Zen and the art of extreme-metal maintenance

Meditating on Meshuggah and music that transcends lousy cover art
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Meshuggah's obZen (Nuclear Blast) is not the first example of a quality album with dismal cover art. On the other hand, it's not that easy to think of really, er, great examples. Mott the Hoople's Brain Capers (Atlantic, 1971), Humble Pie's Smokin' (A&M, 1972), and the Rolling Stones' Black and Blue (Rolling Stones/Virgin, 1976) come to mind, but I'm not sure if these are actually good albums or just guilty pleasures. There's also Blue Öyster Cult's Agents of Fortune (Columbia, 1976) and Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill (MCA, 1972) — slightly more reputable records, but like the others above, they're subject to the "Hey, it was the '70s" defense.

Sweden's Meshuggah occupy a whole 'nother realm of music — modern extreme metal, generally speaking — which means I should be comparing them to their peers, not a bunch of musty classic rock acts. However, over my years of following this genre, I've become so desensitized to foul cover art that it seldom fazes me anymore. Skeletons being crucified on inverted crosses? Helpless, bloody victims with various orifices sewn shut? You try not to pay too much attention to it.

ObZen takes the good album–bad cover discrepancy to a new level, though. On their cover, a computer-generated image of a naked, three-armed, blood-covered mandroid sits in the lotus position, engaged in a solemn act of meditation. Apparently, it's tied in with the title's "obscene zen" pun. Whatever the case, it's not good. Not good at all. The only reason I bother poking fun is because the music itself is pretty amazing.

Granted, the members of Meshuggah have been churning out this sort of sandblasting tech-metal for more than a decade, but obZen includes some of their most creative, demented riffing in years. They're the rare extreme metal band whose sound is immediately recognizable: pick a song, any song, and you can tell it's them within a few seconds — though it's much harder to figure out exactly which song you're hearing. This is partly because their music never changes all that much — externally, at least — but also because it's so distinctive and idiosyncratic.

Meshuggah established their sound on 1995's Destroy Erase Improve and 1998's Chaosphere (both Nuclear Blast), and it's essentially an industrial-tinged mutation of the tight, mechanical thrash metal of early '90s Sepultura or pre-Black Album Metallica. While most of the far-out happenings in '90s metal came from the seedier realms of black metal, death metal, and grindcore, Meshuggah continued as one of the few bands doing anything groundbreaking with this sort of weightlifter-metal template. In other words, they didn't have any close peers when they emerged as a noteworthy group, and despite influencing a wide variety of metal, prog, and experimental acts in the years since, there's no one who sounds quite like them.

They're not without their metal-band trappings, although these don't involve Satanism or bad horror-flick imagery. Instead, there is a sort of dystopian sci-fi thread running through much of their work, something they share with predecessors like Voivod and Fear Factory. I don't know anyone who is specifically attracted to Meshuggah based on that aspect of their aesthetic, just as I don't know anyone who listens to the band because of vocalist Jens Kidman, whose monochromatic bark is certainly an acquired taste.

Rather, Meshuggah's appeal is all about "that thing" they do with their guitars and drums. It's very specific: jackhammer drums and hiccuping guitar riffs wind around one another in an intricate fashion, with the drums and guitars usually playing in different time signatures and constantly turning around on one another.

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