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Everyone Should Listen To: Meshuggah - ObZen
By: Cameron Rogers
Metal, for much of its genesis, was a poser genre. That is not to take away from the songwriting talent of Metallica, or the instrumental talent of Friedman era Megadeath. However, the overall aesthetic of the genre and the personalities within it would often be off putting, and not analogous to a genre that saw itself as “dark”.
The underground has traditionally produced the acts with the least noticed, yet most widespread influence. This is a truism of every genre. With metal though, there is one act in particular that springs to mind as having pioneered the underground and not being comparable to their more poser-esque contemporaries: Meshuggah.
Any serious metal fan will know the name Meshuggah, which is about as iconic of a name in metal as Kendrick Lamar is in hip-hop. The Swedish band has not only influenced hundreds of mainstream bands, innovated metal musicianship, and given birth to one of the most popular metal sub-genres (djent), but they have also kept trying new techniques to ensure their listeners do not get bored. There is a heated debate as to which album is the band’s best, with most people citing their second album Destroy Erase Improve as being the magnum opus. For me personally, it is the band’s 2008 album ObZen that takes the cake. Meshuggah already had a strong cult following and legendary status within the underground by this point, though I think that if there were still any naysayers at this stage in the band’s career, they would have been finally silenced by ObZen.
The album has mastered the art of extreme metal. It is brutal, heavy, and terrifying in its rage. It has the rhythmic complexities and mind boggling musicianship of Meshuggah’s previous work, but the approach is slightly different. ‘Bleed’, the third track of this album and considered by many to be the best track of the band’s career, is technically in 4/4. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to play however. The bass pedal rhythms are so difficult that drummer Tomas Haake, arguably the best drummer of all time, nearly shelved the track as he didn’t think he would be able to play it without making any mistakes.
Relatively simple time signatures done in artfully complex ways are a recurring theme within this album. ‘Combustion’, ‘Electric Red’, ‘ObZen’, and ‘Pineal Gland Optics’ are all in 4/4 but with a seasoning of musical dexterity. There are also songs with more interesting time signature patterns. ‘Pravus’ is perhaps the most striking example of this, apparently having a shifting time signature that matches an electromechanical binary counting system. ‘Dancers to a Discordant System’, my favourite Meshuggah song, is a song that sees a few time signature shifts, with the majority of the song being played in 12/8.
On top of this rhythmic complexity is fantastic songwriting, delivered in what can only be described as a fantastically terrifying manner. ObZen is a combination of the word ‘obscene’ with the word ‘Zen’, after the esoteric school of Buddhism that values emptiness and mental equanimity. The songs on this album are intended to lay bare the horrific side of human nature. There are themes of torture (‘Bleed’), deference to a corrupt moral code (‘ObZen’), and conformity to a broken system (‘Electric Red’ and ‘Dancers to a Discordant System’). Jens Kidman’s vocals in this album, aged somewhat by years of screaming, are deeper and rougher than on previous releases. This works in his favour, as it makes the raw deliverance of his message all the more doomful.
To accommodate these vocals, the guitarists of the band (Fredrik Thordendal, Marten Hagstrom, and bassist Dick Lovgren) tune their instruments right down in comparison with other albums. This is a style that the band has maintained since ObZen. The tuning down of the guitars adds to the sense that you are listening to a biblical Leviathan emerge from the deep, as opposed to a mere band, and personally is what makes me revisit the project every few months. The terror conveyed by the instruments is strangely cathartic to the ear, especially if one is pairing up this album with a run (which I often do). If you are ever lacking the motivation to give it 100% during your exercise, put this on your headphones and I promise that problem will be remedied in an instant.
This album is raw. It does not hold back its sheer force, and it is all the better for it. Meshuggah and extreme metal in general isn’t for a lot of folks, and I can understand that for the more casual music listener taking on ObZen is too much of a challenge to be enjoyable. However, if you enjoy metal or any music that is heavy, this album is a must. It is one of the most important albums ever made in the metal world, and deserves to get its due recognition.