttling, hyperspeed groove to underscore the way in which “Bleed” manages a critical latter-day Meshuggah feat: it manages to make that unrelenting choppering sound almost normal. In fact, Thordendal’s and Hagström’s rhythm work is so drily precise that if you squint at the song just right, at times it almost sounds like something from …And Justice for All being played by a pair of malfunctioning pneumatic drill presses. And if you listen to how Thordendal’s beautifully restrained solo floats atop the mix just after that eerie, clean midsection, it sounds like one of the most forceful statements of the band’s career of the struggle for the human spark to persist in the face of persistent dehumanization and mechanization. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]

MONSTROCITY

[The Violent Sleep of Reason, 2016]

For whatever reason, by 2016 my relationship with Meshuggah was starting to strain. Whether it was the result of aging, the 15-plus years of being flooded with new music (including so many bands attempting and failing to replicate Chaosphere), or just being largely unimpressed at the time with Koloss, I’m not sure. Still, I dutifully picked this up shortly after release. The early returns and preview tracks had me feeling lukewarm and I started to think this might be the end of the road for me. Then it happened: “MonstroCity” kicked in, and all those feelings from the past came rushing back. It was vintage Meshuggah that bent, swayed, and smashed in all the right ways. Plus, it showed the legions of pretenders how this djent thing is supposed to be done. That fucking bassline, man, it just wraps itself around your body and mercilessly whips you around before unceremoniously dumping your quivering mass on the floor just past the 5:30 mark. What a ride. As crushingly heavy as the rest of the album soon revealed itself to be, it was the sheer might of this track that carried it all to way to a respectable #11 placement on that year’s best-of list.

That, everyone, is “MonstroCity,” where the norm is that of the insane. So the next time you hear me ask if Meshuggah is running out of gas, you have my permission to smack me upside the head and say, “Zeit nishte Meshuggah!” [DAVE PIRTLE]

GODS OF RAPTURE

[None, 1994]

For all the aggression and promise on debut Contradictions Collapse, most metal historians likely point to Destroy, Erase, Improve as the moment when Meshuggah really started to change the game. But the biggest early leap came not on their 1995 classic, but the prior year’s None EP. Like Contradictions, the EP has plenty of remnants of their thrash roots (and even some ill-advised clean vocals from Kidman), but for the most part it’s locked into all the futurism, rhythmic trickery, aggro groove thrash, and jazzy lead goodness of DEI.

In other words, when it cooks, it cooks, and nowhere does it cook more than on the beastly “Gods of Rapture.” The tune is largely based on the type of groove-techy, polyrhythmic riffage that wouldn’t sound out of place on any album they released after, but then out of basically nowhere drops an absolutely batty passage ‒ super punchy drumming and riffs plus some wicked fun gang shouts ‒ before an extended, atmospheric, and really melodic solo section. It’s hard to think of any other band making these various ingredients work in the same recipe, and back in 1994 it probably sounded pretty bizarre to a lot of listeners. But observed 27 years later, it’s obvious that these were all building blocks of a metal monster that was just about to hit its seemingly eternal plateau.

Okay, they weren’t all building blocks, as the band phased out the gang vocals ages ago. A bit of a shame, really. Those were fun. [ZACH DUVALL]

CLOSED EYE VISUALS

[Nothing, 2002]

The opening salvo of “Closed Eye Visuals” sounds like it’s on drugs. Each strike of the chords is accompanied by the auditory equivalent of a half-conscious stumble with one foot dragging behind it to cause a tripping delay. But then the song shakes its head and clarifies the main riff just before Kidman launches into whatever lyrical lunacy he opts to shout during these seven-and-a-half minutes. That element of a dragging foot lessens, but stays with the guitars throughout the song always pulling out a note just a bit longer to give it a touch of swaying groove. Haake’s hi-hat work consistently drives the song forward giving you some semblance of steadiness among the wobble.

Around the 4-minute mark the guitars really start to let the notes hold for a long time on each hit as Kidman initiates a spoken-word passage before the song opens up for Thordendale to launch into a jam-session take on a guitar solo. He keeps plucking away and stitching small runs together to create a discordant nightmare, but then it ceases and all that remains are some loose bass notes and echoing plucks of a creepy guitar bouncing from ear-to-ear creating a sense of ominous unease. Just as it seems like “Closed Eye Visuals” is working toward fading out, the band drops the hammer one more time and closes out with those creepy guitars backing the hefty chunking guitars. [SPENCER HOTZ]

SUFFER IN TRUTH

[Destroy, Erase, Improve, 1995]

It didn’t take long after discovering Meshuggah via Chaosphere that the snobbier metal types started with the “Pfft, yeah but Destroy, Erase, Improve is way better, dude” comments. For some reason that caused my defense mechanisms to kick in, and that thing inside my head screamed “THEY’RE WRONG AND WE MUST DEFEND THE CHAOSPHERE!” It was… fine, as it turned out. You could see where they were going. The structures were mostly there, but the band hadn’t quite found that lowest end yet, the secret sauce that would bring them god-like status.

