Review Summary: An utter waste of time and talent.
If there's anything a band like Meshuggah's especially known for, it's how consistent they've been with their sound over the years. Much of their work has used their second effort Destroy Erase Improve as the general template, subtly evolving in different ways with each passing record. Unfortunately, one negative aspect of such a strategy is the band's tendency of sounding a touch too repetitive and sometimes resting on their laurels. Their 2005 album Catch Thirtythree, while boasting hints of jazz fusion, was a good example of the group's sound starting to become somewhat stale. So what did the Swedish metal legends unleash with 2009's Obzen? Absolute trash.
Meshuggah have always been a highly regarded group in terms of the instrumentalists' talents, but that does have the occasion of backfiring on a band; unfortunately, that is exactly the case with Obzen. Everything sounds too calculated, too artificial, too cold. While this style is present in other genres/bands (obviously technical death metal is generally infamous for such an approach), almost all of Obzen sounds as if it wasn't recorded by a band, but rather an assembly line of musical parts. The semblance of passion and general energy of previous records is replaced by robotic, by-the-numbers extreme metal that's almost completely devoid of any surprises or stand-out moments (or stand-out tracks, for that matter).
Fortunately, the shining light leading the darkness is the opening number "Combustion." The track is reminiscent of older Meshuggah records such as Contradictions Collapse or the aforementioned Destroy Erase Improve, opting for an extremely thrash-esque method of starting the album. Jens Kidman's voice sounds as angry as ever, and the musicians play with an exceptionally commanding presence. The solo is also a nice aspect, highlighting Frederik Thordendal's agility while also showcasing a nice sense of variety in his playing. Unfortunately though, the song only lasts four minutes. The album that follows is an overly homogeneous trainwreck that is only saved by a few choice moments.
While the band members do nothing particularly offensive to get such a low rating, my biggest criticism comes right down to the songwriting itself. Much of the album appears to be on autopilot, right down to the riffs that these songs revolve around. Let's take the title track, for example; while the doomy nature of the opening A-tuned riff is promising, the first "verse" section is completely uninteresting and leaves a lot to be desired. Jens' vocals sound too aggressive for what's being played, and lack of any embellishments to add to the precise riff make the portion sound unfinished and even unneeded. Moments like these are littered about the album, perhaps reaching a peak with the biggest travesty on the album, "Bleed." "Bleed," considered by many to be one of Meshuggah's greatest songs in their most recent work, leaves me completely baffled about why it is so revered. While repetition can be done extremely well in music (see: Opeth, Earth, Lightning Bolt, etc.), "Bleed" preys on one's boredom much more quickly. The main motif is very bland and leaves little to the imagination, and while Thomas Haake's drumming is usually a highlight in the band's music, it's tough to get invested in his drumming on this one. Even when the song speeds up, everything sounds just as mechanical as it did before. The polyrhythms in the song aren't particularly interesting, especially when the band pounds them into your head 50,000 times, and the solo happens to be one of the tune's only saving graces. On top of all this, the song is over seven minutes long... again, not a very wise investment in the long run.
Considering so much of the review was spent on just a few songs and the vast majority of the album contains the same style, you can imagine I have an absolute trove of problems with this record. Judging by the 1.5, this is definitely true, but I must mention that I didn't want to hate this album. You may not take issue with what criticisms I brought up, and if not, more power to you; the album certainly managed to strike a chord with a large amount of metal fans. I, for one, find it to be a pretty atrocious and dispassionate piece of blandness. Despite the band members' talents, the record they made is an exercise in pure frustration and unnecessary repetition.