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Album Reviews : Meshuggah – obZen

By on March 10, 2010

1121382Meshuggah’s sixth album obZen (2008) contains few surprises for any Meshuggah fan as they have created an album that, if anything, can almost be considered an amalgamation of much of their previous work. Of course, this is hardly a bad thing as all the insane elements of Meshuggah’s unique brand of extreme metal are all still present and expressed fluidly and smoothly: unbelievably heavy and technical riffs blasted from Frederik Thorndal’s and Marten Hagstrom’s drop-tuned 8-string guitars (yes, you heard me) backed up by bassist Dick Lovgren with Thomas Haake, possibly one of the most proficient metal drummers around today, with his mind-blowing array of crazy time-signatures and polyrhythms, with the sound rounded effectively by vocalist Jens Kidman’s angry yells and screams. ObZen delivers a mind-bending technical metal assault that is every bit as heavy as it is musically incredible.

The first few songs of ‘obZen’ do a good job of setting the tone for the rest of the album, providing an unending stream of mid-fast paced, heavy and technical riffs to bang your head to. In addition to the high level of technicality built into the riffs, beats and rhythms, the individual songs of ‘obZen’ have some highly unusual and somewhat mind-twisting structures to them, though at first listen this does provide the illusion of total chaos without structure. The album’s introduction also provides a nice microcosm of the lyrical themes of ‘obZen’ (written by Haake and delivered in an uncompromising fashion by Kidman). The album deals with the ignorance and depravity of humankind, with frequent reference to humanity as slaves to a system of violence, staining everything blood red. Thomas Haake has commented on the album’s title and artwork, saying that ‘obZen’ refers to humanity attaining its state of peace (or zen) only through obscenity and obscurity.

Track three provides what could easily the best song of the album, and possibly even Meshuggah’s entire career with the monster epic that is “Bleed”. This song takes everything that Meshuggah is, takes it all to a whole new level and then combines it all in one song. The main riff of the song (along with its dozen or so variations) is an exercise in total brutality and unbelievable rhythmic technicality from all members of the band. As the song progresses, getting only heavier and faster as it does so, accompanied of course by Kidman’s aggravated vocal assault, it eventually moves into a slow, melodic clean section followed by a well thought out solo by Thorndal. This part of Meshuggah’s sound is what keeps ‘obZen’ from slipping into total monotony (which it threatens to do at times), providing relief from the relentless pounding of heavy riff after heavy riff. Along with the relieving (and often suspense-building) clean sections strewn through the album the unusual leads and solos of Frederik Thorndal provide an extra dimension to Meshuggah’s sound, necessary to keep the listener’s undivided attention. On ‘obZen’ Thorndal has largely done away with the weird discordant solos seen on previous albums (particularly ‘Nothing’) in favour of both powerful melodic solos, such as in “Dancers to a Discordant System”, as well as some very tasty shred material, such as in album opener “Combustion”.

However, that being said, without a doubt the biggest downside of the album (and, in this reviewer’s opinion, with Meshuggah in general) is the extent to which the music falls into monotony and repetitiveness. When an entire album is created out of bizarrely structured and timed riffs, weird song structures (which generally see songs progress with little repetition of material) and riffs generally fitting the same style (that is, very low, heavy and mid-paced) it becomes very difficult to find hooks in the songs to give them definition, or find distinction from song to song. In addition to this, Kidman’s angry yells tend not to have a lot of range to them, furthering what could be perceived as the monotony of the album. However, this problem is definitely most pronounced when listening to the album for the first few times, as after that the distinctions do become a little clearer and the range of music a little more pronounced.

All things considered, ‘obZen’ is an extremely solid hunk of metal. Once you have got through the album a few times the monotony of the sound will largely wear off and the astonishing technicality of each of the members will keep any musician endlessly entertained, and the progressive aspect to the music will keep any listener on the edge of their seats indefinitely.
As usual, I hate having giving a number to an album but here the rating is very simply a reflection of the high quality of metal found on ‘obZen’, with the obvious downsides taken into consideration. 7.5/10

Band: Meshuggah
Album: obZen
Year: 2008
Genre: Technical death metal
Label: Nuclear Blast
Origin: Umea, Sweden

Track Listing:
1. Combustion
2. Electric Red
3. Bleed <– Reviewer’s Choice
4. Lethargica
5. obZen
6. This Spiteful Snake
7. Pineal Gland Optics
8. Pravus <– Reviewer’s Choice
9. Dancers to a Discordant System

Reviewed by Samuel Maher


Mitch Booth is the owner, designer and grand overlord of Metal Obsession. In the few seconds of spare time he has outside of this site, he also hosts a metal radio show over on PBS 106.7fm in Melbourne (Australia) and organises shows under the name Untitled Touring. You should follow him on Twitter.