Monday, June 16, 2008

A Couple Of Early Candidates For Album Of The Year

Meshuggah – obZen
Opeth – Watershed

I've been a big fan of Meshuggah for some years now, but my appreciation for them has always been a little tempered. While there's no denying the awesomeness of their unique polyrhythmic madness, a style that as far as I'm aware no one has even attempted to copy, it's always been the kind of clever music that works more on a cerebral level than on an emotional one. From time to time I would wonder at how awesome it would be if a band came along who built on their technical achievements and infused it with the passion to match, and just how much of a punch to the gut something like that would carry.

So I was greatly delighted when obZen arrived earlier this year and proved that no such hypothetical band was necessary, as Meshuggah have finally fulfilled their potential themselves. One only needs to hear the killer opening riff of the album's single 'Bleed', to hear just how perfectly they've nailed their style this time around. As the barrage of Haake's unmistakable drumming and those brutally low eight string guitars thunder in with such sublime heaviness I'm not only amazed by the speed and precision of the performance (I get wrist strain just imagining playing those triplets, and it's not just from the fapping) but also with the immediate and unavoidable spine shivers and gut dropping feeling that they've never quite managed to evoke before.

'Bleed' may be the standout track but the whole record comes damn close to matching it in awesomeness. Album opener 'Combustion' finds Meshuggah taking a rare detour into the realm of conventional 4/4 rhythms (although the frenzied chromatic riffing and offmeter drumming could almost convince you otherwise) and boasts a classic opening riff, wild guitar solo and throughout just plain thrashes out harder than anything else I've heard this year. 'Dancers to a Discordant System' closes obZen and is about the closest Meshuggah ever come to a writing a ballad. Of course it's still brutally heavy by almost any other band's standards but relative the to rest of the album it's somewhat throttled back, and the soaring outro riff has a melancholy vibe that could almost be described as bittersweet.

But as great as it is to hear these guys finally knock one out of the park, obZen has been overshadowed by another recent death metal record, by a band that has been consistently delivering albums of impeccable quality for years now.

Opeth's Watershed faced a lot of scepticism before its release. Founding member Peter Lindgren and fan-beloved drummer Martin Lopez had both left, and while Mikael Åkerfeldt has always been the songwriter and main personality behind the band internet metalheads are always keen to find an excuse to declare that such and such a band used to be awesome but now sucks. Here's a nice example found here:
The drummer, Axlesnot, or whatever his name is, should be taken out back and shot. The organist/keyboardist should likewise be taken out back and shot, but only after being sodomized repeatedly with the corpse of Axlesnot.
Fortunately despite what you might read on the internet Watershed comfortably lives up to the high standard of its predecessors and is arguably more consistently great than anything they've done before.

The two new members, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson and drummer Martin "Axe" Axenrot, are more straight up metal than the musicians they replaced, lacking Lindgren's sensitive, moody side and Lopez' jazzy snap, and you can definitely a change in the sound. Yet despite this Watershed is Opeth's mellowest album besides Damnation, even if the heaviest parts are heavier than Opeth has ever sounded before, and Åkerfeldt is clearly indulging his interest in Seventies prog rock on this release, or as he likes to refer to Opeth's albums, this 'observation'.

Almost every track on Watershed is a highlight. In a deliberate subversion of the heavy metal cliché that states an album should open with the heaviest song and save the gentle interlude for the two thirds mark, Watershed begins with the beautiful acoustic break up ballad 'Coil', featuring female vocals no less. It's a good sight better than most of Opeth's earlier acoustic songs, which are usually very nice but are clearly not meant to be anything more than bridges between heavy songs. 'Coil' in contrast stands pretty well on its own.

The next two tracks are the heaviest on the album. 'Heir Apparent' just rocks out from beginning to end, with of course all the usual Opethy digressions, and showcases Åkesson and Axenrot's impressive technical chops. 'The Lotus Eater' is probably the album's flagship song, combining blast beats and brutality with a creepy weird vibe and, inexplicably but awesomely, a boogie breakdown near the end.

On 'Burden' Opeth have made their interpretation of a Seventies prog rock ballad and do a fantastic job of it. Even with little distortion on the guitars Opeth still metalize the genre tropes and make it heavier than such a sensitive ballad should expect be. Plenty of room is found for virtuosity on this track, Åkerfeldt and Åkesson both knock out awesome guitar solos, and keyboardist Per Wiberg gets his moment in the spotlight with an orgasmic organ solo near the beginning.

'Porcelain Heart' is the single and is quite easily the most underwhelming track on Watershed. The choice to use it as a single is understandable, because it is after all the most 'standard Opeth' sounding track on the album so Roadrunner Records have in a typical fit of major label stupidity decided to play things safe, reasoning that even if it's not the strongest track on the album a music video featuring twelve string guitars and hot lesbians will sell records all the same. The song's not bad mind you, Axenrot gets a chance to show off with a crazy drum solo, and there's definitely a place for one Opeth-by-the-numbers track on this album, even if it seems obvious to me that 'The Lotus Eater' is the only sensible choice for a single.

Finally the album closes with 'Hessian Peel' and 'Hex Omega', two lengthy tracks which blend elements of Opeth's death metal roots and their ever growing prog rock influence to create something new and interesting, but hard to describe. Lets just say that it combines the beautiful, the epic and the heavy to create a mighty satisfying end to a great album.

Opeth's new album has overshadowed Meshuggah's effort this year, but having said that I'm seeing both bands in concert later this year (no not touring together unfortunately) and while I'm sure that Opeth will be great, I have a feeling that Meshuggah's live show is going to fucking kill.

Here's a few videos for you.

Meshuggah's 'Bleed'. Great song, great video:

Opeth's 'Porcelain Heart', featuring aforementioned twelve string guitars and lesbians:

But that's not really the best song to showcase the album. Here's a live version of 'Heir Apparent':

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