Saturday, 25 July 2015

Destroy Erase Innovate: 20 Years on from Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve.

20 years on from the release of Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve, we return to the album and to the band and assess their influence on today’s metal scene.

If someone would have informed me (NG) ten years prior that Meshuggah were going to influence, and arguably instigate an entire new sub-genre, I would have confidently disagreed and argued that the mid nineties industrial metal revival was mere months away. Now in my present hindsight, I can see that I was very wrong, on both levels. Although, it is fair to state that no one was genuinely expecting that, isn't it? (That said, JT would likely argue that he was).

The whole premise to me sounded ridiculous. At the time, Meshuggah were very much an underground band, appealing mainly to a niche audience of technical death metal fans, who actually understood what polyrhythms, time signatures or palm muting were. I enjoyed them as they were different, that was my niche at the time, music to alienate the masses.

Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve was a landmark in the bands career, and arguably their breakthrough and transition from the conventions of heavy metal. Key in defining their unique musical identity.

Prior to this, Contradictions Collapse (1991) has the inklings of the Meshuggah sound, though it’s not realised until here.  There is a heavy rock and metal sound, though with such identifiable influences of bands like Metallica, unique it cannot be labelled.

This album also marks another turning point, as the band find their perfect equilibrium between jazz fusion guitar sound, polyrhythms and a heavier more extreme sound, the Meshuggah sound – leaving less abrasive contemporaries such as Cynic or Atheist, in a somewhat stagnant place.
The more experimental jazz elements of the band seem to have been sheared off, finding a new home and pinnacle in Frederick Thordendal’s Special Defects much sort after, Sol Niger Within (1997) featuring jazz drummer Morgen Argren on drums, and Meshuggah drummer Thomas Haake undertaking much of the vocal performance. This album creates a singular, enfolding stream of consciousness, similar, to the much later Catch Thirtythree (2005), though much freer and more rugged. This project also encompasses the more esoteric and experimental underbelly of Meshuggah, dealing with, among other themes; the cosmic, space time, and alien abduction.

Listening to the Destroy Erase Improve 20 years later, Future Breed Machine’s alarm clock introduction seems apt. Wake up. Embrace. Whilst even a cursory listen will identify Destroy Erase Improve as being from 1995; prior to the more polished post-human identity forming in albums such as Nothing (2002), and the controversial Catch Thirtythree (namely for its inclusion of programmed drums), it is still relevant 20 years on in this fast and fluid post-modern age.

Admittedly it also took the succeeding Chaosphere (1998) to reach this more polished and confident stage. Chaosphere is almost a sister (or perhaps the evil twin) album to Destroy Erase Improve, channelling a much heavier and abrasive sound, with the jazzier dynamics removed from the forefront and calmer moments, or completely mellow instrumentals (such as Acrid Placidity) removed entirely.

In Nothing (2002) the “Meshuggah” sound and identity is stabilised. This new found confidence in identity surely allowed the creation of the more experimental and expansive I (2004), released on J Manns’ Fractured Transmitter Records.

Lyrically, the album and the band in general seem to deal in the abstract. This is to an extent true. Though I think a more accurate analysis would suggest that the themes explored are solely human and every day in nature, albeit from a disassociated and isolated perspective. The sound itself creates an abrasive and jarring wall, and through this medium, emotion is all but hidden, though not removed.

Meshuggahs’ lyrics deal with aspects of self, of humanity and of reality, as a brief skim of Destroy Erase Improves’ booklet would give away. It is interesting however that the themes explored, and referential foci seem to point toward a more psychedelic back drop. Surely in name sake Inside What’s Within Behind is referential to Within You, Without You by The Beatles? Though arguably adopting a counter narrative. And that’s the point. Throughout the album the lyrical content deals with ideas which are usual contained to more psychedelic oriented artists, and are certainly restricted within the metal community. Tool are of course the exception, and are acknowledged as highly influential. What is interesting however is that whilst Tool may deal with the mystical, the psychedelic, here it is almost antithetical; it’s dark, and not in a brown acid sort of way, it is more like considering The Matrix from the robots’ perspective. Dystopian.

