The More Things Change: Meshuggah's Tomas Haake on ‘Immutable’
During their 1970s heyday, King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp referred to drummer Bill Bruford and bassist John Wetton as the ‘flying wall brick’. Fripp struggled to compete for volume and power against his rhythm section when they were cranking out King Crimson’s angular and dissonant material from the time.
When Meshuggah formed thirty-five years ago in Umeå, in the north of Sweden, they created a band that became a singular, giant, flying brick wall. By the release of 1995’s ‘Destroy Erase Improve’, they were smashing metal’s conventions to bits.
Meshuggah’s sound – its unorthodox drum patterns, tightly-wound chromatic guitar melodies, and roared, ungodly vocals – represented a cold, mechanical frontier for the genre. As drummer Tomas Haake tells me today, ‘this band always wanted to have this lateral move away from what you might construe – or see – as mainstream metal.’
The thirty-one years that have elapsed from the release of their debut album, ‘Contradictions Collapse’, and new record ‘Immutable’ bear witness to that resolve. It is undiminished. Yet back then, they never could have grasped the journey their music would take them on, how their songwriting has changed, and how they have changed.
At several points in those three decades, the metal genre has leaned on tradition like a crutch. The tide of progress has receded. Whereas Meshuggah remains out on a limb – gigantic, ophidian, undeniable. Probably the most important metal band on the planet.
On ‘Immutable’, Meshuggah have adjusted their sound. Haake describes it as a natural evolution of the band – ‘fatter’ and ‘more straightforward’ if not exactly easy listening. There are less of the harsher high middle frequencies in the guitar sound. But those prominent low mids – which give the band its characteristic tone, copied by dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators – remain. The guitar attack still resounds like Cthulhu strumming deep-sea cabling.
Haake is one of the most gifted drummers in metal. A long time ago Meshuggah made it their business to innovate on the rocksteady 4/4 beat. Though they claim 4/4 is often the foundation of their songs, they weave complex polyrhythms around it. Haake’s off-time snare hits and use of ghost notes makes their music unmistakeable.
On 2016’s ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’, Haake excelled himself on the songs “Clockworks” and “Nostrum”. Both felt like extended drum solos tracked to music. All of the songwriters in the band program drums, but these came out of his writing with bassist Dick Lövgren.
The pair have a tendency, Haake explains, to start jamming according to a certain vibe and then ‘spin on and on and on’ with their compositions. ‘Immutable’ largely alternates the songs written by Haake and Lövgren with those written by guitarist Mårten Hagström. Hagström’s contributions tend to be chunkier and swing around the beat more. Haake sees his and Lövgren’s compositions as cerebral and ‘blue’, whereas Hagström’s are ‘red’ – songs constituted, in Haake's words, of ‘nutsack and viscera’.
Haake cites a rhythmic anchoring throughout ‘Immutable’ which puts it more in line with the titanic and groove-inflected ‘Koloss’ from 2012 than any of their other albums.
‘This is the first album that has a backbeat for all the tracks,’ says Haake. ‘Because if you look at ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’, the previous album, you start off with a song like “Clockworks”, and all of the snare hits are part of the riff that's on an odd time cycle over the bar line. So it becomes a little more difficult, I guess, to grasp what's going on. Whereas this one, I feel like the backbeat definitely helps people to get into the groove and feel what we're aiming for.’
Listening to Meshuggah, it feels like the whole band regards the ‘bar line' as something too tempting not to traverse. But Haake thinks ‘Immutable’ is a more solid album than ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’. Several songs on the latter started strong, then tended to go a little weird.
‘But this time around I don't feel like that about anything,’ he says. ‘Not the playing, not the material, not even a single part of a song do I wish we had done differently. And that is unusual for us. This is the first time I've ever felt like that when an album is done.’
That didn’t mean he wasn’t apprehensive about some of the songs. “Kaleidoscope” felt ‘a little rockier’ than usual for him and Lövgren to feel totally happy with it. But even a song that the band feels edgy about to the average listener sounds at least 98% identifiable as Meshuggah. On “Kaleidoscope”, Haake uses his drums to roughen up the riff before the song coalesces in jackhammer plunges that he tumbles around on the kit.
They felt much better about “Kaleidoscope” after Jens Kidman delivered his vocals for the track. Kidman recorded the whole album in his own home studio. He had more time than ever to hone his performance. Usually, his time in the studio gets squeezed as the band run late with recording. But for ‘Immutable’ he took eight weeks instead of the usual two. He provided two takes per track and sometimes up to six. That way, his different vocal performances could be panned out across the mix.
