The first time I saw Meshuggah, opening for Tool in 2001, I laughed—at them, not with them. Their choreographed hair-whipping and indistinct low rumble could have been a parody, but I knew it wasn’t. What I didn’t know was that they were head-banging and playing to different beats. Formed in 1985 in Umea, Sweden, Meshuggah set off their brand of Scandinavian thrash with atomic-clock precision and staccato rhythms until the organized chaos and fusion-on-crack solo of “Future Breed Machine,” the dynamic exercise in aggression that leads 1995’s Destroy, Erase, Improve. But not until 1998’s Chaosphere would they abandon all melody and become a unified rhythm machine. Metal guitarists have always chucked and palm-muted, but not like this.
What sets Meshuggah apart from math-metal and other odd-meter bands is their use of displacement, polyrhythms, and superimposed polymetrics—shifting beats from where they’re supposed to be, generating triplet and straight feels simultaneously, and sustaining several time signatures at once. It’s as if the drummer of AC/DC used his hands to drive “Back in Black” while playing some crazy block of 16th notes in 13/8 on the kick drum together with all the guitars, like the short, irregular bursts of a jackhammer. This is what makes head-banging to Meshuggah possible and pleasurable. No matter what maelstrom the guitars and bass drum churn out, the snare and cymbals are in 4/4. This technique has trickled down first to progressive rock acts like Tool and Mudvayne and then to their diluted students Taproot and Chevelle.
Nothing, released in 2002 to the hype generated around Chaosphere’s brutality by Rolling Stone and Jack Osbourne, was the first U.S. chart album for Nuclear Blast, long Scandinavia’s leading metal label. Although the critical reaction was overwhelmingly negative anyway, because the songs were slow, Nothing proved Meshuggah are not only unique and important, but a good band. They transcend “interesting” because, believe it or not, they are funky. Funk is characterized by syncopation and heavy, repetitive bass. Meshuggah’s guitars are tuned so low (and have so many strings) they sound like basses, and drummer Tomas Haake’s polymetrics add just what Clyde Stubblefield’s syncopations brought to James Brown: funkiness.
Although the relentless double kick and atonal guitar shredding returned on the follow-up, a 21-minute EP entitled I, the sense of groove established on Nothing remained part of Meshuggah’s vocabulary. The new Catch 33, however, explores uncharted territory. On this 46-minute “EP” (they promise a full-length later this year), one composition split into 13 sections, Meshuggah bring back melody. Marten Hagstrom’s and Frederick Thordendal’s catchy guitar riffs and floating textures are clearly the focus, and the return to distinct note values, sometimes even chord progressions, elaborates the intended impact of the rhythm. They also embellish their articulation by bending notes as far up or down as they see fit. The big surprise is that the drums are programmed using samples of Haake’s actual drums. There are no parts that Haake couldn’t nail—it’s their most conservative drumming yet. They chose programming for a “really linear emotion . . . adding to the eerie feel of the album,” according to Haake. Ultra-steady drums plus hypnotic guitars equals trance-like psychedelia. The riffs and the moods surrounding them will creep back into your head all day long.
If head-banging is a bona fide form of dance—which is undeniable if you’ve seen Meshuggah live—then Meshuggah make me want to get my groove on more than any musicians ever. Funky 5/4 under phat 4/4 just necessitates head motion. If you don’t understand why one would react so primitively as to dance to polymetrics, go out and get Nothing or Catch 33. You’ll thank me in a few months, after you figure it out.