Meshuggah - Catch Thirtythree [Nuclear Blast - 2005]In the early 1970s, with the release of Lizard and Islands, for a little whileKing Crimson were in danger of becoming a jazz rock band. Guitarist and main man RobertFripp must have recognized this threat when he disbanded King Crimson only to reform itwith new members into what became the classic '73-'74 line-up: a monster ready to overthrowall known rules of the progressive rock universe, turning what was once a fairly harmlessflirtation between rock and classical music into a Stravinskian maelstrom of odd meterrhythms, pentatonic guitar scales, improvising instruments interlocking at oblique angles,and a heretofore unheard of level of abrasiveness and aggression. When the dust finally settled withthe release of "Red" in the fall of 1974, the Crimson King had shed its jazz rock skin completely and had, in the process, forever changed the face of progressive rock.
A similar threat hovered above the heads of Swedish metal merchants Meshuggah whenthey released their highly acclaimed breakthrough album Destroy Erase Improve in1995. Even though that album already left most of the competition at arm's length, thisreviewer has never been convinced that it was more than "just" an excellent metal album.The obvious jazz rock leanings in tracks such as Future Breed Machine instilled afear that this album could infuse the stillborn birth of jazz metal. However, just like King Crimsonbefore them, Meshuggah took a wise turn and transformed their music into something else, followingin 1998 with the black concrete slab of mathematical perfection called Chaosphere. Gonewere the jazzy solos, in their stead came staccato riffing in odd meters, polyrhythmic drumpatterns that still sound fresh after a thousand listenings, and monotonously screamed vocalattacks. The album divided the metal world between those who simply were not able to understandits breadth and scope, and those who hailed it as the first true metal masterpiece since Slayer's seminal Reign in Blood (1986). On 2002's Nothing, Meshuggah tooktheir newfound conviction to extremes by being the first metal band to use 8-string guitars,allowing their riffs to attain the quality of a sledgehammer pounding at the brain in 19/16.The album further divided fans and reviewers alike, because the level of abstraction seemedto be ever-increasing. The mini-album I, a single 20+ minute track released in 2004, hinted at even greater things to come.
These greater things have now arrived in the form of Catch Thirtythree, the firstMeshuggah full-length album in three years. The album, which takes on the form of one long47-minute track, divided into 13 sections ranging from one-and-a-half to more than 13 minutes,is a continuation of the trend started with Chaosphere. The guitar riffs have by nowbecome so utterly convincing and otherworldly that aspiring metal guitarists will realizethe vanity of their work in the light of these masters. The unconventional format of the albumworks entirely to its advantage, because it allows for the extension of tranquil, at timesambient sounding guitar interludes, to full-length tracks. In these passages, the guitar workbears the influence of the master of improv, Derek Bailey, as well as (and maybe evenmore so) that of Bill Frisell in his capacity as axe-grinder for John Zorn's Naked City. This, of course, is not to deny the ever-present hommages to Allan Holdsworththat have long served as an inspiration to Meshuggah's axemen. The drums are again producingpolyrhythmic madness most of the time, but this time the machine-like rhythms actually do comefrom a machine, seeing that all of the drums on this album have been programmed. While this couldhave easily turned the album into a cold, lifeless affair, Meshuggah once again demonstratetheir full command of the game by making the drums sound alive and fresh, and if they hadnot listed the fact that they are programmed in the promotion material, I am quite sure thathardly anyone would have noticed the absence of live drums (even more so because Tomas Haakecould easily have played these rhythms live if he had wished to do so).
Those familiar with Nothing will recall that the album ended with a strange, monotonouspiece based on a single guitar riff in 5/4 + 4/4 that went by the name of Obsidian. The newalbum contains several sections that are based on the principles first stated in this track.This and other manoeuvres see to it that the music reaches new levels of abstraction, and thatit transcends the metal genre as much as Stravinsky's The Rite of Springtranscended classical music in the early 20th century. Meshuggah uses the idiom of metal, butextends it in ways that no other bands in the genre are currently capable of. Meshuggah is biggerthan metal, and hopefully this will not remain unnoticed in the world of music at large.
One last thing before this review is closed with the incentive to go out and buy this thing theday it comes out: the way the vocals are treated in some sort of retro-futuristic fashion inthe track Mind's Mirrors takes me all the way back to Pink Floyd's Animals(1977). And that is actually a good thing...