When you read about Meshuggah on online forums and fan groups, a question that always comes up is: Is Meshuggah the best metal band in the world?
That’s a question I don’t see asked about too many other bands. None, actually. It should tell you a lot about the kind of respect and admiration a band like Meshuggah inspires, even amongst other musicians. I know of no other metal band in the world who gets the same respect as Meshuggah, except perhaps Tool. Which is no coincidence because the two bands actually have a lot in common musically, and also in the way they approach things in general.
Much like my other favorite band, Nile, Meshuggah’s music can be hard for casual listeners to get into. But also like Nile, once you come to finally “get” what Meshuggah are all about, their music just seems to open up to you, and then there’s no going back. Many hardcore fans of the band spent years listening to Meshuggah’s music before it really opened up to them.
The first Meshuggah album I heard was the amazing and groundbreaking Destroy, Erase, Improve. I heard this album when it was released back in 1995. It’s an album I was drawn to because of its sheer heaviness and amazing riffing. But as much as I loved the sound, I had trouble getting truly into it, in the way that I did Tool’s music, for instance. Meshuggah’s way of playing was just too off-beat for me at the time, and although I had massive respect for the album, I never really loved it.
I continued to listen to Meshuggah over the years after that, mainly because I felt drawn to their totally uncompromising style of music, and because I have always felt that there was more to the band that I was missing. I thought that if I just kept listening to them, then I would eventually get what they were doing. I was still loving the heaviness of their sound, but at the same time, it still sounded too dense to me, and too hard to fully penetrate, like a giant wall of sound. Their unusual song structures and rhythmic patterns also made it hard for me to wrap my head around them. The vocals as well are harsh, and would grate on me after a while.
After buying their Nothing album in 2002, having pretty much enjoyed the frantic Chaosphere before that, I found myself once again struggling to understand the band. Same when I bought Catch 33. The music drew me to it, but I was unable to penetrate it beyond a surface level.
This dogged determination I maintained over the years says a lot in itself. With other bands, if I can’t get fully into them, I just don’t listen to them again, simple as that. But yet here was Mesuggah, a band I couldn’t fully get into, but whom I stuck with for over ten years nonetheless. That at least should tell you something about the magnetic power of the band and their music.
I knew there was something special about them, but I didn’t know what.
Eventually, Meshuggah dropped out of my radar altogether as I went off to explore other bands and other forms of music. I hardly thought about them after that, and played their earlier albums only once in a blue moon.
Fast forward to 2016 when I stuck on Destroy, Erase, Improve for the first time in years. Immediately, I was blown away by it, and reminded of just how amazing an album it is. To this day, it is one of my all time favorite Meshuggah albums, not just because of its heaviness, but also because it has an atmosphere to it that no other album has. In terms of metal music, it still stands as completely unique.
So now my interest in the band had been renewed, I decided to check out their more recent albums, the ones I had missed during my long hiatus away from the band. I picked up a copy of their most recent album, The Violent Sleep Of Reason. However, much like my earlier experiences with the band, I found the album quite impenetrable the first few times I listened to it.
Something amazing happened.
I put the album on one day, and suddenly, it was like listening to a different band altogether. The music sounded different to my ears. I started to hear the intricacies of the rhythms, the amazing drum patterns and how the vocals perfectly complemented the music.
This experience was nothing short of a revelation. It was like all of my years of listening and trying to get the band had finally paid off, and paid off BIG.
Seriously, Meshuggah’s music is the gift that keeps on giving. Since then, I have listened to them almost every day, never becoming bored with them.
Meshuggah are one of the only bands that I know who can inspire such heavy listening. And it’s not just me either. Ask any hardcore Meshuggah fan how often they listen to the band and they will likely tell you what I just did—every day!
So What Makes Meshuggah So Special?
This can be a difficult question to answer, especially if you aren’t a musician, which I am not. There are lots of technical things about Meshuggah’s music that makes them unique among metal bands, but I’m not going to get too far into those because it can quickly become like discussing mathematics or computer coding where you need to understand the language to make any sense of the discussion. So I’ll try to keep everything in layman’s terms in the following paragraphs.
