If you’re a fan of the heavier end of the rock and metal spectrum, Meshuggah should be a familiar name to you by now. For decades this Swedish metal five-piece have been producing perplexing music, putting a new spin on thrash with their early output and slowly grinding their way to heavier and heavier territory, experimenting with eight string guitars, head-spinning rhythms and constantly refining a tone chunky enough to sink the Titanic. They have been proclaimed by many to be the forefathers of djent and are a band that have always been able to pride themselves on their consistency as they have yet to release a flat-out ‘bad’ album, but The Violent Sleep Of Reason (or ‘An Exercise In Heavy’ or ‘Autopsy Of The Chug’ or ‘The Violent Sleep Of Fresh Ideas’) sadly appears to be a continuation of their decidedly ‘ok’ output that they started with their previous album Koloss (2012).
When I sat down and listened to this album in its entirety for the first time, I was initially pleased with what appeared to be a consistent set of tracks that all shot for a similar level of aggression and kept to a mid-paced crawl. But after closer inspection and multiple repeat listens, that felt a bit like saying I was pleased with a plate which had a selection of roast potatoes, baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, sauteed potatoes and mashed potato: at first glance you appreciate the apparent diversity on offer but at the end of the day it’s just a bland, heavy, starchy mess. I’m not saying The Violent Sleep Of Reason is without its highlights, but I will say the novelty of having a new Meshuggah album to listen to did wear off quite quickly unfortunately.
The album starts on an extremely positive note with Clockworks, which is not only a bold move as an opening track due to its seven minute run time, but also because it presents some of the band’s best drumming and rhythm guitar work on the entire record, with dizzying riffs that harken back to their I EP from 2004. Tomas Haake‘s mechanical yet detailed drumming has always been one of the band’s strongest elements and that is still the case on this new album and this opening track is a particularly good example. Syncopated snare hits, ghost notes, odd note groupings and flurries of double kick are all hurled at the listener, leaving you little room to breathe or decipher what is going on and fortunately this is one of the tracks on the record that has song writing and a structure strong enough to make you want to revisit it and piece together its intricacies.
The album’s two singles Born In Dissonance and Nostrum also stand out as well written tracks with some interesting rhythm work, Dissonance feeling like a throwback to some of their 90’s material but with a modern production sheen, and Nostrum featuring some grinding riffs that reminded me of the track Shed from their 2005 album Catch Thirty-Three. When looking at the writing credits it’s hardly surprising that The rhythm section (drummer Tomas Haake and bass guitarist Dick Lovgren) are the names that are most heavily featured, and with tracks like Nostrum it shows Meshuggah in their element doing what they do best: making you simultaneously scratch your head in puzzlement and pull the satisfied chug face… you know, the one that looks like you’re embarking on a particularly tricky shit accompanied with the head bob when a filthy riff massages your ears. Case in point: the rhythm guitar under the solo in Ivory Tower.
Unfortunately the majority of the rest of the album fades into a heavy haze of forgetability. Tracks like MonstroCity appear more often than not, with half-baked riffs and rhythmic ideas that feel like bridges to nowhere. And this may be a petty grievance to hold but they may as well have named MonstroCity ‘Chromatic Bore’, it’s nearly as ridiculous but at least it’s honest. Why they ever thought that would be a good track title will eternally be beyond me. But I digress…
But most sadly, these rhythmic ideas are not just weak by Meshuggah‘s standards, they are weak by the standards of the countless copycats that the band have managed to stay ahead of for so long. Now it seems that they have dug themselves into a bit of a musical corner and it certainly feels that the album’s consistency, in terms of its pacing and plateau of heaviness, is probably its greatest downfall when looked at in the wider context of the progressive metal landscape. The gap that used to be between Meshuggah and other bands of a similar style has closed at such a rapid rate over the past decade or so, with the popularity of modern progressive metal growing day by day, that it feels like their contemporaries are beginning to overtake them and to continue to aim merely for consistency wont be enough to keep people enthralled by their music. At least with Koloss they tried a few new things. The gambles didn’t pay off particularly well in the case of The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance, Behind The Sun or The Last Vigil in my opinion but I’d rather have an album that took risks than an album that is 70% stale riff-fodder. Even when small chinks of experimentation do shine through, such as the ambient outro of Stifled which borders on having a melancholic tone, it feels too little too late in the game to be a saving grace or for it to have any significant impact on the sour impressions a lot of the tracks have already left you with.
My snarkiness in this review is not derived from a natural inclination to be a dick, as I like to think I’m a half-decent bloke. Instead it stems from the fact that I know that Meshuggah are capable of so much better. Catch Thirty-Three remains to this day one of my all-time favourite metal records and their early albums such as Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere are still widely regarded as some of the best in the progressive metal or ‘math metal’ repertoire. Like I said there are some good spots on this album, but when they are as far and few between as they are, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed. If you’re not already a fan of the band, I highly doubt The Violent Sleep Of Reason will be your golden ticket to rabid fandom.
If, like me, you have a natural morbid curiosity or suffer from the very British craving for disappointment, give this album a shot. I hope you find some gems in the dirt that I may have overlooked. Don’t let this put you off their previous output though, be sure to explore their back catalogue and support a great band today.
Favourite tracks: Clockworks, Born In Dissonance, Ivory Tower, Nostrum.
Least favourite tracks: MonstroCity, By The Ton, Our Rage Won’t Die, Into Decay.