Meshuggah, or the Art of Alienation

The Swedish metal band Meshuggah takes their name for the Yiddish word meaning “crazy.” That’s likely the first thing you’ll think when you hear one of their songs. Their music enacts a dystopian future built upon agony and alienation.

In my last post, I talked about how I dislike music reviews. So you might wonder why I’m writing about music again. As before, I’m more interested in Meshuggah’s music as art and a philosophical intervention than as music itself. Don’t get me wrong–I love the music. Yet it’s the combination of both the group’s music and alienating, rootless lyrics and sound that are of interest to me. If Propagandhi saw some light at the end of the tunnel, then Meshuggah glimpses naught but the blinking red LED of a robot overlord.

It’s useful to think of Meshuggah’s sound as an aesthetic of violence, or even as aesthetic violence itself. Not screams, torture, gun sounds, or anything of that sort. Rather, an embodiment of cacophony as a discursive and musical paradigm.

Meshuggah’s music is punishing and complex. Meshuggah often employs the Locrian Mode, which creates a harsh, dissonant sound. The band’s vocalist screams and yells atonically and doesn’t sing in the melodic sense. This vocal style is no stranger to heavy metal generally, yet its stentorian intensity is stunning.

The polyrhythmic approach most of their songs embrace makes it difficult for the listener to get a foothold or find her place in the song, as it were. Meshuggah is prone to constant tempo changes and rhythms that are fairly unfamiliar: 5/4 and 7/4, to be sure, but 25/16, 28/16 and 5/16 as well. The fact that these meters are difficult to count, added to their protean shifts throughout any given song, give the listener a sense of imbalance and unease even without considering the highly distorted guitars. It’s difficult to predict, even after repeated listenings, when the measure will end or change tempo suddenly. But it’s not all seemingly random polymetric insanity.

What’s fascinating about Meshuggah’s polyrhythm is that the drums play simultaneously in a regular meter (usually 4/4) and whatever meter the guitarists are hashing out. This is accomplished mainly by splitting the different meters up: the bass pedals echo the jagged guitar attacks, while cymbals carry the more regular meter. This technique is both effective and incredibly virtuosic. The figure below shows this simultaneous concord and discord as the higher drum line (cymbals) plays in 4/4 while the lower copies the guitarists’ rhythms. As Pieslak suggests, the polyrhythms in Meshuggah’s music ultimately combine, however fleetingly, into a coherent whole.

Opening passage of "New Millennium Cyanide Christ" (from Pieslak's "Re-casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah," Music Theory Spectrum 29 (2007), p. 224).

Opening passage of "New Millennium Cyanide Christ" (from Pieslak's "Re-casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah," Music Theory Spectrum 29 (2007), p. 224). Click for larger image.

Click here for an audio version of the passage above.

Thematically, as I’ve suggested, Meshuggah’s lyrics seem obsessed with a dystopian future ruled by mechanical overlords. People become mere cogs in a machine, “resources” to be consumed that are ultimately expendable. Humanity is dehumanized. A few of their tracks stand out as anthemic in decrying such a hellscape: “Future Breed Machine,” “New Millenium Cyanide Christ” and “Dehumanization.”

“Future Breed Machine” (from Destroy Erase Improve) opens with the sound of industrial machinery, bounding conveyors and a screaming alarm. The song quickly moves into a fast-paced riff as the lyrics begin:

An even strobe

a pulse

of flashing

hatelights of synthetic souls

mass produced

hammered into shape

The song likely refers to the horrors of eugenics and genetic engineering already taking place (read these disgusting ads for egg donors) and takes them to their logical extremity. “Remote minds,” the voice continues later on, “control our thoughts. No more doubts: the new way is here.” Evolution carries on, only “in reverse” until what once had a human soul, a piece of eternity, is “defeated by the new machine.” I’ve always disliked the fact that hiring departments often have names like “Human Resources” or “Human Capital.” At the same time, these types of names call it like it is, in that under capitalism, human lives are perforce mined like the rocky earth for their time, energy, and creativity. “Future Breed Machine” takes this process to its logical, hellish conclusion.

“New Millennium Cyanide Christ,” from the Chaosphere LP (1998) espouses a similar future. The human body’s vital organs are replaced by fuses and mechanical apparatuses:

I rearrange my pathetic Tissue…

Ceramic Blades Implanted Past My Ribs To Save Me From The Dues Of Inhalation…

I Replace My Bones With Bars.

Human perfection comes at the price of humanity itself. The horrors of the 20th century transposed into the 21st.

Humans, once astray, made divine; stripped of congenital flaws

Meshuggah’s great triumph is transposing the problem of (in)humanity, so common in dystopian literature (think We or Brave New World), to a visceral songwriting style that is immediate in its impact.

“Dehumanization” is perhaps the best example of the lyrical and music approach Meshuggah tends towards. It’s the climax of the symphonic album Catch ThirtyThree, which, like I (discussed below), is a single piece broken into movements. The song continues the theme of extreme body modification.

I am inverted electrical impulses. A malfunctioning

death-code incomplete

About 47 seconds into this track, the high guitar riff initiates a vertiginous spiral while the lower riffs replicate a wasp-like droning. The passage dramatizes the self’s process for consciousness while inevitably cascading back down into the hive mind.

Grinding, churning the sweetest ever noises
Decode me into their non-communication
A soundtrack to my failure, one syllable, one vowel

The final syllable, the final vowel can be nothing but a primal scream. That death-shriek itself is perhaps the one sound that can sum up all of Meshuggah’s music.

Perhaps the most alienating thing of all, for Meshuggah, is the problem of the self. This problem is explored on their EP I (2004), composed of a 21-minute track. The EP could very well be called “I,” since it’s more about problematizing consciousness itself–the problem of the first person pronoun. The fallacy of the self. I replaced by the eye. The agony of being born, soul and body, living, dying.

One of my goals in this post has been to explain Meshuggah’s aesthetic of violence in order to show why their music sounds the way it does. It’s far from noise for noise’s sake. Rather, its intensity and clangor perform a calculated intervention into contemporary science, politics, and philosophy. They foreground alienation and make it into an art. Although their music is indeed difficult to understand and appreciate, its complexity and Baroque sensibilities are not unlike Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Although the latter are likely easier on the ears.

What do you think of Meshuggah’s music? What other questions do you think their music raises?

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2 Responses to “Meshuggah, or the Art of Alienation”

  1. matasson Says:

    Thanks for your comments about my Meshuggah review. I agree with your outlook on the lyrics, and I find it very interesting that you see Meshuggah as a philosophical outlet. I always liked their robotic/human themes, and I think you explained their lyrics very nicely. Also, as someone who can’t play an instrument, I really think you spelled out the timing and tempo issues perfectly. Let me know if you like any other posts(or even if you hate them, let me know why).
    -Excellent blog! I really enjoyed it.

  2. there are billion ways you can define music, but in the context of meshuggah i like to visulize them as a group of realist painters or anatomy artists who have just lost their sense of objectivity. they tried hard to depicate the real , but the real was too harsh that set their nerves on fire, their teeths grinding and their brushing disharmonic. the result is a very cold and dry sonic illustration of the social reality charged by lots of madness and despiar.meshuggah is the true folklore of our deranged, monstrous and exciting global fucking village

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