Beneath, in my opinion (JT) is the standout track of the album, documents a journey into the self.  It journeys to the core of biological being, and to toward the realisation of the futility of humanity. “What am I this me beneath, A vain organic lie, That rules me from inside”.

Whilst the mystical is exposed in its human clothing, as in Transfixion; “Delusions of omniscience bred us my liars, Mentally drained by the growing leech, Fed on our manic desire”.

Throughout the record it is never the intention to offer the listener soaring heights (blissfulness through intensity perhaps), rather it engulfs and drags down into Sublevels of the self; “A vision of morbidity, Of ragged silent shadows, Dressed in black disease, They’re closing in on me, Peering lifeless weary eyes, They drag me down into, Another world inside of me”. The sound is heavy and intense and the disassociated lyrics are a pleasure to get lost in.

(The dark and aggressive, Terminal Illusions even got its own amusing DIY music video. See also Rational Gaze)

The overwhelming success which Meshuggah found in later years has since spawned an entire genre, Djent. Whilst many of the bands who play Djent music would (and almost certainly should) identify Meshuggah as key influence, Meshuggah themselves now seem to stand out less astutely in this oversaturated landscape.

Now in 2015, the Djent movement, as it is now affectionately named, is such a thing. Whilst its prime has since passed, it has had profound effect on the music industry itself with its DIY ethos and passionate internet based following. Bands identifying as Djent now emerge all the time, commonly in one of two forms; Be it a one man studio project such as Cloudkicker or Chimpspanner or a fully instrumented band like Periphery or After the Burial.

Inevitably, with the popularity comes the detraction. The abundance of similar sounding artists has caused significant points for discussion; Since Djent has been considered a viable thing, the resentment has been as equally zealous. Many dismissed the now, all too familiar sound, not assisted by many artists preference for programmed instruments as opposed to a live band, consequently, blurring the lines as to what is considered musicianship.

Whilst this this burgeoning subgenre is still negotiating the boundaries of the mainstream, Meshuggah are still going strong and have, subsequently, never fully acknowledged the influence they have generated. Whether they are merely humbled or apologetic, we may never comprehend given their relative silence on the matter. Interestingly, Meshuggah have at times effectively been overshadowed by many of the artists they help create. Admittedly, they do not even compare to the technical prowess and songwriting ability they possess, but the primary altercation is that the former have a much younger, more digitally active fanbase, and in this technologically preoccupied society we exist in, a digital voice has become more important than a real one.  Meshuggah are relics from a time when the internet was predominately used for stealing music rather than promoting it.

Regardless, the fact that Meshuggah are still considered musical pioneers and still release consistently successful and intense albums is only testament to their influence. This is not a perfect album and listening today its sound betrays its age. But that is not the point. The influence of this album and of the direction the band were taking represented here in is important and worth celebrating. Happy 20th anniversary!


Monday, 20 July 2015

Review: Mugstar, Dead Sea Apes & You’re Smiling Now But We’ll All Turn Into Demons (Cardinal Fuzz Night) @ The Cube Cinema, Bristol, 11/07/2015

When you find that your day has become oddly juxtaposed as the boundaries and assumed expectations to your evening begin to dissolve and warp you know that the psych gig you’ve just arrived at is going to be a good one.

Heading to the venue from the station after a day at the seaside (our brains were set to “build sand fort” mode rather than “melt”), coupled with the fact that The Cube was an unknown entity to us prior to this evening meant we arrived slightly late. After admiring and noting the warm and welcoming atmosphere of our new home for the next few hours, we proceeded to charge confusedly into the intimate cinema venue. Assuming to be greeted with the backs of many anonymous heads we instead found ourselves directly between the audience and long-named opener, You’re Smiling Now But We’ll All Turn Into Demons.