Though I didn’t dislike it, I rarely went to Destroy, Erase, Improve for my Meshuggah fix. Combine that with being a very stubborn man and it was years before I would finally drop my bullshit and really start to appreciate not just the material but how important the album was to their evolution from run-of-the-mill Metallica worshippers to bonafide musical innovators. “Suffer In Truth” had a lot to do with that. Although it was album opener “Future Breed Machine” that authoritatively announced their new direction hinted at on the None EP, this cut shifted the album into another gear right as it was threatening to idle. The tight rhythms of each verse hold steady into bridges that grow more urgent each time around, plateauing into choruses that clear the field, a pattern broken up just long enough to deliver a welcome beatdown just before the 2:30 mark. The track never officially stops, it just fades away. You’re helpless to stop it. All you can do is wait for it to come around again. You know it’s worth the wait, but you still silently resent the band for doing that to you. [DAVE PIRTLE]

DEMIURGE

[Koloss, 2012]

And now we come to it. The thematic apogee on Koloss; the eight-string guitars hyper-saturated with gain and mercilessly slammed into that low F note; the slow pounding groove of toms and kicks. Twenty-five years taught the band one of the hardest lessons for technical players to learn—don’t overplay it. “Demiurge” is six minutes seventeen seconds, but only has 59 words in the lyrics. This paragraph contains 68.

The highlight of the song is the spine-snapping riff at 2:27. Jens Kidman announces “A prophet of extinction!” and the whole band crashes into the riff. The second time around, Jens weaves his furious denunciations amidst the thorns of the riff, and the band iterates on the shape, adding flourishes that compel a listener’s body to respond.

And yet, the patterns aren’t in themselves overly flashy. The tempo is low. How does this riff manage to sound like it could fold space-time? The magic is in the players themselves, not only in the composition. Meshuggah have discovered exactly how to extract maximum power from these tones. Anyone can downtune a guitar and crank the gain to 11, but for the average player the only thing that will come through the speakers is mud. Fredrik Thordendal, Mårten Hagström, Dick Lövgren, and Tomas Haake are all playing in the same sonic spectrum. If the band isn’t completely locked in with itself, those frequencies would cancel each other out, making the music sound lifeless and drained instead of powerful and crushing.

Meshuggah are simultaneously the progenitors and the masters of this kind of heavy music. Koloss stands tall as one of the band’s greatest works, and “Demiurge” is the crystal clarity a listener reaches at the top of the climb. [MEGAN ASTARAEL]

NEW MILLENNIUM CYANIDE CHRIST

[Chaosphere, 1998]

While it was “The Mouth Licking What You’ve Bled” that introduced me to Meshuggah (thanks again, Death is Just the Beginning V), it was this Chaosphere track that really grabbed me. It was an exciting time in the evolution of this metal fan. College radio had opened a floodgate of new bands to discover, and none of them sounded like Meshuggah. This was the track everyone told me I had to hear, the one they’d play when they said, “DUDE you’ve got to hear this band Meshuggah!” They were right, of course. This was so goddamn heavy, with fat grooves and infectious melodics that made you hunger for more. No band had any business being this heavy, this rhythmic, this infectious. It was a blessing and a curse. No one else was doing this, so any attempts to find “bands that sound like Meshuggah” were futile. They had basically created their own genre; and even if you went back just one album to Destroy, Erase, Improve it just wasn’t the same (it rules, but it’s a different vibe). No, all you had was this. And you were more than happy to just sit there, taking abuse again and again as the staggering, djarring riffs of “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” pummeled you until blood ran from both ears. [DAVE PIRTLE]

DANCERS TO A DISCORDANT SYSTEM

[obZen, 2008]

As a whole, obZen seems to contain some of the catchiest, most live-ready tunes in the Meshuggah library. Opener “Combustion,” the hefty title track, and “Bleed” all seem written with concerts in mind, even if the latter still pushes past seven minutes in length. But the album’s later stretches get more abstract and rather more cerebral in structure, all leading to monumental finale “Dancers to a Discordant System,” one of the tensest and altogether most draining songs the band has ever done. Like “Bleed,” it’s popular in Meshuggah setlists, and has frequently been used as a closer, when the crowd is already exhausted and needs that last little bit of energy sucked out of them.

The song, to put it bluntly, is large. At nearly 10-minutes in length, it’s among Meshuggah’s longest tracks (it’s the longest that isn’t part of a fully contained album or EP unless you count all that nightmare fuel in “Elastic”), and nearly every second is used to grip and pummel the ears and minds of listeners. “Dancers” starts with stark, creepy clean guitars before introducing a weird, backwards-sounding line that serves as the roots for nearly everything that follows. Sometimes the motif is played at quieter volumes with Kidman doing more of a whispered spokal and Haake pounding on the toms (like some sort of semi-extreme metal Tool), and at other times it is unleashed in its full heft, but the important thing is that it is nearly always in motion, and always evolving.

