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SPIN Essentials

Meshuggah, ‘Koloss’ (Nuclear Blast)

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Label: Nuclear Blast

Nothing feels safe when you’re listening to Meshuggah. An average song by the Swedish metal extremists sounds like they took 30 seconds of Slayer’s Reign in Blood, a minute from dissonant composer Krysztof Penderecki, and as much cacophonous free-jazz drumming as they could find, jigsawed it into a million pieces, and then collaged it back together. Drumbeats meld with guitar riffs and solidify into progressive, thrashy stews; vocalist Jens Kidman barks, growls, and blows gaskets left and right; the idea of song structure remains vibrantly fluid, somehow coming together perfectly again and again.

Whether playing death metal in 7/4 time or recording epic, single-track symphonies of sickness that would be impossible to replicate live, the group has forged its own path. In a genre full of rebels, these guys are Dadaist deconstructionists, thumbing their noses at convention wherever and whenever they can.

In the process, they’ve become underground heroes. One of those rare bands you just have to hear to believe, Meshuggah rose to prominence in the mid-’90s through word of mouth. Their rhythmic feats have dazzled headbangers and academics alike; their music was once the subject of a 27-page thesis published in the journal Music Theory Spectrum. (This is a band that actually got heshers to ponder polyrhythms.) Most recently, they’ve been cited as the prime launching pad for a new metal subgenre called “djent.” supposedly named for the noise that axemen Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström make when they hit their picks against their low-pitched eight-string guitars (according to guitarist Misha Mansoor of genre phenoms Periphery). But regardless of these past accolades, Meshuggah remain adamant about always trying something new.

For their seventh album, Koloss, “something new” involves an exercise in restraint. Drummer Tomas Haake (as highly revered as Neil Peart by extreme-metal fans) has said that the group’s last album, obZen, was too technical and complex, giving the quintet a harder time than usual when attempting to play it live. So this time they toyed around with tempos and grooves, even seasoning their twisted, technical melodies with different flavors of ear candy — only now there’s enough space and time for listeners to savor it. Koloss is still dense and nuanced, of course — compared to new records by their contemporaries in Lamb of God or even Mastodon, it’s a Francis Bacon painting next to the Mona Lisa. Yet Meshuggah have indulged their restraint in ways that make this possibly their most accessible album ever.

Practically every song on the album throbs with an enthralling groove. The guitarists, whose riffs once exploded in staticky bursts, like they were performing shock therapy on a drum machine now have an almost bluesy swing. It’s like Metallica ditching the proggy thrash of …And Justice for All in favor of the heavy pummel of the Black Album. Or, it’s as much as the Swedes can give in to their primal rock roots without fully abandoning their experimental netherworld.

Beginning with a proclamation by Kidman — “I’m the great leviathan / The insatiable colossus,” the band expertly balances heavy jamming with arty indulgences. Here, it’s a single, otherworldly note bending up to the heavens until it fades away, whereupon Kidman returns with even more bile. On standout track “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance,” they interrupt a double-bass-drum battery to bash out primal chords — one guitarist even takes an eerie solo that comes across a bit like Philip Glass playing the blues. They build “Behind the Sun” and “Break the Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion” around spooky atmospherics that could’ve been teleported through the TV in Poltergeist. Between the bouncy post-hardcore veins connecting the riffs in “Marrow,” they squeeze in a jazzy, Allan Holdsworth-like guitar solo. Meshuggah may be flirting with conventional songwriting, but then they always zig when you think they’ll zag.

This unpredictability —the 25-year-old band’s trademark attraction — is what keeps them at the forefront of metal’s vanguard, and what makes Koloss, for all its “normalcy” (joke quotes intended), the first real contender for the genre’s album of the year. It’s a rare band that can be both heavy and heady without sacrificing their intensity. It’s also the scarce metal ensemble that even attempts such a feat in the first place. But discomfort is Meshuggah’s comfort zone. While younger bands parse the group’s djents of yore, they’re busy experimenting with the textures, dissonance, and grooves that will influence yet another generation.