After stumbling to some seats, at the back of the venue, adjusting to the surroundings, and distracted by the projected visuals behind the band (which I now know to be the Japanese film House (1977)), I think I’ll be forgiven for unfairly assuming the band to be a typical run of the mill, “psych” band. In fact, that’s far from the truth.

After a quick midway switch between the drummer and guitarist (now guitarist and drummer) the four piece led into a driving, acid drenched, Sabbath-esque track, which at times sounded almost Lynchian. This Lynchian influence seemed to crop up again later, Throne Control, off new album Population IV, would not have been out of place in Twin Peaks, The Pink Room scene.

You’re Smiling Now But We’ll All Turn Into Demons - Throne Control

A quick guitar change due to a broken string, left the three remaining members to provide instrumentation to an evil cat painting, arms in fish bowls and a person stuck in piano which was currently kicking off in the background. After this short interlude the group led into a more post-rock oriented track, boasting a greater emotional depth than many of their peers can offer.

I’ll confess to not being able to hear the vocals once throughout, but it certainly didn't detract from the performance.

Dead Sea Apes opt for a slower, reverb laden, albeit heavy affair. Accompanied by Fantastic Planet (1973), the slow stop motion, giant blue people somehow synced perfectly with these droney tracks. The band threw out a couple of new tracks from their forthcoming Spectral Domain. The first, starting out with drone and distortion, developed, without much urgency into a more formal, raga progression with spaced out synth. The second new airing arrived with a shimmering cymbals opening, building slowly, before exploding and gently retreating, perfectly summarising the Dead Sea Ape style.

Dead Sea Apes - Planetarium

The visual pairings throughout the show were a real joy, unsettling though mesmerising, a feast for the senses. And it wasn't just the musical and visual that offered perceptual delights, even the smell of the venue was conjuring up long since forgotten places (it smelt like the church hall in the small Staffordshire village we grew up in if you were wondering). Whilst the heat of the room just made it that slight bit more intense.

Headliner, Mugstar provide a warm and immersive fuzzy psych sound, the driving repetitive type. Unfortunately that warmth tonight felt somewhat stunted, as the band were projected starkly against the greys and browns of the theatre, lacking the visual accompaniment that the two previous acts had sound tracked. We had turned on, but tuning in was appearing to be a more difficult affair.

Serra brought the motorik groove to the evening, seeing the band take stride. A loose guitar cable somewhere meant a switching from clean to crackled distortion again holding the band back from greatness. Whist this extra-distorted sound was not unpleasant, far from it, the sporadic nature of the affair was jarring, withholding the transcendence attained only via long, repetitive, fuzzy sounds.

Mugstar – Serra

Fortunately, the essence of this heightened state of consciousness was glimpsed later in the gig. Unfortunately, this was in their final track. Settling into a swirling plateau mid-way through its duration, it subsequently locked back into its pummelling groove, finally exploding and threatening to take the roof off.

It was a fantastic evening, though if I were to make a single constructive criticism, it would be the all-male weighting of the acts on. Having seen Sex Swing (a fractal monstrosity, summoning the creation and destruction of the universe with every punishing track, and featuring Jase Stoll of Mugstar) a few weeks previous at the fantastic Supersonic Festival in Birmingham, their highly testosterone heavy stage presence was counter balanced quite perfectly by all female jazz/noise/improv, Danish quartet Selvhenter the following day. Repetition may rule, but I like my psychedelia with variety!

After leaving the venue and commencing the long walk, the delightful afterglow began to wear off as the ratio of awareness between warm feeling and sand covered itchiness began to shift.


Nü-stalgia: Five Underrated Nu-Metal albums

It was almost as if someone had forged the night from my own teenage memories. The event was called Break Stuff, it boasted an extensive repertoire of classic Nu-Metal, Attitude-Era wrestling and retro video gaming. They had me at hello. The only thing absent was a skate park and clumsily rolled joints. For the three hundred or so curious individuals present, this was an ultimately nostalgic festivity. For that was why we were all there, to reclaim a few hours of our youth from the intimidating grasp of our twenties. Three hundred people, lost amidst the wistfulness and uneasily pondering which hole the last ten years of our lives had crawled into.

