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!
JT & NG