(This is more than a show review… this is Andy Synn’s analysis of why Meshuggah rise far above their legions of imitators.)
Two nights ago I was lucky enough to witness the sheer awe-inspiring power of Meshuggah lay waste to a packed Roundhouse in London, as part of their 25th (!) Anniversary tour.
As I’m reviewing the show for another publication (because I am, at heart, a whore for attention and approbation) it didn’t seem right to also review it here for NCS. However, the whole experience did stimulate more than a few different thoughts in my head, and so I wanted to at least take the opportunity to write a few of them down, and maybe go a little deeper into exactly why I think Meshuggah are such an important, vital band in today’s metal scene.
Seeing Meshuggah live is like dropping a probe into an alternate dimension where all the laws of physics have been totally rearranged, and where chaos itself can be calculated to the nth degree. The sheer power put out by the band in the live setting is nothing short of astounding, the whole experience nothing less than a kaleidoscopic assault on every level of perception – sight, sound, and pure sensation.
That power, that uncompromising, unstoppable force that the band emit is one thing that truly separates them from the majority of their peers and imitators. For all their popularity (if years ago you had told me that a band as stunningly heavy and knowingly, almost arrogantly, complex as Meshuggah would be headlining a venue the size of The Roundhouse, I simply wouldn’t have believed you), the Swedes aren’t a band who aim to pander or please others. They write destructive, angular, difficult music… for no reason other than to explore what can be done with the form, and with little to no regard for what others think should be possible or acceptable.
A lot of this comes down to the band’s origins – at the heart of things, the band’s foundations are rooted in Thrash and Death Metal. Violent, aggressive, and unrepentantly angry forms of music who prefer extremity to acceptability. The Meshuggah sound is just one natural extension of this, a more mechanical, clanking, armour-plated form of cybernetically-enhanced Death Metal designed to explore strange dimensions of sound and fury which other forms might not encounter.
This disregard for what’s “right” or what’s “marketable” helps make them truly unique, despite the hordes of lesser-bands trying in vain to bastardise their sound for commercial success. Indeed, most of their followers seem content (whether consciously or not) to water-down the Swedes’ singular sound, softening it and filing down all the harsh, angular edges, disguising imitation as innovation.
It’s a Catch-22 of course. Basing your band’s identity almost solely around a sound as truly distinctive as Meshuggah (in many cases, right down to copying their guitar-tone wholesale) means you’re doomed to always be seen – no matter how good or bad you might be – as slavish adherents to someone else’s style.
Many bands try to get around this – or so it seems to me – by trying to make the sound more palatable, attempting (ironically as it turns out) to make themselves stand out by pursuing mass appeal. And that’s where the catch really comes in. It seems like 90% of the time you’re caught between two choices. Either sound directly like a lesser version of your progenitor, or sound exactly like everyone else who’s made the exact same attempt to sound less like them.
And it seems to me that this attempt to widen the appeal of this Meshuggah-derived sound also serves to soften its impact. In fact, I’d even say that it’s this pursuit of popularity over progression that alienates a good number of potential fans.
Yet with Meshuggah themselves it’s somehow different. Their popularity has come in spite of the way they do things. Their sound has certainly progressed over the years, yet in no way has it been softened or simplified. They remember, as do many of their fans, that they’re a Death Metal band at their heart. And that really shines through in the unflinching, ballistic heaviness of their live shows.
Even when they delve into more ambient environments, those unsettling moments when they bring their strange, otherworldly guitar leads and odd, mutated, anti-melodies to the fore, there’s never any sense that it’s being done in order to let up on the audience or simplify their sound for ease of consumption. Rather, there’s an exploratory feel to these parts – sometimes tentative, other times wildly experimental – as if the band themselves are unsure precisely what they have discovered, and are still merely testing the limits of what they can do.
The reason that Meshuggah strike me as such an important, integral band in today’s scene is not just because they’re one of the most clinically efficient, punishingly heavy, and inhumanly tight bands I’ve ever seen – though they are that, without a doubt – but because they’re an inspiration. And I don’t just mean to the hordes of identikit clones who have followed in their wake, feeding off the scraps they leave behind like scavengers and parasites.
No, you don’t have to look far to see how many bands hold the Swedish quintet up as a constant source of inspiration – not necessarily in terms of a direct comparison of sound, but in terms of their uncompromising vision and flawless pursuit of perfection. Everyone from Decapitated to Gojira… Allegaeon, Byzantine, Car Bomb, Soreption, Darkane, Ulcerate… the list goes on. All these bands, and so many more, cite the Swedish five-piece as a key influence, whose iconic presence and constant drive to progress and grow and improve continues to motivate and galvanise each and every one of them.
It’s what the countless copy-cats seem to fail to understand. That it’s not about imitation, it’s about inspiration… it’s the difference between mimicking a band’s sound and truly understanding what it is that makes them tick.
Meshuggah are important in that sense, not because of the bands they inspire to try and be like them, but because of all the ways in which they inspire bands, across the length and breadth of the metal scene, simply to be better.
And that, truly, is deserving of praise.