It is not often I frequent nightclubs these days, when I do it is usually not of my own accord. I usually, just pretend to be enjoying myself, aimlessly nodding along to the repetitive and unfamiliar sounds being passed as music, whilst actively hoping that copious amounts of spirits maybe able to grant basic movement besides my trademark awkward shuffle. Here, I felt mobile again, free of the constrictions of my own social insecurities, namely what is considered appropriate nightclub decorum. Upon hearing the songs that formed the basis to my later musical preferences, the suppressed sixteen year old broke free from the shackles cultivated from responsibility and maturity and took the wheel. Suddenly, it became acceptable to jump and scream along to the lyrics. I even felt compelled to introduce my best pseudo hip-hop gestures, the kind that would have made Fred Durst proud... and jealous.

Regardless of my well intended parody, I was left humbled by how important these songs are to me. This was the soundtrack to both my youth and generation. It was irrelevant the songs were overtly angst-ridden and immature because, speaking for the majority, we were exactly that. Meaningful reflections aside, the night was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my substantial Nu Metal proficiency. I exhibited great pride in effortlessly identifying every single song. Admittedly, the DJ did not exactly make this challenging with his safe, yet enjoyable selection. He could have merely played the earlier 'Kerrang' compilations and no one would have been the wiser.

In the days Nu Metal was confidently riding its wave of momentum, I was determined to engorge my music collection with bands that had an agreeably limited audience. Pre Spotify or Youtube, I would scour Amazon or Yahoo Music absorbing anything that none of my associates had heard of. My logic being that band would then forever be attributed to me. Unsurprisingly, many of the leading examples of the genre are relatively unknown, especially outside of America. For this reason I feel obliged to share with you the five albums considered Nu metal that I feel are the most underrated. Take note Break Stuff DJ, you have to redeem yourself for disregarding songs from any of these artists for Creed. Inexcusable.

Relative Ash – Our Time With You (2000)

Nu Metal has become somewhat of a derogatory term in later years. Many see it as the era where music, effectively dumbed down, dismissed musicianship and played towards the lowest common denominators. I almost felt contrived to associate Our Time With You with the term Nu Metal as it demonstrates a much higher level of talent and self awareness. Maybe it was purely a consequence of time that this album was cached together with the masses of generic musical reproductions? Or maybe it was the fairly obvious influence of Nu Metal mainstays Deftones? Regardless, this album virtually transcends the genre.

It is said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Relative Ash actively acknowledge their main inspiration as the Deftones. Listening with a casual ear, the comparisons are apparent, predominately in vocal performance. Marcus Harrington channels the haunting melodies, punctuating visceral screams and hip-hop influenced delivery that Chino Moreno bought to the earlier Deftones albums. Harrington carries a sense of vulnerability in his enunciation and considering many of the lyrical themes it is evident to see why.

Our Time With You has the kind of lyrical themes largely unheard of with the genre. These are intelligent and emotive lyrics dealing with complex themes such as abortion, child birth, sexual frustration, religious disillusionment and even the harsh realities of HIV. At times it can be an uncomfortable listening experience, but the best music is that which can generate a genuine emotional response and almost everyone can relate to any of the subject matters highlighted within the album. On stand out track Bounce, the chorus states “This is raw emotion,” and ultimately, this is what this album documents, authentic emotion in a pre-eminent musical form.

40 Below Summer – Invitation to the Dance (2001)

In comparison, Invitation to the Dance demonstrates many of the archetypal conventions of Nu Metal, however, it elevates itself above its peers by compiling all the familiar elements of the genre with sharp proficiency and ambition.

