I've never felt particularly drawn to Meshuggah, the so called accidental founders of djent, mostly because I'm not a fan of djent or a lot of that modern style of metal that treats guitars like drums or percussion. Add in the lead vocals of Jens Kidman, which are delivered in a metalcore shout and they're just not my thing. That doesn't mean that they don't do what they do incredibly well. They do and that's why I'm listening to this, their ninth studio album, to see what I think of it nowadays.
To give this further context, I can't remember what the last Meshuggah album I listened to was. It may not have been their debut, Contradictions Collapse in 1991, because I think it was their follow-up, Destroy, Erase, Improve in 1995, probably around its release, which was the point when I was a young man drifting away from the metal scene towards the pub and life and a much wider range of music. So, given that I'm aware that their sound developed over time, my take on them up till now may be more based on my own musical prejudices as any actual merit.
That said, I'm not particularly enthused here and for exactly the reasons I expected. Meshuggah's sound is very much their own and it feels like they're staking out close boundaries to defend it in a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting. This isn't industrial, but it's stripped down to the essence of the band so emphatically that it's almost industrial adjacent for how mechanical it all sounds. All the instruments are really playing rhythm, just like this is a band of drummers who happen to have an array of different tones on their kits. Many of those tones sound like machines, especially on songs like Phantoms. Is that a bass or an industrial rivetting machine? Is that a keyboard backdrop or an array of industrial saws in the distance?
And these sounds combine to find a groove and a rhythm and then continue in a mostly monotone fashion for a long time. Most of the songs are in the four to six minute range, only Black Cathedral shorter at exactly two minutes and only They Move Below is longer at well over nine. However, the album is long, running notably over an hour, and there just isn't enough here to warrant that. Coil would have done more in twenty minutes.
I have to give some praise, because none of these rhythms are typical and that's why this gets the progressive metal label, and, if the point is to persuade us into some sort of trance state where an hour goes by without us really noticing, then they come close to succeeding. I found this less music to actively listen to and more music to by hypnotised by and feel instead. That probably warrants a further tag of experimental metal, which would serve much better than prog metal, because this is a long way from someone like Dream Theater, which is what prog metal conjures up in my mind.
Is industrial metalcore a thing? Maybe it should be. This Meshuggah isn't a huge distance from an early Einsterzende Neubaten covered on actual instruments by a metal band, instead of whatever metal pipes they could find to hit with other metal pipes. In fact, compared to something rhythmic and chaotic like Abfackeln!, this starts to seem almost conventional, and that song is almost forty years old. What I'd like to have seen, on a ninth album no less, is more invention, more melody and especially more variety. Unless you can fall into these humungous grooves, there's not much here to find.
And, crucially, it just keeps going. My thoughts after a few songs didn't change after a few more, a delightfully subdued guitar intro to They Move Below the first point where I heard something that went beyond percussion. That's track seven, over half an hour into the album, but it's also the first to actually grab me. It gets less interesting when it goes into the now expected rhythmic mode but it's more interesting, even then, than anything that went before or indeed most of what is still to come. That mostly has to do with the texture behind the rhythms though and the song still goes on too long. There are moments of imagination on The Faultless. Armies of the Preposterous is much more aggressive. Past Tense is a dark and interesting outro and easily my favourite piece here. That's not a lot to go on, I know, but it's something.
Were this a regular forty minute album, I'd probably go with a 6/10. Each song finds its groove and I doubt that the band's core fans aren't going to be too concerned that those grooves aren't much different from each other. However, at sixty-six minutes, this really dragged on me. Now, if you're into experimental metal or drone metal and you're OK with monotony, feel free to add a point. I'd prefer to see Sunn O))) live again and they hit fewer notes in their entire set when I saw them than any one song here.