On “Combustion,” the leadoff track to Meshuggah’s sixth full-length, obZen, Tomas Haake beats his drums in a standard thrash polka. Rhythm guitars shred in 4/4 time. Fredrik Thordendal sweeps in with one of his patented clean-tone guitar solos right when you’d expect him to. It’s the fastest album track Meshuggah has recorded since Chaosphere (1998) and the most straightforward thrash tune the band has written since its landmark Destroy Erase Improve (1995), if not before. And it’s brilliant.
Though not all of obZen references Meshuggah’s early days so clearly, the immediacy of “Combustion” is a sure sign that the trailblazing Swedish death-metal quintet is no longer afraid of looking backward. Retrograde isn’t a usual direction for Meshuggah, whose man-versus-machine themes and forward-thinking approach toward rhythm make it one of the most defiantly futuristic bands in metal. But artistically, obZen represents an important step for the band, similar to what Radiohead and Wilco did with In Rainbows and Sky Blue Sky. After five albums of adventurous horizon-chasing, each expanding upon and deepening the last, the members of Meshuggah have written an album more about focus and songwriting than progress.
So while there’s very little that’s surprising about obZen, the album finds Meshuggah’s strengths filtered through tighter song structures and more approachable grooves than we’ve heard from them in a long time. The beginning of “Bleed” translates flickering single-note rhythms into a discernible verse/pre-chorus that could yield a great death-metal radio single. The title track and “Pineal Gland Optics” fashion punishing 4/4 sections out of difficult syncopated riffs, giving even the most complex bits a sense of indomitable, Terminator-style momentum. “Pravus” might be the album’s most awesome construction, with its frantic Balkan jig of an opening riff that gets spliced, splayed, deconstructed and exploded throughout the track’s perfectly sequenced five minutes.
Meshuggah’s musicianship keeps them standing tall above their countless imitators. Theirs is a completely integrated virtuosity, with guitar, bass and drums fused inseparably like individual tentacles of the same mechanical beast. If there’s one member to single out, it’s definitely Haake, who returns to live drumming on obZen after the software-abetted Catch 33 (2005). He juggles so many polyrhythms with such robotic precision that it’s impossible to tell the difference.
For all the songwriting refinements that Meshuggah have made on obZen, they preserve the same foreboding vibe they’ve always had. Vocalist Jens Kidman gets it just right in “Lethargica” when he roars “Its design perfected through aeons / Pure, immaculate, clean, omnicidal god/machine / Calm, precise ambition / Untroubled by the roar of unending screams / The droning blare of absolute doom.” That’s Meshuggah for you. Twenty years old and self-reflective as ever.