The one aspect that everyone latches onto about Meshuggah is their guitar tone and the way that they actually deliver that tone. The Meshuggah sound is massive, that’s the only way to describe it. Hearing Meshuggah is like getting hit with a massive slab of concrete.
Plenty of other bands do heavy, but none do heavy the way Meshuggah do.
By the time the band wrote the Chaosphere album, they had developed a totally unique sound that came to be known as “djent”. Indeed, a whole sub-genre of music was named after this. Apparently the name came about when the band’s genius lead guitarist, Fredrik Thordendal, was trying to describe to somebody the guitar tone the band was going for, basically describing it as, “Djent, djent-djent, djent…”
Thanks to this apt description of the bands guitar sound, a whole plethora of bands now exist that call themselves djent bands–bands that borrow heavily from Meshuggah’s guitar tone and style of playing.
Meshuggah can also get a groove on like no other. They take their unique guitar tone and they use it to craft some of the most amazing riffs and grooves you are ever likely to hear from a metal band. The riffs themselves are actually quite simple for the most part, but it’s what they do with them that really matters.
With Meshuggah, the mantra “less is more” can really be applied to what they do. Simple, yes, but definitely not easy, which is evident when you take a look a some of their song structures.
Meshuggah’s music might sound immensely complex, but it actually isn’t, at least not in the sense that it is impossible to play. In an article that draws comparisons between Meshuggah’s music and computer coding, the author states:
In approximitely 9 out of 10 songs, drummer genius Tomas Haake employs a straight 4/4 rhythm on his hi-hat/cymbals and snare drum, while following the polymetrics of the bass and guitar with his kick drums. And the polymetrics? Well, most of the time they move in cycles, eventually merging with the straight 4/4 rhythm.
In the same article, the author goes on to say:
Having said that, much of the complexity in Meshuggah’s song writing lies in the prototypical hyper metric structure, governed by a larger, hierarchical level of symmetrical phrase rhythm.
Take the opening track Stengah on the 2002 album Nothing for instance; the main riff constitutes five repetitions of 11/8, followed by a measure of 9/8 (guitar, bass, and kick drum, while the cymbals are on a steady 4/4 pulse). This truncated sixth repetition creates two interpretative layers that align according to a four-bar hypermetric structure.
Or, in other words: count to four, and do it eight times. Not that hard, right?
So as we can see, Meshuggah utilize fairly simple techniques, but they infuse these techniques with very creative structures and a strong sense of purpose, two qualities that really make the band’s music stand out from other bands who might on the surface play a similar style of music, but which are completely lacking when it comes to having a cohesive structure and purpose, which is why most of these so-called djent bands sound completely all over the place.
Overly technical playing does not make up for lack of structure and purpose.
Bleed, one of Meshuggah’s most loved songs, is, structurally and stylistically speaking, one of the simplest songs the band has written. The drummer, Tomas Hakke, sticks mainly with a 4/4 key signature and the guitarist’s play mostly distorted guitar triplets. But despite these two techniques being used so often in music over the years, Meshuggah still managed to create something completely original using them, and all within a fairly simple structure. Technically, of course, the song is very hard to play. It took Hakke six months just to learn to play the kick-drum patterns. How many metal musicians can make that claim?
So using these simple techniques and strong sense of structure and purpose, Meshuggah have managed to make every one of their albums a masterpiece in its own right. A stand out example of this for many fans is the Catch 33 album, which is undoubtedly their darkest album, with meandering guitars and ambient sections that make the whole thing feel like a a descent into the abyss. There isn’t another album out there like it.
Similarly, Obzen is a full on metal masterpiece that is vicious in its intensity and raw aggression. Kolossus is full of dark, tribal, monster grooves and heavy as fuck drums. And The Violent Sleep Of Reason brings all of the bands strengths together into one glorious whole, all wrapped up in a completely unique—and massive—production.
