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Meshuggah

On Catch 33, Meshuggah sound the booty call of Cthulhu—one mouse click at a time.

The future owes us nothing. If civilization collapses to the extent that easy access to wall power is lost worldwide, extreme music inherits a wealth of heavy changes. AC-reliant devices disappear in less than a decade, as generators are expropriated for more pressing needs. Battery-powered amps vanish slowly, like Triceratops, easing electric guitars into a lingering twilight. The only new releases are on WCs (wax cylinders). Finally, drummers get to be louder than everyone else.

When, and if, that day ever comes, Meshuggah will almost surely take up giant acoustic megaphones and metal percussion—unless zithers and castanets offer superior twisted possibilities. For now, the Swedish quartet is embracing all the technology it can wrap its four heads and sixteen limbs around. Catch 33, the band’s fifth studio album, is a convoluted marvel of cut-and-paste delirium.

“We recorded the entire album directly into Cubase,” guitarist Mårten Hagström relates by phone from his home in Stockholm, “just because it makes the process so much more transparent. Usually a band goes into the studio, you start rehearsing, you start jamming, and when it’s time to record, the results rarely come like you thought they would or wanted them to. This way, we can all sit around the computer and try out different parts and arrangements very quickly and get an immediate answer as to whether something works or not. Plus, we don’t have to worry about losing anything before we’ve documented it.”

They didn’t exactly rush matters. Hagström estimates that the self-produced album, recorded in its entirety at the studio the band shares with Clawfinger, took a year and a half to build. “Because we were trying something new for us—more a soundtrack than a regular album—there was a lot of trial-and-error. Also, we toured pretty heavily during that period; we’d work on the album whenever time allowed, go out for a while, and come back to it when we could. One great thing about recording digitally is that you can get two minutes of a song down, come back to it three days—or four weeks—later, and start exactly where you left off.”

You’d never guess that the album was assembled in fits and starts. Inspired in part by Sleep’s one-track marathon Jerusalem, Catch 33 is essentially a good old-fashioned album-length epic that sounds as though it could have been recorded live from start to finish—by 31st Century androids from Alpha Centauri.

Opening triptych “Autonomy Lost/Imprint of the Un-Saved/Disenchantment” churns like lead on its way to becoming vapor around a lurching, low-end riff straight out of the scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis when the Moloch machine begins to break down. But the meat of the passage’s alien vibe emanates from the sustained, sinister, 32nd note squalls that Hagström and Fredrik Thordendal wring out of their custom-built Nevborn eight-string guitars.

“I’m not suggesting that we’ll never use six-strings again,” offers Hagström, “but the eight-strings really have given us a whole new musical vocabulary to work with. Part of it is the restrictions they impose: you really can’t play power chords with them; the sound just turns to mush. Instead, we concentrated on coming up with really unusual single-note parts, new tunings and chord voicings. We wanted to get as far away from any kind of conventions and traditions as we could on the album, so the guitars worked out beautifully.”

The band hasn’t always been so rabidly technophilic. But it’s always been relatively rabid. Originally from Umeå, a college town in northern Sweden with a population of 105,000 and a dead link to its tourism page, Meshuggah began to assemble itself under mysterious circumstances in 1987. The thrashy, vinyl-only Psykisk Testbild EP, released two years later, partook heavily of Metallica’s influence, but the band’s itch for challenges was already waiting to be scratched. By the time Contradictions Collapse came out on Nuclear Blast in 1991, original drummer Niklas Lundgren had been replaced by Tomas Haake and Meshuggah were well out of the technical closet—particularly in the realm of timing.

“We’ve never really been into the odd time signatures we get accused of using,” Hagström protests. “Everything we do is based around a 4/4 core. It’s just that we arrange parts differently around that center to make it seem like something else is going on.”

Numbers notwithstanding, the album led more heads to turn than bang. Still, on some distant planet, in a dimension not ours, Meshuggah is the greatest dance band in the world—the most romantic, too. Giant flying jellyfish could fuck for weeks to 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve, recorded shortly after Jens Kidman laid aside his guitar to concentrate on vocals and Hagström hopped aboard. The album’s intrinsic invertebrate appeal might have been what inspired young Jack O to use “Future Breed Machine” on an episode of The Osbournes—as an instrument of torture applied to the earholes of an annoying neighbor.

When the Osbourne patriarch drafted Meshuggah to headline the second stage at Ozzfest 2002, the band was already a beloved entity stateside. Chaosphere, a sprawling, monstrosity released in 1998, had landed the serpent-loving hockeyheads one of the most coveted touring slots in metal—opening for Slayer. A 2001 coast-to-coast jaunt with Tool offered the opportunity to play for more than 100,000 USDA Prime consumers clearly hungry for exactly the kind of innovative meta-metal oozing out of Meshuggah’s febrile imaginations.

“Ozzfest is about one thing,” Hagström asserts, “exposure. Playing for so many people is great, but you hardly have any time on stage at all, which can be maddening. You’re hardly getting started when it’s time to stop. Opening for Tool was a lot more rewarding. We got 45 minutes every night, which allowed us to present a little more of ourselves.”

Nothing, released in 2002, found the band’s sound changing drastically—again. As Hagström explains, “we try never to repeat ourselves. Chaosphere was all full-on—no dynamics, no subtlety whatsoever. On Nothing, we reversed the strategy and made everything slow, subdued, and droney. Plus, we had just started using a prototype eight-string. It had been assembled in a hurry, so staying in tune was a constant challenge, especially since we tune the bottom string way down.”

The album also marked appearance number one of the controversial Drumkit From Hell, an extensively multi-sampled selection of sounds from Haake’s Ludwig and Sonar kits, used to program all of Nothing’s percussion. Released commercially by Toontracks Music, the “virtual drum module” has proven so popular with tech-heads that it’s now available in an expanded, Mach II version.

