Okay, so, last week I didn’t get a review up; I had a lot of stuff on. However, had I put one up I would’ve touched on two really awesome things that have happened in music recently, so I’m just going to fling them in at the start of this one. First: as a long-time literature geek and a critical-accolade-obsessive in general, I am over the moon that Bob Dylan got awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It pretty much goes without saying that Dylan’s a great writer, and given that the NPL is meant to demonstrate not only a writer’s skill but also their influence on future writers and their socio-political relevance, Dylan’s about as deserving as anyone alive. But even if only some of that was true, I’m thrilled to see the precedent established that the NPL can be awarded to lyricists. Here’s hoping Kendrick Lamar gets one a few decades down the line.
Second, the album I was going to review last week was Solange’s A Seat at the Table. It’s now a bit too long since that one’s been released for me to have time to cover it if I want to stay on top of things, but it’s a really great album which I absolutely recommend either way. It’s political to much the same degree and in much the same direction as Lemonade was, but it’s a very different beast: patient and reserved where Lemonade was vitriolic and raw. There are some lovely heavy pianos towards the end, but to be honest, the album is at its best when it’s just dealing in different colours of hazy ambience; there’s an antique, preserved-in-amber feel to a lot of the instrumental sections. Definitely give it a look.
Right, with that out of the way – let’s talk about some extreme metal, eh djentlemen? The problem I always have with Meshuggah-esque bands is that although they fill their music with countless intricately moving pieces, the result usually feels more like a Rubik’s cube than an actually functional machine, a complex puzzle that mostly exists to solve itself and doesn’t have much direction beyond that. I say “Meshuggah-esque” bands because it’s never really put me off Meshuggah themselves. A big part of that is commitment to the bit: lyrically and tonally the band are so completely nihilistic that “not going anywhere” feels about as relevant a criticism of them as it would be of Samuel Beckett. And hey, they’ve been doing this for long enough that they’re able to make pretty fascinating Rubik’s cubes anyway. So when I say that the big thing that strikes me about The Violent Sleep of Reason is that it really manages to escape the Rubik’s cube trap, I am not talking about a misguided band seeing the light. I’m talking about a band solving a problem they didn’t need to solve. What I’m trying to get out of this is that The Violent Sleep of Reason is totally fucking sweet. And I’m like a 7 or 7.5 on the Meshuggah fan richter scale, tops; if you’re one of those obsessives who can yell out every time signature change on Chaosphere as it’s happening, this album is going to blow your mind.
As the name suggests, The Violent Sleep of Reason is Meshuggah at their most aggressive, and that manifests in a bunch of different ways. There’s some nightmarishly satisfying atonal leads on top of the title track and a thrashy forward momentum on “Clockworks.” The opening to “Our Rage Won’t Die”, weird time-signatures aside, pounds like golden-era Slayer. Whereas Meshuggah in the past have dealt primarily in low-end chugging outside of their guitar solos, lead player Frederik Thordendal this time around makes his greatest commitment to background ambience: at the start of “By the Ton”, the deep thumping of the rhythm part is set against manic polyrhythmic high-pitched scratching. The result is chaotic in a way the band have never really been in the past, yet what really elevates The Violent Sleep of Reason is how well the band members manage to synchronize. In the past, Meshuggah’s obsession with polyrhythms has served to pull each song apart into its constituent components; the signature Meshuggah magic trick was to weave together a whole mess of different time signatures into something that was still recognisably a coherent song. On The Violent Sleep of Reason, the band plays around with the formula more, and comes in and out of synch; polyrhythms are treated here in the same way that Miles Davis treated modal melodies, not as an exercise but as a kind of foundation. The best example of this by far is on “Nostrum”, which moves from creaking asymmetric guitars and drums into a manic, cascading climax in which all the band members move from tearing each other’s lines apart to a practically indistinguishable mass of writhing sound. The result is an album which feels climactic in a way Meshuggah have never been before. Tracks rise and crest and fall, and while the whole thing is exactly as alienating as you’d expect from a band whose whole career has basically sounded like a Lovecraftian horror’s interpretation of Trout Mask Replica, going along for the ride is completely exhilarating.
The Violent Sleep of Reason is niche as fuck, and while I do think its clear direction and palpable rage make it a better starting point for newcomers than most, this probably isn’t going to be the band’s major break. But while Chasophere and Obzen set high bars to top, it might just be their best album.