Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where I come from - Example 2

Meshuggah - Chaosphere

I'm trying to write this post while listening to the record and it's proving itself to be a total disaster. Typing with your eyes closed and face mashed up like something that can only be described as very unattractive is only impossible.
There is no single band that has been more key to my music experience than Meshuggah. Not one. I have many favourites, many loves and influences, but as far as pure commitment to listening, this is it.
In terms of the life of band I was a bit late to the polyrhythmic party. Meshuggah formed in the late 80's and released Contradictions Collapse in 1991, however I wasn't on board until 2001. At that point they'd already released what many consider to be their seminal work, Destroy Erase Improve (1995) and had followed with Chaosphere (1998). At that time I was working at a record store and when someone returned Chaosphere (pffff) I bought the same copy that day, having read bits and pieces of the band in guitar magazines.
Remember (or imagine) showing a video game to your dad when you were young and he held the controller in his hands as though it was a boiled porcupine? Think of conducting that same experiment with your grandfather, that's what it felt like when I first heard this record. I felt old, confused, tired. Like I was starting over. Similarly to Pantera, I was not ready for this band. I'd listen to the album from time to time but found myself too frustrated with it; I just couldn't figure it out.
My brother and I went out on boxing day of the same year still foolishly convinced that it was actually worthwhile. I had decided I needed a new music player and when seeing the $700+ pricetag of the first generation iPod I bought a MiniDisc player instead. To be honest it was pretty great because at that point I had gone in reverse through the Meshuggah catalogue and was able to load all the records onto one disc.
I spent the majority of the next 18 months listening to that one disc. I obsessed over each song, one at a time, picking apart each beat more than anyone should. I was wretched in math as a student but this was different. These were patterns in the one thing I actually felt I excelled at. The construct of this band was perfect for the type of listener I had become. There is no denying my love for strong melody however with heavy music and my percussive leanings, Chaosphere was a perfect fit. From start to finish it is a record of calculated, devastating rhythm.
A brief breakdown:
- As explained in a previous post, Contradictions Collapse introduced Meshuggah as a band that worshipped Metallica and had the chops to progress in a direction that Hetfield and co. were incapable. The album was brisk and jagged with scattered moments foreshadowing the direction they would eventually take.
- Jens Kidman abandoned his guitar duties to focus solely on vocals and the band brought in Mårten Hagström. The None Ep followed and Meshuggah started to distance itself from the more traditional thrash tendencies and further develop the down-tuned shifting patterns now more commonly associated with the band.
- Destroy Erase Improve was released, the song Future Breed Machine became a metal staple, the band started getting attention in all the right places and toured with Slayer.
- Chaosphere is released.
It seems common to have your most personal record from a band be one of their lesser favourites. They now claim it to have been rushed and unfocused, but for me it all came down to timing. I'm sure there are some who would claim III to be their favourite Van Halen album, both an admirable and baffling choice, but who am I to judge? This was the album that introduced me to the band and therefore had the most impact. It was form-fitted to me. With the album also came one of the best music videos known to the format:
New Millenium Cyanide Christ

Since the focus of this post is Chaosphere i'll try to quickly sum up the rest,
- The album Nothing came next. Slower, snaky, non-linear riffage. Riffs became more difficult to decipher as they became longer. 8 string guitars were built for Thordendal and Hagström and a tone unlike any other was laid to WAV.
- The "I" Ep. A 1 song, 21 minute, crushing summary influenced by almost everything that had been done to date. The riffage was at the point of randomness and next to impossible to follow unless it was charted (which I did).
- Catch Thirty-Three, album. A slow, singular dirge of unseparated tracks. A grind requiring patience and open ears.
- Obzen, album. The quick pacing is once again restored but without any sacrifice to evolution. The band continues to incorporate the techniques they've developed while making slight adjustments to its stress-inducing sonics and cadenced battery.

The biggest trick to unraveling Meshuggah's music is the understanding that despite how scattered it all sounds, it's still all (well, usually all) in 4. As with the majority of music you listen to you can count along in bars, or sections, of 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. This standard is typically led with the drummer guiding the way. The most common pattern you'll hear when focusing on the drum sound is the high-hat pushing through the count of 4 either as 1-2-3-4, or, 1&2&3&4&. With that, the snare drum will usually land on the 2 and 4 counts, with the common bass drum placements either being on the 1 and 3, or 1 and 3&. If that doesn't make sense to you just watch the first minute of this:
(of the thousands of videos presenting drummers explaining this beat I couldn't resist the guy with the muppet voice. Sorry.)

