Sweden, Nuclear Blast Records, Undefinable.
On May 9th, I lived one of my greatest dreams; I saw Meshuggah live, truly solidifying my unwavering love and devotion to their music. It was easily one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to and while I paid a hell of a physical price, it was worth every bit of aching, bruising and pain. Since the show I’ve been on an almost all Meshuggah diet. (Save for occasionally discovering a new band to be reviewed, Cattle Decapitation for the upcoming staff review and one of my two other great metallic loves, Suffocation) I’ve gone through their whole discography once again and now at the tail end of their godly gifts to music I find myself pondering what I’ve decided to call ‘The ObZen Conundrum’.
I love this band more than most people love their children. I worship the ground these Swedes walk on and I have a particularly unhealthy obsession with Fredrik Thordendal. All of that being said (reiterated actually) ‘ObZen’ poses a distinct quandary for me as the rabid, insatiable will-never-shut-up-about-this-thing-he-loves Meshuggah addict I am. On the one hand, I appreciate this album in various ways. Meshuggah has always been about experimentation and an album that attempted to merge elements of older Meshuggah with their new visions and methods was perhaps their most audacious variation outside of ‘Catch 33’ and ‘I’. On the other hand, this particular experiment falls short in a couple of key areas, resulting in easily the worst outing in the band’s 23 year career.
To be as clear as I possibly can before getting to the nitty-gritty of this review, ‘ObZen’ is not even close to being a bad or even mediocre album. It STILL annihilates 95% of what most other metal bands have done and continue to do since 2008. Saying that ‘ObZen’ is the closest thing to a blemish on the otherwise impeccable track record this band has is perhaps one of the greatest things anyone could say about the band if you think about it; five EPs, seven full length albums and the lowest point of their discography is the album with ‘Dancers To A Discordant System’ on it? There’s no way they aren’t gods.
Regardless, as good as this album actually is, its problems continue to strike me more and more every time I listen to it. Chief among these problems is the simple fact that as a merge of older Meshuggah and newer Meshuggah, ‘ObZen’ does not accurately recapture the distinct elements of the band’s first few albums they sought to revisit, opting instead to take traces of say ‘Chaosphere’ and run them through a distinctly modern Meshuggah framework, obliterating the identity of the old while diluting the identity of the new. The result is not a nod to elements long since past but a complete retooling of ideas that didn’t need to be reworked. Sure, songs like ‘Pravus’ or even ‘Combustion’ long to take the asphyxiating manic energy of ‘Concantenation’ or ‘The Mouth Licking What You’ve Bled’ and feed it through what I like to call a ‘polished biomechanical eight string assault on the senses’ but the mania of ‘Chaosphere’ is not something that can be turned on & off or adjusted like a faucet. The reason ‘Chaosphere’ was and still is such a massive success was because claustrophobia and insanity were not simply whims explored on certain songs. Among many other things claustrophobia and insanity DEFINE ‘Chaosphere’. If ‘ObZen’ could be solely defined as a rough, newly minted biomechanical exploration of human evil, it would have been a much better album. That simply isn’t the case though. Across nine tracks, the palpable sensations and textures of the music vary to such a degree so as to become thematically inconsistent. ‘Lethargica’ crushes the listener in an all encompassing void of sloth while right afterwards the title track drowns the listener in a sea of human filth. The textural progression of ‘ObZen’ is baffling to say the least and that confusion can be directly accounted for by the haphazard wisps of eras and albums long since past that don’t belong.
Beyond that, ‘ObZen’ features a very mixed bag of alternating great and good tracks which along with the thematic/textural inconsistency becomes very jarring. No song on the album ever dips below ‘good’ but that isn’t to say that some tracks aren’t problematic to a degree. The greatest example of this is ‘Bleed’, a song hailed as one of Meshuggah’s best by people who barely listen to Meshuggah. Go ahead and ask any devoted Meshuggah fan what their favorite songs from the band are and I guarantee the vast majority will be off of ‘Destroy Erase Improve’, ‘Chaosphere’, ‘Nothing’ or even ‘None’, ‘Catch 33’ (which gets a bum rap for no reason) and ‘Contradictions Collapse’ as the case may be, even if ‘Bleed’ managed to eek its way in there. Then ask the know nothing kid with a Periphery shirt and Vildhjarta fetish what his favorite Meshuggah songs are and listen to the inevitable inanities that sound something like,
“OHMYGOD Bleed is SOOOOOO GOOD! It gave me djenital herpes that I needed to get djenticine from a djentor for! DJENT DJENT DJENT!”
