Meshuggah have come a long way. From humble metal roots they have progressed through a miriad of sounds and styles, all the time pushing the borderline of metal, and becoming the most innovative and original band in the genre. So here is their sixth LP “Obzen” – a grand concept album on man’s struggle in the modern day world of supposed religious and spiritual wellbeing (hence fusing the words obscene and zen). It’s importantly the end of an experimental stage that produced the daring one-song-epics “I” and “Catch Thirty Three”. According to the band themselves “Obzen” is their attempt to draw together their sound and various styles from past albums in order to create a balanced and eclectic new direction. This is certainly the case, as “Obzen” effortlessly merges the brutal thrash of “Destroy Erase Improve”, the visceral riff-orientated “Chaosphere” and later downtempo grooves of “Nothing” and “Catch Thirty Three”. It also sees drummer Tomas Haake back on the kit after his “drumkit from hell” programming on “Catch 33″ and the “Nothing” re-release.
I’ve read reviews arguing “Obzen” is simply a re-run of “Chaosphere”, or that it owes most heavily to that album. I have to disagree with this, as I feel “Obzen” borrows equally from past releases. For one thing there’s a deal more melody to the riffs here. Take for example the opening two riffs of “Combustion”, the lead being extremely melodic for Meshuggah, sounding more similar to Tool at their heaviest. Compare this to the utter abrasive opening riff to “Concatenation” that lacks any hint of melody. “Bleed” and the title track would be the most “Chaosphere” sounding tracks for me, with the later fashioning the kind of riff breakdown that sprawled throughout “Chaosphere”.
“Obzen” is noticeably faster as a whole when compared to recent albums, being more on par with the energetic thrash of “Destroy Erase Improve”. Moments of punishing speed are employed through most of the tracks, such as “Pineal Gland Optics” which opens with a flurry of intense drumming and machine-gun riffing. Vocals wise I would also draw parallels to “DEI” over other albums. They are slightly more forward in the mix when compared to “Nothing” or “Catch Thirty Three”, and with these albums they are used more as rhythmic accents, often sacrificed for instrumental grooves. Like “DEI” the vocal sections are more extended, possibly as there are more lyrics per song.
Where “Obzen” sounds best is when Meshuggah play with dynamics. Thordendal has always enjoyed his eerie atmospheric sections, but they have never sounded so perfectly quiet and brooding as here. “Lethargica” is downtempo Meshuggah at their most lethal, instantly recalling the best of “Nothing”, it cuts to a sublime ambient breakdown that gives way to an absolute monolith of a riff. One of the heaviest breakdowns Meshuggah has ever carved out, and a highlight to the album. The epic closer “Dancers to a Discordant System” is my favorite track on “Obzen”, opening with quiet guitar ambience it builds to a progressive metal run-through of all stages in Meshuggah’s career. The song has it all – eerie atmospheres, pummeling thrash, breakdowns and a face-melting final riff that lumbers with immense groove. Utter perfection for the Meshuggah fan.
It was a risk to attempt an album that can capture all various sounds and styles, but I feel “Obzen” does it with sophistication. The album never sounds jumbled or confused despite switching through such extreme dynamics and tempos. Meshuggah fans should certainly enjoy this, and those new to the band will get a concise taste of what Meshuggah is about.