Of course, with all this technically challenging muisc, you might think the band incapable of reproducing it all live. But you’d be wrong. Meshuggah live are a force to be reckoned with, playing their complex and amazing music with machine-like precision, but still managing to convey the emotions behind the songs. Couple this with an amazing light show and you end up with one of the most intense live experiences by any band ever.
Challenging music also requires challenging lyrics, and Meshuggah don’t disappoint on this front either. Tomas Haake handles most of the writing when it comes to lyrics, with other members of the band contributing also. As you would expect, the lyrics are as dark as the music, but as Hakke says:
We don’t dwell on hate and bad feelings as people. But with these songs, I think we really wanted to paint a picture lyrically that might be seen as a cautionary tale. We’re going, ‘Heads up. Here’s what some of the parts of being human are about, and this is what we can be at our worst.’ So it’s more about being aware of negative feelings than actually living them all the time.
Hakke’s lyrics can be quite dense sometimes, written as they are in a very antiquated sort of language. Because of this, the meaning—if there is any—behind the lyrics can be hard to find, or it can become lost altogether.
Hakke himself has said that not all of his lyrics have any great meaning behind them. He was mostly referring to the lyrics on Catch 33, which many fans believe tells a whole meaningful story. In reality, Hakke will often just write what sounds good, or just what flows out of him at the time, like any writer.
This is not to say the lyrics themselves aren’t good. On the contrary, they are some of the most powerful lyrics out there. Even if some lyrics don’t hold any great meaning, the words themselves and the way they are sung by Jens Kidman, means they suit the music perfectly.
Such lyrics, which are written without any obvious meaning behind them, are in some ways more powerful than lyrics containing an obvious message or meaning. It means the listener can impose their own meaning onto the lyrics, making the whole musical experience and even more personal and deeper one.
One of my favorite lines is from Catch 33, which doesn’t even have any music behind it:
The struggle to free myself of restraints, becomes my very shackles.
Probably my favorite lyrics are those from the epic Dancer’s To A Discordant System, from the album Obzen:
Listen to the hidden tune
The essence of lies in notes defined
As we dance to the dissonant sway
The choreography refined
Will subdued and shackled
Reason washed aside
Pledging our love to the chains
Our ignorance ever-amplified
Blooded hands lead the waltz
We’re trapped in the out of tune swirl
Still we set the show on continue mode
And dance to a discordant system
We accept the nails we’re fed
Lies sharpened to bleed us silent
Muted from the pains
Defiance employed in vain
Any attempts to leave the dance,
Questions unasked, we learn learn the steps
Eyes shut like all the rest
Unsuspecting, willing, blind, controllable herd
Pawns in a covert game conducted by hands we trust
Dominated, compliant and deceptable
Confident that we matter – we don’t see that we’re but dust
Committed to a lie we cannot see, cannot know nor comprehend
We’re all asinine drones kept in the dark, kept in line
Confined, Bereft of reason
Withering in toxicity
The deadly fumes of deceit
And we all reek of complicity
Humbled, brought to our knees
By the weight of our own guilt
Our nescient ways the catalyst
To injustice and inhumanity
We dance – to appease
Compete in stupidity
Obscured faces file our points
Numbers fed to the machine
Still we stand in line for the next show
The human spine liquefied
What are we, but stupefied
Dancers to a discordant system
We believe – so we’re misled
We assume – so we’re played
We confide – so we’re deceived
We trust – so we’re betrayed
So Are Meshuggah The Best Metal Band In The World?
In a word:
I say this as someone who has been listening to metal music constantly for the last thirty years. I’ve listened to some amazing bands over that time, but I can safely say that none of those bands compare to Meshuggah.
Meshuggah are simply the purest form of metal you will ever come across!
They make real art that still manages to be full-on metal. They also blow nearly every other band away musically.
They scratch an itch that most other bands don’t even know is there.
And they deliver an experience with their music that is so unique and magical, you just can’t help going back to it again and again.
So for me, Meshuggah are 100% the best metal band in the world.
Now, excuse me while I go and vigorously nod my head to Demiurge…