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Jarring and alienating - 87%

gasmask_colostomy, November 30th, 2015

When one reads the reviews of 'Koloss', two things are immediately obvious. First, a lot of people love Meshuggah and think this is one of the best albums from a very skilful and exciting band. The second thing is that no one knows how to write a review about this album beyond saying "It sounds like it's a Meshuggah album but not as heavy as 'obZen' even though it's still great", which is akin to saying that Deicide play metal or Iron Maiden are good at singing. I'm not exactly a big Meshuggah fan, yet I find 'Koloss' an engrossing album and, with some lacklustre elements, an ultimately rewarding experience.

My personal history with the album is a bit strange, though I think it might give some insight to why it's special and sounds so different from most other metal releases. In late 2013, I had already listened to 'Do Not Look Down' on a sampler album and, while I was looking for music to provide inspiration for a writing project, I decided that the song might be suitable. As it turned out, it was more than just suitable, providing a groundwork for that small idea, which subsequently turned into five or six poems, a short story, and two essays that I submitted for my master's degree. One quarter of my degree stemmed directly from 'Do Not Look Down'. And what was the nature of the project? It was an exploration of impersonal modernity and the paranoia of living in the city, partly concerned with surveillance, with dislocated power and authority, and something that I liked to call "concrete anxiety". Concrete anxiety is the feeling you get when viewing the blunt, colossal, and oppressive city architecture of grey bridges, overpasses, office blocks, alleyways, staircases, and car parks, all of which seem to trap the city dweller in the metropolis. The environment is uniform and controlled, yet is in a complex state of chaos, where the concrete structures criss-cross and intersect in a confusing network, causing people to become anxious and feel less than human, but more a product of machines or prefigured control, such as city surveillance and state authority.

That description, for me, is an accurate summary of the atmosphere and associations that 'Koloss' stirs up during its length. The repetitve bludgeoning of heavy-duty rhythms and lurching, reinforced guitar riffs doesn't allow the listener to experience any of heavy metal's normal euphoria and energy, except in a kind of dizzying descent and vertigo that the sudden, random, jazz-structured solos induce. The polyrhythms might occasionally feel unnecessary and showy, but their main purpose is to create that sense of entrapment and loss of autonomy that comes from complete alienation and subservience to an inscrutable system. The riffs on 'Koloss' can be split into two groups: the first type fits the rhythmic patterns of Tomas Haake's bewildering drumming and doesn't add much enjoyment from simple guitar sounds, only from those appalling atmospheres; the second type has more of a conventional appeal, not giving hooks to hang onto exactly, but a more generous and satisfying groove that allows the listener's head to clear so they can regain some balance. The first type is most obviously used in 'Do Not Look Down' and 'I Am Colossus', while the second type ensures that 'Marrow' and 'Demiurge' are easier introductions for new listeners.

Despite these different styles, most of the songs on 'Koloss' are cut from the same cloth, using small variations from the core sound to maintain the oppressive atmosphere throughout the album. The rhythmic battery is unrelenting excepting some small ambient and melodic touches in 'Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion' and the doom-influenced 'Behind the Sun', while Jens Kidman's vocals are terrifyingly uniform, delivered in a completely monotone snarl that just verges on Predator-style alienness. This all means that listening to songs in isolation is much less rewarding than being engulfed by the entire album for 55 minutes, since the menace builds and builds to a crescendo in 'Demiurge', before 'The Last Vigil' echoes hauntingly as the eerie fallout to whatever took place. Those who pledge their allegience to Meshuggah and this album particularly must surely be here for the atmosphere, which is like no other, as well as the impossibly dense sound of 8-string guitars, thudding bass, twisting drums, and mechanical vocals that crush your soul and mind underfoot in an altogether discomfitting experience.

Stepping outside that experience, though, it's plain to see that Meshuggah didn't have an easy time turning all of their ideas into great songs, since the opening 'I Am Colossus' stands out as a plainer, emptier listen than the others, and 'The Last Vigil' is too forgiving an ending for such an alienating experience. The faster songs, 'The Demon's Name Is Surveillance' and 'The Hurt that Finds You First' would both work much better in the opening position, so that the listener would immediately be pulled into the album, although they don't disappoint in their current positions. There are also parts of 'Marrow' that feel too groovy compared to what's going on around it, since the hooks are slightly too overt and lose the intense focus of the other numbers. However, these are relatively minor issues, since the album stands as a whole with continuous lyrical development to aid the musical themes. A brutal and unfeeling show of power.