Tomas Haake deserves an entire post on his own. He is a drummer of so much creativity, unmatched talent, and limitless technique that the world of Music is better with his existence. To continue with what I was previously saying, the genius to his contributions to Meshuggah are his variations of that standard rock beat combined with using his kick drums to match the guitar riffs.
This is where things get tricky.
Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström write riffs that very, very rarely follow the 1-2-3-4 count formula. If you consider each number in that count to be a "beat", it's not unusual for the riffs to carry over 3, 6, 7, or 8 beats (or in the case of the 'I' EP, approximately 1500 beats. I'm kidding. Almost). What happens when these 2 elements come together creates an interesting combination because essentially the result is a drum beat that will repeat before the riff has completed its cycle. This causes everything to sound more and more off kilter until things eventually meet up again.
As I said, this is all emphasized by Haake matching the guitar riff with his kick drums.
Admittedly I'm not really explaining this all very well but if you consider the idea of counting to 4 with your hands, and something completely different with your feet, I'm sure you can appreciate the difficulty of it all. And that's not taking into account feel, technique, and timing.
What this all creates is the fundamental foundation of Meshuggah and what makes them so unique. It's that little magic word we call GROOVE. The band churns out knotty, difficult music yet through it all it's accessible in the sense that anyone can nod their head to it.
Below is an example of what I'm talking about. In the song The Mouth Licking what you've Bled (I know, right?) you can distinctly hear Haake driving the song by counting a straight 1-2-3-4 on either a regular cymbal (beginning) or high-hat (:15 through the verse). However if you shift your attention to what the stringed instruments and kicks are doing, you'll hear something completely different. Further, at the 2:46 mark you'll see what I mean when I say that while the hands are working in a 4 count, the guitar riff doesn't cycle back to the 1 until 16 counts later. Trust me when I say that it sounds (both in my writing and your listening) much more complicated than it is. That said, it's still pretty damn complicated. Instruments aside, check out Kidman from the :54 mark to about 1:07. It may be the most suffocating vocal delivery i've ever heard.

The next song is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of what I've just explained but is a really good example of how they're capable of looping riff variations in unique ways and always end up landing where they started. In the song Concantenation the snare/cymbal combo is definitely not working in a 4 count as they are playing off the main riff. The interesting part is the verse riff which begins at the :26 mark. If you listen closely you'll hear the riff play a kind of "DUN DUN" sound (:27). The whole riff itself actually kind of goes "DUH DEHHH DEH DUN DUN" and continues to repeat that pattern 6 times per section (when the drums loop) until the :55 mark. Where it gets fun is when the second verse starts (1:19) things get mixed up slightly by the addition of one "DUN". If you think of the repeating "DUH DEHHH DEH DUN DUN" in verse 1, in verse 2 when that same riff is played, the second and fourth repeats are actually "DUH DEHHH DEH DUN DUN DUN". Mad scientists, I tell you.

Does all of this analysis take the fun out of it? I suppose that depends on the type of listener you are. The beauty of Meshuggah is that you can be both types and enjoy the music equally. A Dillinger Escape Plan audience doesn't really know what to do with itself because the music can be so schizophrenic in tempo, so the crowd typically expresses its release by shoving each other around. Meshuggah is just as complex but to peripherally look over their audience you'll see a mass of synchronized, bobbing heads. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but I know what team I'm on.

Complaints are made that a lot of the band's riffage, especially on Chaosphere, relies too heavily on low, patterned chugging. Others complain that Thordendal's leads are not memorable enough; that they're too Alan Holdsworth-esque. I can't say that these aren't valid comments however these elements are what make the band what it is. Those criticisms are targeted towards the band that more or less created the genre it solely occupies. It's in those elements that the music becomes perfect because to change one of those for something more familiar would compromise everything that makes it so special.

Never has a band focused so much on the relationship between mechanics and humanity, and applied that relationship to every element it produces. Kidman's vocals have progressed to a near robotic quality yet given that his instrument is internal he is arguably the most human element of the band. Haake plays intensely calculative material with metronomic precision however the delivery is drenched in pocketed feel. They're an organic group delivering a nonorganic product.

Meshuggah is the only remaining band I listen to where each new release is still an actual life event. A stepping stone of change, and proof that while in many cases the act of re-working familiar songwriting formulas is worthwhile, there will also forever be the need to have boundaries broken. Meshuggah doesn't exist to destroy, erase, and improve other bands, it exists to take those actions and inflict them on itself. When you have no peers and therefore no one to challenge, you can only confront the bar you have set for yourself.
My relationship to the music is that of a visceral threat. The music forces me to think differently and compete with the conditioned expectations that have evolved throughout my life as a person who ingests and digests music. It is a band of give, take, and unending reward.

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