Let me just say this straight away: You MUST listen to this album while following the lyrics.
The first time I played Obzen in my car yesterday, I was bitterly disappointed. Most of the reviewers are touting this album as a return to classic Meshuggah, and they like it for that reason. It’s as if Meshuggah is coasting on their reputation, like old folks in a rest home who occasionally break out a vaudeville routine they perfected back in ‘34. You know, like the Rolling Stones. That’s how I heard it as well, at first — as Chaosphere II. By the time it stopped playing I was so sick of the “BA-Daaaaa, BA-Da-BEE-Da BA-DAAA” licks that I was ready to come on here and write a two-star review saying that not only does this album suck, but that it ruined Chaosphere retroactively for me as well.
A little birdie told me “Don’t. Sleep on it.” That I did, and today, playing it in my room and following along with the lyrics, this mother began to blossom and open out. I don’t just mean Obzen grew on me. I mean, it’s as if I was listening to two completely different albums from one day to the next. Obzen is no retread, but another push forward. Every Meshuggah album has a “hook,” some radical innovation within the limitations they prescribe for themselves. Here it is the way the music responds to and interacts with the words, stanza by stanza, and sometimes line by line, almost like a gruelling opera. Where a song on Chaosphere is structured entirely around the music, in such a way that it eventually leads to a rhythmic shift that makes it feel like a trapdoor is opening under your feet, giving you a sick, nauseous vertigo, and the words are only means to this end, here it is the exact opposite — Tomas Haake’s lyrics generate the musical material. You can see just by cracking the lyric sheet how much more pared-down and simple they are.
This means Obzen is more filigreed, more dense, more micro-detailed, less about one grand effect per song and more about constant change with a cumulative impact. A concept album about the human mind closing under the extreme pressure of lies and confusion and “seeing the light” of the New Age, Kabbalah, Buddhism, whatever — the title seems to be a combination of “oblivion” and “Zen” — Obzen’s subject matter is also slightly different than older albums which are more about nihilistic philosophies of becoming a la Nietzsche or Deleuze and Guattari. But this bodysnatching New Age theme is scarier because it is happening to everyone, it isn’t something that hopeless graduate students do to themselves. Even without the help of the lyrics one of the first things you’ll notice on this album is the trippy Oriental guitar lick that sounds like a koto, that I call the “hidden tune” of Obzen, after the line in “Dancers to a Discordant System”: “Listen to the hidden tune / The essence of lies in notes defined.” This hidden tune is first played in dead space in “Electric Red” at 4:04, returns in “Bleed,” this time as part of the musical fabric, at 3:38, and then insinuates itself into the DNA of an entire song: “Pineal Gland Optics,” where the illusion fully takes hold, “A Judas syndrome in effect, former self the deceiver,” Jens Kidman shrieks as his reason is flipped upside down.
The rest of the album tells the story of how this madness seduces the protagonist of Obzen, through a very subtle sort of word-painting. The twin guitar attack of the opening 20 seconds of “Bleed” sounds like an infrared beam sweeping a room, so when Kidman enters with “Beams of fire sweep through my head” we can subconsciously relate. The entirety of “Electric Red” is an accumulation of effects that all gather together at the line “the scarlet flood inundates our powerless thoughts” — the song itself is like a flood of gathering momentum. “Lethargica” lives up to its title as the most sluggish, lumbering track on the album. “This Spiteful Snake” is the best example of what I’m talking about, beyond the obvious serpentine riff that kicks it off. At the line “Trapping us in its winding / Its closing malignant cycles” Haake whacks his cymbals to evoke a vicious rattler. When Kidman says, “Overcome, defeated” you can hear the music break down and lose confidence. At 3:16 we get a solo that sounds like a snake-charmer’s flute, right before the sinister and triumphant re-entry, at 4:15, of the hidden tune. This bleeds right into “Pineal Gland Optics,” which, as I’ve already said, is the pivotal point of the album where the hidden tune reveals its true face, no longer hiding. Lucifer — who else did you think was behind this? — has emerged from the shadows to be worshipped by his new world of dumbed-down freaks, in all his alien, twisted ugliness, without the need for stand-ins or proxies.
Obzen closes with the ten-minute epic “Dancers to a Discordant System” a controlled evocation of worldwide chaos that leaves you depleted and shaking. And I haven’t even mentioned the two “simple” songs, “Combustion” and the title track. The latter is the most brutal song on the album but also, because of its simplicity, the most restful. You don’t have to stretch yourself contemplating its Gothic architecture. Like the music of Merzbow, it is both violent and soothing, making me imagine those “elegant” human sacrifices in Logan’s Run where people float up into the air to be zapped to the approval of a degraded, brainwashed mob who think they’re watching art. Civilized murder — peaceful slaughter — no resistance, not even mentally — “Obzen.”
I don’t know how Meshuggah do it. How is it possible to express all this in music, and not only that, but express it within the self-imposed straitjacket of their timeworn formula, their classic sound, that dreaded “Ba-Da Bee-Da”? Is Ba-Da Bee-Da the DNA of music, can it be called into service to express anything? It’s starting to seem that way. So I must beg to differ with the other long-winded reviewer: Obzen IS Meshuggah’s crowning achievement, at least until next time.