Review Summary: A potential metal album-of-the-year candidate thanks to Haake's triumphant return behind the kit and a hearty combination of new ideas interspersed with allusions to each of their previous albums.
With obZen, Swedish metal mathematicians Meshuggah have delivered their best release this decade. This assertion stems from two definitive characteristics that give the album its identity. To begin, Tomas Haake is back behind the kit, a welcome return after the Drumkit from Hell-driven percussion heard on 2005's Catch Thirty-Three
. While obZen
may or may not win Album of the Year credentials at year's end, Haake's performance on this album is absolutely stunning and easily cements him as one of metal's finest drummers. Haake's triumphant return, while significant, is slightly overshadowed by Meshuggah fulfilling its affirmation that obZen
is an amalgamation of their previous works. Prior to a significant release, most bands taunt listeners by claiming that they are taking their music in a new direction (and not changing a damn thing about it or completely alienating their fans with too drastic a change), but with these Swedes, they deliver on their promise while simultaneously introducing new songwriting ideas into their repertoire.
Throughout their existence, opinions on Meshuggah have been divisive: one listener's idea of repetitive, trite, and over-saturated noise may be another's consistent, complex, and technical aural assault. Of note, however, is the band's undeviating ability to evolve between each release, and obZen
is no exception. The evolution found on this album can best be illustrated by Meshuggah's maturation in song arrangement and style. The trademark Meshuggah tenacity is omnipresent throughout the record - Jens Kidman's vocals are continually abrasive and menacing, guitarists Fredrik Thordendal, Mårten Hagström, and bassist Dick Lövgren are constantly delivering extremely heavy riffs (Lövgren's performance is particularly astonishing, and his bass resonates clearly throughout the album), and Tomas Haake is always being Tomas Haake (going absolutely insane) - but the composition of obZen
's nine songs sounds more cohesive and fluid while retaining the polyrhythmic scaffolding that characterizes their past work. Where albums like the homogeneous Nothing
or the scattered Chaosphere
had bouts of choppy songwriting, obZen
's entire runtime is very smooth and uniform. In introducing this more fluid structure of songwriting, it is important to note that Meshuggah's technical skill is still remarkably stunning, and their relentless, unparalleled sense of thrashy groove has not been eliminated completely. Additionally, obZen
is arguably the band's most melodic release; at least, the most melodic since 1995's Destroy Erase Improve
The track that is the ultimate manifestation of the above characteristics is the seven-minute "Bleed". obZen's third track starts off with an absolutely killer intro, reminiscent of 2004's I
, and Kidman's enraged vocals immediately follow with "Beams of fire sweep through my head / Thrusts of pain increasingly engaged / Sensory receptors succumb / I am no one now - only agony" resonating over Haake's frantic kicks and hits, complemented with a mechanized, runaway-freight-train guitar sound. Just past the song's halfway point, a short ambient period segues into one of the best Thordendal leads on the album; afterwards, the song rips open into another heavy passage that carries into the track's conclusion. As such, "Bleed" is arguably Meshuggah's best song to date. I am also a firm believer that an album's opening track officially sets the tone for the album, and "Combustion" does a memorable job in introducing the old-and-new Meshuggah sound that symbolizes obZen
. Again, an aggressive Kidman delivers a dominating performance, guitarists Hagström and Thordendal absolutely shine, namely in the song's introduction and bridge, and Lövgren's rumbling, steadfast bass perfectly complements madman Haake's machine-gun bass-snare-cymbal onslaught.
Kidman's execution on obZen
is noteworthy when delivering Haake's lyrics. As always, Meshuggah's lyricism pinpoints a fascination with human physiology and psychology. For example, the pineal gland excretes a hormone called melatonin, which regulates one's Circadian rhythm and is essentially the human body's timekeeper. Haake's lyrics on "This Spiteful Snake" and "Electric Red" are stellar as well. In the former, Haake symbolizes consciousness with a serpent ("Reality: this spiteful snake, rearing its ugly head / Venom dripping from its grin as it tosses yet another obstacle in our way / . . . Reality: this spiteful snake, shedding its smothering veil / A shroud to asphyxiate, exterminate, eradicate"); in the latter, an almost-Orwellian theme seeps into the track, as evidenced by lyrics such as "So meticulously machined into these obedient devices - puppets - fine-tuned submissive drones / Replicas of each other - clones - we're dormant accumulations of flesh in a crimson filtered twilight / Mute witnesses to the game / Wrenches to keep the bolts of lies tight." To match the technical and intense musicianship, Meshuggah's vocalist needs to be just as domineering and impassioned; in short, Kidman succeeds on all accounts.
In keeping with my claim that each of obZen
's nine tracks has its own distinctiveness, it is crucial to point out the stamina of the album's two concluding tracks, the strong "Pravus" and the nearly-ten-minute epic "Dancers to a Discordant System", as well as the title track. "Pravus"' intro is incredibly frenzied, characterized by a spastic opening guitar riff and a pulsating groove from the band's rhythm section. The shifts in tempo and tone throughout the track keeps the listener engaged, especially as the guitars reverberate and ring out between hard downstrokes and bellicose drumming. Both "Pravus" and its preceding track, "Pineal Gland Optics", suggestively allude to Catch Thirty-Three
, especially from a rhythm section and vocal standpoint. While "Pravus" loses some of the introduction's steam, obZen
's closing track is a test of endurance: not for the listener, mind you, but for the Swedish quintet. "Dancers'" introduction, again reminiscent of Catch Thirty-Three
's whispered vocals in that album's middle section, begins on a tranquil note, but as is the case with Meshuggah, placidity does not last long. While some of Meshuggah's longest songs throughout their discography have been trying listens, "Dancers" continually keeps the listener absorbed and interested through each movement. obZen
, while more moderate in pace compared to the rest of Meshuggah's discography thus far, is still a refreshing listen.
What makes obZen
such a phenomenal record is not just Haake's long-awaited return behind a drum kit, as opposed to the programmed Drumkit from Hell percussion heard on 2005's Catch Thirty-Three
, but the fact that Meshuggah hinted at each of its past works - especially Destroy Erase Improve
, and I
- while simultaneously adding new and exciting elements to their core sound. The album's seemingly streamlined, fluid sound is an impeccable quality, even with the polyrhythmic structure that defines Meshuggah's sound, and obZen
's songs flow into each other even better than the schisms that divided their 2005 LP while retaining their unique and distinct identities. Haake is a legendary drummer, and his steadfast execution only expounds his talent and cements his elite status in the metal community. As the principle lyricist, Haake's writing is typical Meshuggah fare, but nevertheless intriguing. Vocalist Jens Kidman is time and time again a model of consistency, and guitarists Thordendal (his tremendous leads and solos on obZen are some of his best to date) and Hagström (whose heavy riffs and downstrokes complement an assertive but never domineering Lövgren as the backbone of Meshuggah's sound) are spectacular as well. While some of the slower sections on this album are a bit burdensome to sit through, the listener is alleviated with the frequent transitions and explosions in sound. In all, obZen
is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging record, and is without question an early contender for metal Album of the Year.