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‘ObZen’ is in many ways, shapes and forms an absolutely fantastic product of the warped and twisted imaginations of the five-man mentalist brigade that is the mighty Meshuggah. Key amongst what makes ‘ObZen’ such a remarkable listen is that it not only has all the brute force and thoughtfully considered flair for variety and experimentation as we’ve come to expect of Meshuggah, but it masterfully sidesteps the fathoms-deep pitfall that ‘Catch 33’ threw itself into with wanton abandon.
While on said previous album Meshuggah took their distinctive approach to a preposterous limit, stretching the notion of cyclical, repetitive music so far that the strain was often (but not always) painfully visible, ‘ObZen’ sees them pull off quite a feat, with more abundant attention bestowed upon a wider variety of concepts and ideas, granting the material an accessibility they have only just fallen short of achieving before – while all the time never compromising on the intensity of the aggression they have previously displayed.
This sounds like a paradox in action; a band allowing their ideas to properly gestate and develop for the sake of accessibility but still retaining that slight sense of violent impenetrability which they have made their own. A paradox, indeed, but by Satan below it works.
‘Combustion’ is a sublime revelation to those who’ve come to associate Meshuggah with spiralling, twisting rhythmic madness. The song rips the curtain up on ‘ObZen’ in a crashing whirlwind of thrash metal inspired riffery on the part of Marten Hagstrom and Fredrik Thordendal and pure, delightful kit-bashing from Tomas Haake. Showing with brazen confidence that they are just as capable of dynamic songcraft as they are of their trademark discordant madness, ‘Combustion’ is little short of a highlight of thrash metal in 2008 – by the time of that superbly atonal solo, the battering speed and almost epic vocal refrains have the listener impossibly exhilarated.
That is not to say that Meshuggah have strayed from their beaten track nor is said track becoming wearisome to tread. ‘Bleed’ is being elevated to the level of reverence usually bestowed upon ‘New Millennium Cyanide Christ’ and ‘Future Breed Machine’ for damn good reason, it’s extraordinary beats and writhing, chugging chord progressions sounding something akin to sticking your head into the inner workings of a massive mechanical being, absolute in its deadly precision.
‘This Spiteful Snake’ and closer ‘Dancers to a Discordant System’ are more highlight tracks amongst many, blending grooving, deliciously palatable riffs with a fantastically clearly realised sense of imminent doom. These songs are just an example of the triumph of balance that Meshuggah have achieved here, and each and every song is in its own unique way extremely engaging.
Simply as instrumentalists, the band themselves are just as fascinating. Hagstrom and Thordendal, along with bassist Dick Lovgren, maintain the record’s relentless intensity and experimental flair with consummate skill, whilst Haake gives a lesson in musical duality by both anchoring the material and driving it forth with the twisted and contorted backbone of steel he provides.
After ‘Catch 33’, it’s a joy to hear him actually lay down some proper drum tracks in place of stringing pre-recorded samples together, with the man once again proving just what he can do with a pair of sticks in his hands. Vocalist Jens Kidman, however, offers one of the few downsides to ‘ObZen’, in that his admittedly powerful screams and well developed lyrical conceits are the only elements lacking in variety – he brings nothing new to the drawing board, and amidst some remarkable work he is comparatively unremarkable and worthy of little note.
‘ObZen’ is a landmark in the fluctuating career Meshuggah have been blazing through for over a decade now, a record that has taken everything that made them so very distinctive and upped the game by an extraordinary degree. As exceptional, enjoyable and flat-out extraordinary as their earlier masterwork ‘Destroy Erase Improve’, ‘ObZen’ is truly worthy of its surely inevitable inclusions on innumerable ‘Albums of 2008’ magazine lists, and you do yourself a profound disservice to let it slip below your radar.