Since Meshuggah don’t often release a new proper album (five in about a decade and a half of existence), the arrival of a new full-length tends to become something of an event, with the band’s rabid fan base dissecting its sound like film geeks picking apart a new Tarantino movie. You can already see the instant analysis on this site, and judging by the early returns Catch Thirty-Three has done a mighty nice job of polarizing Meshuggah’s listeners. Of course, given Meshuggah’s penchant for ignoring convention and tossing constant curveballs at their audience, perhaps that’s exactly what they wanted. Catch Thirty-Three has already drawn some criticism from fans concerned about its departures from Meshuggah’s norm, but these people may be missing the point. For one thing, Meshuggah has always been about experimentation, making sure each release sounds different from the one before it, and that pattern continues here. More to the point, while this album is more repetitive than the others, and Fredrik Thordendal’s hyper-technical solos have been all but expunged, this album is clearly *supposed* to be a repetitive and streamlined effort by Meshuggah standards. The repetition, the extended atmospheric breaks, and the (slight) reduction of showy technicality enable the band to put more emphasis on its unrelentingly bleak sound and vision, and I for one am all for it.
Of course, it’s safe to say that I’m somewhat biased when reviewing a Meshuggah album, given the fact that I worship them with a fervor typically reserved for one’s deity of choice, but even the band’s more casual listeners should find something to like here. Like all Meshuggah releases, this one is distinguished above all by its utter distinctiveness; at no point could a Meshuggah album be mistaken for the work of anyone other than Meshuggah. For while many lesser metal bands make speed, image, or “brutality” the end-all and be-all of their sound, Meshuggah’s sound is devoted above all else to complexity, musicianship, and atmosphere. Like None, Destroy Erase Improve, Chaosphere, Nothing, and I before it, Catch Thirty-Three is a sleek, futuristic killing machine of an album, and this one may be the most sleek and futuristic of them all. The embellishments to which metal bands often turn in order to sound “distinctive” (keyboards, acoustic guitars, clean vocals) are conspicuously absent here, as Meshuggah devote themselves to the primitive essentials of voices, guitar, bass, and drum machine. Of course, it’s what Meshuggah do with these elements that makes this album such a unique and compelling listen: pulverizing eight-string guitar riffs; noisy Godflesh-style feedback; intricate fusionesque polyrhythms; and of course the dual assault of Jen’s Kidman’s commanding growl and Tomas Haake’s foreboding spoken-word vocals. It all adds up to a twisted, dystopian sound that conveys despair and disaffection better than every whiny nu-metal band on Earth put together.
Unlike Meshuggah’s previous three albums, on which each song was a distinctive, fully-realized classic in its own right, Catch Thirty-Three is essentially one extended mood piece broken up into 13 parts. As such, it makes sense to listen to it not as a collection of songs, but as a single epic devoted to a unifying theme and atmosphere (the band makes this trick easy to accomplish by not leaving any space between tracks). The first three tracks on the album, Autonomy Lost, Disenchantment, and Imprint of the Un-Saved, provide a pretty clear example of its mission right away, as they coalesce into a swirling vortex of metallic fury built around one stuttering, drawn-out, entrancingly repetitive guitar riff that had me banging my head with reckless abandon at a stoplight in full view of about ten other drivers on first listen. This opening movement reaches a level of intensity that rivals the finest moments of Chaosphere, and the insanity doesn’t stop until the start of The Paradoxical Spiral, which opens with some atmospheric guitar notes before launching into another gut-busting riff. The album’s longest section, In Death – Is Death, is also perhaps its most exemplary moment, opening with Jens’s trademark robotic scream and a guitar sound that’s about as pleasant as having a steak knife shoved in your ear before steadily segueing into a prolonged ambient passage that constitutes one of the few extended periods in Meshuggah’s canon that could properly be called minimal. Most metal bands wouldn’t dare leave so much space in one of their albums, but then Meshuggah isn’t most metal bands.
Before taking my leave, I should also stress that the instant gratification factor on this album may not be as high as usual for Meshuggah. Their work has always reveled in complexity and unpredictability, but given Catch Thirty-Three’s retreat from conventional song composition and its excessive reliance on tone and repitition, this one might take even more time than usual to fully appreciate. It’s the kind of album that sort of gets under your skin more and more as you listen to it, communicating increasing amounts of its feel on successive listens. You still may not like it (as some Meshuggah fans obviously don’t), but Catch Thirty-Three more than deserves some extra time. You’d probably just waste it anyway.