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Meshuggah Showed the Djent Bands the Meaning of Brutal With ‘obZen’

Nuclear Blast
Nuclear Blast

By 2002, Meshuggah had smashed their way out of the metal underground. Some very influential musicians, including Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ben Weinman and Deftones guitarist Stephan Carpenter, were namedropping Meshuggah as a major influence on them. Someone even came up with the name “djent” – probably the worst, most non-descript titles ever – to describe the band’s music, and soon it was an umbrella term for any proggy metal band that used asymmetrical rhythms, angular, de-tuned guitars, plenty of palm-muted chugs and skull-rattling vocals.

Meshuggah were at their commercial peak at the time; 2002’s Nothing sold 100,000 copies. That’s when the band took a sharp left turn. They followed Nothing with the long single-track EP I, which was released without fanfare on an unknown indie label. The EP was a preface for their even more uncommercial one-song album Caththirtythree, on which the band replaced organic drums with electronic percussion and relied on a combination of experimental riffs and demanding avant-garde progressions that were so multi-dimensional they were impossible to play live.

While both releases might seem like willfully antagonistic efforts to skirt the djent craze, Meshuggah denies any such motivation. “With Catchthirtythree — especially that very idea of doing a one-track album — is something that had been brewing for 10 years,” drummer/programmer/vocalist Tomas Haake told me in 2008. “We just felt like inspiration-wise and because of the mood we were in, it was something we needed to do at that time.”

Having satisfied their need to take a sonic leap off the cliff, Meshuggah returned to their own style of bludgeoning, technical death metal on the 2008 album obZen. The record marked a welcome return to the hammering drums, hiccupping rhythms and traditional song lengths of Nothing and 1998’s equally searing Chaosphere.

“We definitely felt we needed to get back to writing songs that are more in your face, maybe a bit direct, and in that sense, more suitable to live shows,” Haake said, shortly before the release of the album. “We wanted to have more typical song structures and the lengths of songs. We wanted to have a good blend as far as tempos and different vibes and we definitely aimed at having each song be very separate from all the others.”

But writing and recording obZen was hardly a matter of hopping back on the schizophrenic three-legged horse and hitting full-gallop. Meshuggah wanted to craft something familiar without repeating themselves, while at the same time avoiding what other so-called djent bands were doing. Endless hours of calculated and spontaneous jams at their Umeå practice space followed. In the end, it took Meshuggah almost a year to write all the songs for ObZen, which, at the time, was the longest they’d spent on any album. It wasn’t like they were procrastinating, and as they concocted the nearly impossible meters, overlapped skewed passages and unconventional arrangements, the band members had trouble telling what was amazing and what was sheer noise. In the end, they captured a healthy amount of both.

“I think we wanted to work in an environment where there was a certain amount of chaos and frustration,” guitarist Mårten Hagström said. “If you’re creating music that’s chaotic for the mind, you have to feel even more chaotic to create it. We wanted to step back into the turmoil of what we used to be, but to take it a little bit further in terms of ideas. If we were complacent the whole time, then the album probably wouldn’t have had that edge to it. I want it to create tension and anxiety that makes you get mad. When I listen to Nothing, it makes you groove a little bit. This one makes you get a little bit furious, and that’s a good thing.”

Meshuggah entered Fear and Loathing studio in Stockholm in May 2007 and over the next six months they recorded obZen. While songs like “Bleed,” “Combustion” and the title track sound violently cohesive, they’re actually more structurally complex and more difficult to play than much of the band’s prior material. Not only is there an abundance of overlapping slingshot beats, frenzied, meticulous guitar lines and unconventional chord patterns, the stanzas tumble over one-another rarely starting where the last one began. Yet it all fits together like puzzle pieces cut by a blind epileptic.

“I spent the first four weeks just working on the drums,” Haake said. “I did between 20 and 30 takes of everything and then we listened to it all and put the best parts together. If it didn’t seem to fit we kept working on it and made it work. That’s pretty much what we did for everything on this record.”

When it was time to track the vocals, Jens Kidman only had some of his vocal patterns written so he listened over and over to what his bandmates had done and conjured complimentary passages from the pit of his burning gut.

“I don’t think so much about the actual lyrics when I sing, it’s more about the feel,” Kidman said. “When the album is done and I listen to the songs, I feel like the meaning of the lyrics come. And then you get lost in what you’re doing. I can only sing for two or maybe six hours at a time, but when you’re doing it you’re so into it that it blocks your mind from remembering and all the other senses.”

The title obZen was a blend of the words obscene and Zen. Haake came up with the name and rather than view it as a symbol of yin-yang duality, he sees it as the inevitable merging between the ugly and the serene.

“To put it simply, it’s about human evil,” he said. “As in, you’ve found your balance and equilibrium as a human being in the obscene — in violence, in bloodshed. There’s a lot of cruelty in man and the name captures that very mood you get from being aware of what’s going on.”

For Kidman, the music for obZen was the perfect framework for expressing the tragically flawed nature of mankind.

“I think we’re evil, for sure,” Kidman said. “You look at the world right now and it’s completely crazy. We’re not going to exist for that long if it continues like this. It’s stupid and dangerous and I think religion has a big part in it. Evil lives in religion and greed. But really, everything is about greed. Money and religion are a big part of the evil in this world. But unfortunately, I think there’s something programmed in us and there has been for thousands of years. I don’t think we can live without it.”

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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