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When I first heard "Rational Gaze", I thought Meshuggah were doing something really cool. They repeated an odd-timed riff over a 4/4 beat, repeating it so it lined up differently with each repetition, looping it until it they eventually met up again. There was basically no melody, just choosing a dissonant interval and going between those two notes. The vocalist is primarily percussive, shouting in a monotone, often adding another rhythm to the already chaotic mix. The guitars were tuned very low, and the drummer hits the kick drum in sync with the guitars chugging. It is really cool when you first hear it. Fascinating when you listen to it and write it out to figure out what they're doing (25/16 over 4/4 five times, plus an extra 3/16 tacked onto the last cycle, in that example).
This heavy, thick, and percussive sound is Meshuggah's signature style, something that became apparent when they did the same thing for close to an hour and called it an album. That was ten years ago, and they did more or less the same thing in different colors for the rest of the decade. There are certainly ways to differentiate modern Meshuggah material from song-to-song, but they're a one-trick-pony with a really complicated trick. They tried to push the boundaries with a drum-machine album. They took a hammering, percussive riff in Bleed and beat it to death by repeating it for what seemed like an eternity.
Imagine if Iced Earth made an album that consisted entirely of triplet-chugs and falsetto screams. While they certainly have a style and formula, and their gallops are often joked about, the gallops are basically every other riff, not the vast majority of the album, and they're spaced out and share the spotlight with a lead vocalist.
Meshuggah have refined an incredibly monotonous formula for this album. They have expanded their riffing from a single dissonant interval to often using three notes per riff. They rely on their polyrhythmic cycles heavily, with almost every moment of the album being part of one. This concept could be implemented in an interesting manner - it could be really cool if Ron Jarzombek blended it with his ever-changing 12-tone rows and varying phrasings. Meshuggah are far from this.
I'm sure you have heard a deathcore fan tell you that it's fucking brutal, it's so much more than chugging, it's so fucking heavy, they've got killer riffs, not just drop A power chords. Thick production and mechanical-sounding digital production can make every percussive beat sound as punishing as if you looped the first three beats of "Hammer Smashed Face" for an eternity. Complaining about this seems to be a popular pastime among metalheads these days. Don't you fuckin' hate chugga-chugga riffs, man?
Meshuggah are a boring chugga-chugga band who stretch out their chugga-chugga riffs more than the average chugga-chugga band to fit them into their polyrhythmic cycles. Each odd-timed riff is usually longer than a normal riff, since it's in twenty-something over sixteen time and it needs to be played five or six or seven times. To make this worse, they often go to a brief break, then go back to the same shit for another eternity or two (more likely, two and eleven sixteenths eternities).
The band isn't entirely chugga-chugga riffs this time, since they slowed down the chugging, they've thrown in some "atmospheric" chords, such as on "Behind the Sun", where they sound like Soulfly trying to rip off Converge's "They Stretch For Miles". This is a point where, since I'm reviewing Meshuggah, I'm not afraid to be disjointed and break from forming any sort of rhythm in writing.
The atmospheric stylings on this album are very poorly implemented. The aforementioned riff is a poor attempt at doing something that Converge or Mastodon might be better known for. While I maintain that the majority of the hate for those bands comes from the legions of terrible rip-offs that they spawned, Meshuggah may have spawned the most loathed rip-off subgenre. Despite djent being the most bitched-about thing since Killswitch Engage, Meshuggah seem to get nothing but praise for doing more-or-less the same thing as a movement named for the sound that a bunch of wankers get by plugging their guitars with too many strings into their computers and chugging through an amp simulator to achieve a dry, synthetic tone. They seem to get a pass from the many opponents of this style and movement, with this album earning endless praise despite playing into the tired stereotypes of this relatively new style. They're just as boring as Periphery, or Animals As Leaders, who have a charismatic bandleader who is known for committing the greatest crimes against fashion in metalcore since Eighteen Visions. If you haven't heard by now, Tosin Abasi gave an interview about his clothing in which he mentions that he is wearing women's pants, "fashioncore" was a term that was used when people discovered bands on MySpace, and an American man still wears a fedora after President Kennedy marked the passing of the style by sporting nothing atop a full head of hair.
I would normally avoid digressing into such a lengthy ramble, but if you're listening to Meshuggah, they're probably still wanking in multiple time signatures to the same chugga-chugga riff because its polyrhythmic cycle hasn't wrapped back around yet. They're allowed to do it, because they were the first band to do the same goddamn thing for a whole album, a whole decade, right?
The prominence of detuned, groove-heavy riffs has not been without merit. One can still chug on a low-tuned guitar without being painfully boring like Meshuggah, who have found a new way of doing it. The Acacia Strain had serious motherfucking swagger until they hopped on the eight-string trend and their Meshuggah-loving guitarist relegated himself to the studio, and then band became boring. Veil of Maya sampled and mocked a YouTube commentator's verbal impression of a breakdown and tastefully finished a song with a serious groove modeled after that man's impression. Bolt Thrower have notably made use of the same riff several times over two decades to nearly universal acclaim.
Why is it then, that Meshuggah's music falls flatter than the fretboards of their eight-string guitars? They're a one-trick pony, with little in their arsenal other than drop-tuned, eight-stringed guitars where they only occasionally explore most of the instrument, presumably to make sure that it hasn't crept into the shadows to avoid being seen in the poisonous limelight with them. Dissonance and chugging alone get boring long before you push the hour-mark of an album. Polyrhythmic cycles can't disguise that you're a chugga-chugga band with more chops and less swagger than recent Emmure, but roughly the same hammering dynamics as the last Fear Factory album. The vocals are painfully monotonous - the only aspects where there is even the slightest amount of room for variance are the lyrics and the rhythm. Another percussive element, another metal band with metal band lyrics. Dime-a-dozen, though they would prefer to play in loose change over sixteen time.
Yet another place where Meshuggah fall short of pretty much every band in the world is the lack of any sort of hook in the music. This isn't memorable, and their complex format needs some creativity rather then primitivity within their chosen polyrhythmic format. This isn't caveman chugga-chugga metal, this is thinking man's chugga-chugga metal! I congratulate you if you think this is the latter and made it past the numerical score of this review, but quite frankly, anyone who uses the term "thinking man's metal" deserves to have an eight-string guitar broken over their head. There's no lack of comprehension here as to how these technical chops work, it's the lack of everything else that makes good music that the whole civilized world bitches about being absent when a deathcore band plays two indistinguishable one-chord breakdowns in the time it takes Meshuggah to finish wanking in multiple time signatures at once.
The final nail in the coffin of this album's torturous sound is that every time they step away from their signature chugging formula, they only pull off something extremely mediocre, only sounding a bit more appealing because by the time they play it - I'm so sick of their chugga-chugga crap that I'm craving anything else. Soon enough it'll be back to the same old chugga-chugga. This album is extremely unpleasant to listen to.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
Fuck these eight-stringers and then some.