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Meshuggah is a band that is difficult to fully nail down, not so much in terms of their sound, but more so in their popularity. The whole notion of a band that lives in some borderline between the skewed dimensions of hypnotic repetition and progressive extreme metal just doesn’t really seem to jive with the Pantera fanatics common to the former category, or the dark industrial crowd that eat up the discord and contrast of the neo-tonal harmonies implied in each wicked chord stomp. But one thing is for sure, the little niche that this band has carved for itself in the post-thrash scene is definitely unique, and brings with it a distinctive take on how to complexly articulate how pissed off you are at the world while contemplating all the different ways it’s destruction could be engineered.
Keeping all of the usual stylistic trappings of the band in context, “ObZen” actually manages to come off as being a sort of Zen-like meditation album, but superimposed upon a template that is more hellish and apocalyptic than it is restful and enlightened. From the raucous and rhythmic riffs that drone with the thud of a massive golem pulverizing boulders underfoot in “Pineal Gland Optics” to the rising feel of an elongated bend riff with a percussive edge in “Bleed”, the consistent sense of this album is one of perpetual violence, albeit slowed down to a mid-tempo crawl and channeled through a musical illusion of infinite regression. Even with a few strategically placed quiet sections to contrast with the otherwise constant heavy onslaught to function as place markers, these songs all but lack a true beginning or end to speak of.
Therein lies the fatal flaw of this album, and ultimately what keeps it from fully winning me over; this album is less than an hour long yet it feels like it is well over 2. The songs all run together, as if the band is playing off of the same riff set with a varying number of notes added in or taken away, and actual contrasting emotions or depth fail to emerge. Even when quieting down, the mood doesn’t really change from being a one-dimensional expression of anger, and the raw, vicious shouts of Jens Kidman lose their punch a couple of songs into the listen. Taking into account the layering of effects driven clean guitars lend a little depth to the listen, but ultimately prove to be little more than window-dressing on an otherwise completely uniform structure. The only song that really manages to stand out and offer a somewhat interesting switch in direction is “Dancers To A Discordant System”, which really plays up the mixed rhythms and quirky note groupings to the point of literally sounding like a man with seven legs trying to dance in time.
This is the sort of album that can be enjoyed for an occasional spin, though it works much better if not listened to all the way through in a single listening. A lot of time it stops being extreme and aggressive and just sort of fades off into simply being there, taking up space while one’s thoughts drift elsewhere. It’s actually something of an oxymoron that a band hell bent on making a point about how twisted and disturbing existence is or will be in the future, put together music that will have a hard time maintaining the attention of most who eat up those subjects on a regular basis. This is a band possessed of a very obvious raw musical talent in addition to technical ability, but unfortunately lacks a clear method of focusing them on this album. It’s sort of a pitfall for a number of progressive bands who put being distinctive above being understandable, and anyone looking for a heavy, industrial sound that is more geared towards listener accessibility while covering similar subjects would do well to check out Machinery’s “The Passing”, which is much more focused and, sadly, not nearly as well known.