“We used it on Catch 33 as well,” explains Hagström. “One word describes it all—convenience. It sounds pretty much like it does when we record Tomas the standard way. It just made it faster, so much easier, for us to get what we wanted these 47 minutes to be. We knew some listeners would be like uhh, why did they do it that way? But that’s fine. If people listen to music for any reason other than the songs and the sound, what’s the point?”

Little about the disc’s sonic imprint so much as hints at the zeros and ones hidden beneath its pitted surface; Meshuggah sounds no more machine-like than, say, Lamb of God. On second thought, let’s change the subject.

“We have kind of a weird situation, writing-wise.” Hagström offers. “Tomas writes most of the lyrics, and he’s a drummer. So when he writes, it’s predominantly based around drums. Jens doesn’t play guitar in the band anymore, but he’s pretty adept at writing riffs. Everybody in the band has a pretty good idea of what everybody else is doing conceptually, and nobody thinks exclusively in terms of a particular instrument. We have this symbiosis thing; we’re kind of a single-celled organism climbing up the evolutionary ladder. But Jens has the biggest challenge: taking Tomas’ lyrics and somehow making them his own.”

Usually, Kidman addresses the issue by emptying his lungs with all the force at his disposal. The singer has a handsomely corroded roar, informed by hardcore and industrial music as well as metal. And he knows when to back off, which isn’t often. “The struggle to free myself from restraints/ Becomes my very shackles,” his protagonist intones hoarsely toward the end of “Disenchantment,” during one of two brief conversational interludes. The other, “Mind’s Mirror,” is harder to make out, thanks to processing laid on thickly enough to make the singer sound like a garden’s worth of elfin Peter Gabriels.

While fans have been largely sympathetic to the band’s appetite for digitization, some of the band’s traditionalist colleagues have been quick to throw darts, albeit ones with suction cup probisci. “Liking Meshuggah is like being impressed by a 50-foot billboard of a beautiful woman,” a well-known producer told this publication’s editor last year. “It’s all studio trickery.”

The producer, also a working musician, seems to have forgotten that the band’s live presence is such that his would have to open if ever they shared a bill. But his perception isn’t at all uncommon. Technophobia of one kind or another has been rampant among players since long before the middle of the last century, when classical guitarist Andrés Segovia stopped talking to Chet Atkins after learning that the country giant sometimes played electric. Imagine how old-school percussionists must have pissed and moaned when the first drum kits—remote mechanically-assisted grand-uncles of today’s manifold digital rhythm options—appeared in the early 1900s.

“In the end, we use technology for one reason and one reason alone,” Hagström asserts. “It works for what we’re doing. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t use it.” What he modestly fails to mention is that, while heads sometimes come for the funk, it’s Catch 33’s guitars—parts and execution—that saturate both album and band with eau de what-the-fuck’s alluring bouquet. Simultaneously stark and rich, often beamed in from the universe next door, the eight-strings form the better part of a labyrinth that spreads and deepens with each of the disc’s 13 conceits. “Disenchantment”’s speed-picking extravaganza is merely the first of several, each more dense and otherworldly than the one preceding.

Hagström and Thordendal are nobody’s one-trick squidlettes, either. The solo on “Entrapment” attacks slide guitar from a healthily post-Tom Morello angle, sweetened with a splash of Pee Wee Herman across a lake of frozen Grand Marnier®. “Mind Mirrors”’ plummeting one-note intro features the deepest growl coaxed out of anything with a neck to date; more singular still are the electric pythons that end the track, only to return bigger, meaner, and more sinuous on “Shed.”

“We’ve definitely moved away from traditional blues-derived rock guitar parts,” Hagström notes. “Harmonically, what we’re doing now is a lot more akin to some contemporary classical music. Of course it’s impossible for us to pinpoint exactly why we’re doing what we do, but some of it has to do with the fact that we’ve never been interested in creating something that sounds familiar. A lot of metal bands can say that, but we try to challenge ourselves. Not so much with the technical aspect—that’s a somewhat inferior motivation for playing music. I don’t think that’s at all the point; it doesn’t really matter if something is hard to play or not. The thing is, what does it do to your mind when you listen to it? Where does it take you?”

It’s taking Meshuggah on tour soon. But the band won’t be coming to the States first this time around. “We haven’t toured Europe very extensively for a long time, and our label is applying the pressure, so that’s what we’ll be concentrating on. We’re hoping to do a US tour in the fall, though.”

The guitarist is quick to point out the differences between America and the EU. “Sure, the scene in San Diego is a little different from the scene in Detroit,” he observes, “but it’s still all one country—nothing like, say, Norway and Hungary, where you can feel the difference in the crowds even before you walk onstage.”

“Also,” he continues, on a roll, “the US and Europe are in different phases right now. The big thing here now is all this retro stuff—bands that emulate AC/DC and Judas Priest. Manowar is really big right now. We have extreme, aggressive metal, but nothing like the scene you have there—no Dillinger Escape Plan, no Killswitch Engage. Instead we get bands that sound like Slaughter and dress metal. Everything is so backward-looking. It seems like 30% of what I hear when I turn on the radio is covers. Even in metal-type music there are a lot of covers. The thing that scares me is that sometimes you listen to a song and go oh, that’s a cover.

Then you realize it’s not; it’s just awfully similar to something you know. Somebody’s doing something because it worked before. We like to think that we’re on a collision course with that kind of thinking. We don’t even care if it’s successful or not; that’s not for us to judge. But, if somebody who’s never heard us says to me, ‘oh you play in a metal band, I know exactly what you sound like,’ I can say in all confidence, ‘I’m not sure. I’m not sure that you do.’”

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