As that main motif, that weird, backwards-sounding line evolves and grows, so too does the song’s gripping intensity. It isn’t until almost the 5:30 mark that the tension is released in the form of the song’s chorus. The backing to a rather lengthy solo section is largely unrecognizable as variation of the main theme until each evolutionary link is observed back to back. Meshuggah has used this particular songwriting trick throughout their career, but “Dancers to a Discordant System” does it as well as anything, proving that no matter how mechanical Meshuggah’s tunes may sound to the uninitiated (or unconvinced), their music remains among the most purely organic in the sphere of heavy metal. [ZACH DUVALL]

CATCH THIRTYTHREE

[Catch Thirtythree, 2005]

The more litigious of our readers may be leaping to their feet and shouting “OBJECTION!” as they see us include the entirety of Catch Thirtythree on this list. BUT, these Devil’s Dozen features aim to include a staff-voted top-13 SONGS, not tracks, and Catch Thirtythree is technically a single-song, 47-minute album, despite being split into 13 tracks. As such, we the judges are opting to overrule your silly objection and humbly request that if you would like to take any form of legal action, it should be against Meshuggah themselves for making the bonkers decision to replace one of heavy music’s most talented and enigmatic drummers in Tomas Haake with a gatdamn drum machine (even if it did pull all samples from his works).

The foundation for Meshuggah’s most ambitious work was clearly laid by the I EP a year prior, but they mixed it with the elements of groove and creepy ambience they implemented more strongly on Nothing. One of the most impressive things about listening to Catch Thirtythree is that the majority of the tracks really do run together so seamlessly that you won’t notice the change without directly seeing a track number on your device. “Autonomy Lost” through “Entrapment” set the tone with a prominent repeated groove and tremolo riff passage that appears as a thematic element multiple times throughout the album, particularly on “The Paradoxical Spiral” as the tremolo sounds like it’s on a broken endless loop for much of its three minutes.

A patented weirdo Thordendale solo in “Entrapment” leads to the return of that tremolo element, which is abruptly cutoff by what sounds like a steel cable snapping and swinging a giant air conditioner into a wall as “Mind’s Mirror” begins. This is where the Catch Thirtythree hits its weirdest moment, with a robotic spoken-word passage going over those swelling steel cable sounds. About halfway through, clean-plucked guitar parts that sound like they’re coming out of a haunted hall of mirrors start echoing in and a bass slowly rises to the top. The break for creepiness is interrupted by what sounds like the musicians slamming their fist into their guitars before dropping back into that opening groove and tremolo combo once again on “In Death – Is Life.”

“In Death – Is Death” is likely the best representative track of the full song as it offers pure circus shenanigans on the guitar, wild Thordendale noise, elastic stretching riffs, unsettling cleans, that thematic tremolo and long exploratory stretches that offer the most transformations during any single portion of Catch-33. The light show and additional heft that this track gains from the stage, is truly something to behold.

As alarm clock sounds slowly waft to the top of the mix at the end of “In Death – Is Death,” a visceral Kidman scream and pummeling drums announce Catch Thirtythree’s heaviest segments starting with “Shed.” The album delivers some of the most crushing angular heft of the band’s career through this stretch until close to the three-minute mark on closing track “Sum” when an ambient slow strum to helps the listener wind down after so much chaos.

Ambition can often lead to experimenting simply for the sake of being challenging and quickly become self-indulgent garbage. Catch Thirtythree finds the rare musicians whose talent can match their ambition as they created a one-of-a-kind masterstroke among a discography of truly unique albums. [SPENCER HOTZ]

Photo by Anthony Dubois

Posted by Last Rites

GENERALLY IMPRESSED WITH RIFFS

  1. This is always such a fun and interesting exercise—I’m always left wanting to revisit every album from whatever band is being dissected. Meshuggah are truly iconic to heavy metal and if you can somehow keep yourself from banging your head to them then you are more robotic than those of us who try to bang along with the rhythms. This is an excellent list, I would have included Straws Pulled at Random somewhere in there but who cares, they just have too many great songs! Never seen them live but I’m sure it’s a trip!

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  2. I got into Meshuggah after hearing “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” on WSOU in Jersey. That’s all it took. I can’t say I kept up with them after Nothing though. Songs here and there have always grabbed me but nothing like Chaosphere.

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  3. That solo at ~2:10 in Monstrocity just blows me away everytime I hear it, and sums up everything that is good about Meshuggah. The way the music goes into and out of the main riff, the insane drumming underlying everything, and just short sharp notes never threatening to turn into a melody yet staying interesting throughout.

    What gets me about Meshuggah is how inexplicable their music is. There are so many times when I’m listening all I can think is “how the fuck did they do *that*?!” Slow, fast, chaotic, hypnotic, it always somehow works. And most of the time they sound at ease – if that’s the right term to describe such complex chaotic music.

    One track I really dig is Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion off Koloss. The song is almost hypnotic, it seems superficially simple (by their standards) on the surface, yet the riffs and drum patterns are so fascinating.

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    1. I’m so glad you mentioned Break Those Bones…that’s the standout track on that album for me.

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      1. That tune kills. Simply not enough room on one of these lits sometimes.

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        1. Or lists. Editor privileges revoked.

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        2. As far as tracks off Koloss go, it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of the two that were.

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