The album is effectively a major label reworking of the bands previous release Side Show Freaks. Produced by Slipknot percussionist Shawn Crahan (and conceivably the best musical output he has contributed to) the advantage of a larger production budget allowed the band to develop their sound considerably. Invitation to the Dance experiments with various musical formulas and exhibits an eclectic diversity ranging from the rap-metal anthem Step into the Sideshow to the industrial influenced Smile Electric.

Whilst, it is a stylistically aggressive album, melody is emphasised through anthemic choruses delivered by the impressively schizophrenic range of vocalist Max Illidge. The bands follow up The Mourning After would accentuate the use of melody even further, albeit to mixed results and consequently, reaffirmed the accomplished balance of tone demonstrated here.

This album would be my primary choice to introduce someone to the attributes of Nu Metal, not only does it accurately represent the key musical qualities, it does so with just enough originality and accessibility to make it an essential example of the genre.

The Deadlights – The Deadlights (2000)

If I were to summarise the sound of The Deadlights, a unique combination of The Smashing Pumpkins and Korn comes to mind. The band have left very little trace, except for the sole, truly exceptional album they released in 2000. Again, this is a quintessentially characteristic Nu Metal album, except from the aforementioned vocal style which brings an almost haunting sense of melody to the discordant and contentious music.

The Deadlights is a bleak album with lyrical content portraying themes of violence, alienation and nihilism, yet it rarely demonstrates the often clichéd approach of the bands predecessors. The band exhibits conscientious song writing and musical proficiency, especially towards the climax of the album with the eastern-influenced Time and atmospheric finale Falling Down.

Ultraspank – Progress (2000)

Had Ultraspank chosen themselves a more sensible or relevant moniker, I believe many would have taken them more seriously, or at least not instantly dismissed them as another boorish Nu Metal band. Although, when considering the dominant band in your market is named Limp Bizkit, they might have been onto something.

Progress, as the title suggests, saw the band dramatically improve on their sound from their debut self-titled release. The heavy use of programming on the album showcases the increasingly industrial-orientated sound the band was likely aiming towards. One of the reoccurring themes in my list is that all of the aforementioned albums benefit heavily from the bands substantial vocal performances. Progress is no exception. Pete Murray can sing, very well. One listen to Stuck demonstrates Murray's ability to channel the spirit of Layne Staley before transitioning into an almost operatic chorus. Similarly, on Push, he fluently shifts from aggressive growls to near angelic harmonies.

Progress is an unique and appropriately titled album in the sense that it possessed concepts ahead of its time. The albums mature, eclectic sound did not coincide with the over saturated marketplace of the era. The major labels spoon-fed the masses with banal Linkin Park clones, leaving bands like Ultraspank, who exhibited both originality and talent, to falter. Consequently and ironically, Progress proved terminal to the bands career.

Lollipop Lust Kill – My So Called Knife (2002)

Aside from the masks of Slipknot and Mushroomhead and Coal Chambers inability to write a song, the Nu Metal genre was, predominantly lacking in gimmicks. The majority of Nu Metal bands adopted the back to basics, let the music do the talking approach, that Grunge had previously all but executed the Hair Metal scene with. Very few bands incorporated stage theatrics or a specific visual aesthetic. In fact, many of the band members would effectively become unrecognisable amidst their own audiences, obscured in a ocean of baggy jeans and spiked hair, not Lollipop Lust Kill though.

My So Called Knife showcases Lollipop Lust Kills exclusive brand of horror themed metal. The band were renown for adorning themselves as pall bearers and relying heavily on themes of murder, serial killers and all that is considered macabre as the main inspiration for their lyrical content. The most graphic of these can be found on the tracks Father which details child abuse and Bury You which describes a premeditated murder. The stirring lyrics are extenuated by vocalist Evvy Pedder's eerie croon which at times is comparable to that of Roy Orbison. The Perfect Woman is probably the leading example to describe the bands overall sound. Imagine 'The Big O' softly lulling, accompanied by the theme to The Addams Family and punctuated by a chorus of hardcore influenced metal and you have Lollipop Lust Kill.