Meshuggah (left to right): Jens Kidman, Tomas Haake, Mårten Hagström, Dick Lövgren, and Fredrik Thordendal.
Photo by Olle Carlsson
Few bands have shifted the metal landscape in the cataclysmic way Meshuggah has. Nearing its 30th year in existence, the Swedish quintet has had an impact in myriad ways—so many that it really is difficult to overstate. Their savage early thrash work and more progressive recent leanings have made them virtual gods to a who’s-who of heavy bands—including Animals As Leaders and Periphery—as well as diehard headbangers the world over. Further, the low-end decimation wreaked by guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström with their custom instruments is inarguably responsible for major guitar manufacturers getting into mass-production of baritone-scale 8-strings.
For the uninitiated, Meshuggah’s sonic Molotov cocktail is a fusion of death metal’s bludgeoning intensity, prog’s structural complexity, and an obsession with ultra-controlled, airtight, and—one could even argue—weaponized polyrhythms. It’s a visceral sound that’s spent the better part of three decades escaping the grasp of sub-genre definition, only to be referred to with the now oft-derided term “djent.” Admittedly, like many new musical monikers, djent has already become passé for hardcore heavies weary of the endless and inevitable string of copycats. Even so, there’s no denying the onomatopoeia specifically coined to describe Hagström and Thordendal’s low, snarling, complex palm-muted stylings is fitting, even if it remains to be seen whether it sticks for good. And with the release of Meshuggah’s eighth studio LP, The Violent Sleep of Reason, the metal mavericks from Umeå have effectively sent the hordes of biters and rip-off artists back to the drawing board.
The Violent Sleep bristles, grooves, and stomps with the weight and unpredictability of a bull elephant on PCP. Rife with the skull-crushing, industrial-grade guitar work that’s become Thordendal and Hagström’s calling card, it finds Meshuggah’s formidable songcraft in as fine a form as ever. And while it doesn’t necessarily venture too far from the stylings of the band’s most loved past works, it does have an immediacy and an organic, incendiary quality that departs from the somewhat sterile sound of recent Meshuggah albums. This is no doubt due in no small part to the band’s decision to track the record live—a daunting task that required two months of rehearsals and an immense level of care during tracking to make sure complex arrangements stayed true. In addition, to further accentuate the aforementioned organic qualities, Thordendal and Hagström dispensed with the digital modeling amps that have been a staple of their rigs of late in favor of real tube amps.
Premier Guitar recently took audience with Meshuggah’s chief rhythm machine, Mårten Hagström, to get the story on tracking The Violent Sleep of Reason, working with storied Ibanez custom-shop luthier Tak Hosono, whether—as legend states—he truly has an aversion to shred guitar, and staying inspired after damn near 30 years penning and performing some of the most extreme metal on the planet.
On past Meshuggah records, you guys have typically fleshed-out full songs independently, then brought them to each other. Did that change this time around?
Nope. The actual writing process was the same. What was different this time was that Dick [Lövgren, bass guitar] and Tomas [Haake, drummer and lyricist] collaborated very heavily, since Tomas needs a string instrumentalist to help get his ideas across. I worked a lot on my own, too, but all in all we approached it the same way. We worked in Cubase and programmed the drums for the demos in full, so that part was basically the same. The other big difference was going into a new studio and doing it with a more old-school approach, using live amps and tracking live. That affected how we conceptualized songs and how we were going to rehearse them. So the writing process was pretty much the only thing that didn’t change this time.
Which songs did you pen on Violent Sleep?
“Born in Dissonance,” “Our Rage Won’t Die,” “Into Decay,” and “Ivory Tower.”
Those are some of the more groove-oriented, less chaotic songs on the record. Was there anything specific that drove your writing in that direction?
Yes and no. I’ve been intrigued with groove and minimalizing things that don’t sound streamlined ever since we wrote [2008’s] ObZen. I don’t know how else to put it—it all orients back to groove because that’s the most essential part of why I write guitar riffs. Another thing that was different this time around was that I had heard bits and pieces here and there of what Dick and Tomas were doing, so for the first time I actually wrote stuff to sort of counterbalance their ideas and to anchor and give context to the stuff they were writing—which was quite a bit more chaotic.
On [2012’s] Koloss, we were focused on writing a lot of groove-oriented stuff—which was nice for me, because that’s my natural writing environment, but I think this time it was more optimal in the grand scheme of writing an album. I’m pretty happy that the journey of the record ends with the more groove-oriented tracks. It provides the album with a ride out, so to speak.
How much of the album is live?
Most bands track a little bit together, but we tracked everything at once—essentially, it was all live this time. Jens [Kidman, lead singer] even put down vocals while we tracked instruments, just for the hell of it, and some of those vocals made it to the final release. We decided it was going to be everything or nothing if we were going to do things the old way. Although, to be honest, I played less on the album than I normally would because I got arthritis in my left shoulder.
Did that change your playing style at all?
No, it didn’t really change my style, but I did have to have Ibanez make me a new guitar for this touring cycle. I scaled down my Ibanez signature model from 29.4" to 28", just for the sake of playability—and I have to say, the Ibanez custom shop always delivers. I don’t understand how [Ibanez luthier] Tak Hosono managed to make a 28" B-string so neat and playable and still sound so very baritone and deep—it sounds like a longer guitar than the 29" one!
I did have to make some adjustments to how I stand onstage, because how you stand around for an hour-and-a-half every night really affects the shoulder. When your body breaks, there’s a lot of adjustments to make.