That’s not to say ‘Bleed’ is simply poser fuel but the notion that it’s one of Meshuggah’s all time greatest songs is absolutely ridiculous. ‘Humiliative’, ‘Aztec Two-Step’, ‘Inside What’s Within Behind’, ‘Sane’, ‘Straws Pulled At Random’, ‘Spasm’, ‘In Death Is Life/Death’, ‘Cadaverous Mastication’; these are all songs infinitely superior to ‘Bleed’ that get little to no press, even among certain Meshuggah fans. Why? Simply because ‘Bleed’ has stolen the spotlight with a popular music video and hype along the lines of ‘Tomas Haake has never drummed so intensely!’ which is also absolute horseshit to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the work he did on ‘Destroy Erase Improve’. Hell, even ‘The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance’ on ‘Koloss’ which not only features more interesting music as a whole but also a vastly superior Tomas Haake double bass performance has been assigned the nauseatingly belittling title of ‘The New Bleed’. This fascination with a track that’s among the least interesting on the album it was recorded for (Listen to ‘Pravus’, ‘Pineal Gland Optics’, ‘This Spiteful Snake’ and ‘Dancers To A Discordant System’, then try to tell me that ‘Bleed’ is the ‘ObZen’ track that deserves all the hype) is absurd and only goes to show that even with a band as monumental as Meshuggah there will always be songs made into bandwagons to hop on to.
Overall, the greatest gripe I have with ‘ObZen’ isn’t that certain ideas have been handled wrongly per se, but more than they were handled frustratingly. Tracks like ‘Dancers To A Discordant System’ and ‘Pineal Gland Optics’ hint at a central, original crux similar to yet completely different than Meshuggah’s other countless classics while tracks like ‘Pravus’ and ‘Electric Red’, as good as they are muddle the central sonic premise of the album. ‘Bleed’ is given way too much credit while ironically serving as the greatest distortion of ‘ObZen’s buried wholly original focus. The album structure places its greatest tracks right next to its merely good tracks cementing the one frustration to rule them all about ‘ObZen’; this album is lost. Ideas flourish only to become gnarled moments later. A clear beginning and end is impossible to discern, leaving any prospective listener with only one completely bizarre notion…it simply is. Definition and identity remain obfuscated in the wake of the revelation that ‘ObZen’ is the musical equivalent of a temporal distortion, a bubble existing within the larger membrane of a defined reality deceptively posing as something with a clear sense of self when it’s assimilated and darkened so many other selves that concept ceases to be relevant…
…and yet, for all of my critiques, suggestions, confusion and word games this is STILL a Meshuggah album. It STILL has everything I’ve always loved about the band, even if disparate elements are its only ‘identity’. Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström are the undisputed masters of the eight string guitar. Tomas Haake is the greatest metal drummer who ever lived. Jens Kidman has perfected a style of extreme metal vocals that is distinctly his own; part death growl, part scream and distinctly robotic while viscerally human. Dick Lövgren is the unsung hero of Meshuggah, filling a role some deem irrelevant and making his piece of the puzzle indispensable. The lyrics, as always, are brilliant, mind bending and thought provoking. The production quality is top notch. What’s more is that all of these tracks sound infinitely better live, especially ‘Dancers To A Discordant System’, which in a historic turn of events Meshuggah actually played at Showbox.
I’m sure a good deal of what I’ve written here might seem odd to the vast majority of folks who aren’t me or don’t live in my head, but quite honestly I don’t think this review could have turned out any other way. More than anything, these words perfectly capture the pretzel I’ve turned my mind into trying to quantify ‘ObZen’s place in my Meshuggah addiction. The seemingly catastrophic issues against the backdrop of the album’s undeniable quality, using words like ‘textural’, ‘membrane’ and ‘temporal’ to define a perceived identity crisis, the rejection of ‘Bleed’s hype, everything written here has been tossing and turning in my mind for at least a solid month. In the end, that’s probably the real ‘ObZen Conundrum’; the mental gymnastics of a rabid fanboy coming to terms with the reasons for his inevitable bottom in the hierarchy of his favorite band’s material.
There’s also the distinct possibility that I’ve gone completely insane. Probably too late to worry about that.