It’s a commanding performance. Throughout the album he roars, barks and hollers, but also whispers and threatens. On “Faultless” his voice is pitch-shifted down, giving it the character of the ancient gods that seem to haunt some of the album’s lyrics, especially on single “The Abysmal Eye”.
Meshuggah took their time on ‘Immutable’. They delivered the master to their label Atomic Fire in October last year, three months late. After they finished tracking in Sweetspot Studios in Halmstad last May, the band dispersed. They left Rickard Bengtsson and Staffan Karlsson to mix the album. Mixing was painstaking and tedious. A change that might have taken ten minutes for the band in person sometimes took a day of emails and texts.
During recording they shed some of the shackles they often clamped on themselves. In the past they would shy away from layering on harmonies and melodies that they couldn’t reproduce live. Being disciplined in that way was hard when, in Haake’s words, the band’s songwriters like to ‘overdo the melodies’. This time, they let themselves follow the music and figure out the live component later. The result is a much richer, more kinetic and cinematic sound.
‘That's something that we've always thought of when we write songs,’ says Haake. ‘And when we listen back when we're tracking and trying to produce a new album, we always have a visual sense of how we see the music. But you can, of course, strengthen that by what melodies you're playing on top and what sound you’re using for those guitar melodies.’
The album is at its most cinematic on the centrepiece instrumental “They Move Below”, written by Hagström. Aside from its layered sound, the guitar slides and heavy-footed kick drum give it the sludgier feel of stoner metal. Haake explains how Hagström always has one foot planted in that sound, generating albums of material of that ilk. Haake compares the song to the 6/8 feel of “Ivory Tower” from ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’. The band play these more stoner-ish songs with an intent that gives them the Meshuggah sound.
Hagström didn’t play Haake and Lövgren the song “Ligature Marks” until they were about to go into the studio.
‘Oh, this old thing?’ Haake reports Hagström explaining, ‘I kinda like this – it didn’t used to be a finished song but now I think it’s kinda cool the whole way through.’
‘You fuckin' asshole,’ Haake responded. ‘You can’t keep this away from this album, that’s just stupid.’
It’s not hard to see why he felt that way. “Ligature Marks” stomps away remorselessly, opening not unlike the title track from 2008’s ‘obZen’. But it ends on a beautiful and transcendent outro that haunts the listener when it's over.
‘Immutable’ also sees the return of founding guitarist Fredrik Thordendal, who laid down four of his distinctive, freeform solos on the album. Thordendal hasn’t toured with the band since the release of ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’. Per Nilssen of Scar Symmetry has stood in for him live. But Thordendal has remained a member. Haake isn’t bothered by Thordendal (who wrote the classic “Bleed” amongst others) contributing less to the songwriting.
‘It’s not something that he feels weird about or we feel weird about. I think it actually took a load off of his shoulders, you know?’ Haake says. ‘That he could do a little bit more of his thing and let us deal with the songwriting.’
One of Thordendal’s solos graces the tumultuous “God He Sees In Mirrors”. Originally the song had what Haake describes as a ‘trippy’ lyric. He rewrote it in the face of the slippery aggression of the track: ‘It’s a mindfuck. You feel almost violated after hearing it, because it pummels you and just keeps going.’
Like a lot of the album, inspired in part by classic thrash metal, its lyrics are rooted in social commentary. Since ‘The Violent Sleep of Reason’ was released in October 2016, populism has exploded across the world. The Trump presidency came and went. Despots and autocrats have taken hold of countries all over the globe.
‘I would say Trump was a great inspiration for that one,’ says Haake. ‘People in politics running out under a false flag like Bolsonaro, and others like that. And Putin for that matter. They’re running under this false flag of being something other than they really are <...> I'm absolutely 100% sure that when Trump looks in the mirror, that's what he sees. He sees a godlike fuckin’ pristine, perfect specimen of humankind. That's what he sees. And that's the delusion of it all, you know.’
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has given one of the central themes of ‘Immutable’ – mankind’s inability to change its violent ways – a type of urgency Meshuggah couldn’t expect. The flaming humanoid figure holding a knife in artist Luminokaya’s cover artwork is full of the menace of a new reality.
‘Some of the criticism, if you will, that you find in the lyrics are something that really ties into a lot of things that are happening right now,’ says Haake. ‘And in this day and age, or this specific day, actually, as far as this bullshit that Putin is pulling on the Ukrainian people.’
Humanity might not have changed, but Meshuggah, with all of its members apart from Lövgren now in their fifties, are getting inexorably older. The album’s opener, “Broken Cog”, is less about time running away from us than pounding us into the ground. According to Haake, its lyrics are about ‘having to accept our temporal nature here, and our mortality and dark thoughts, and trying to ride it out.’
As we speak, Haake explains that the white gloves he’s wearing are to treat the eczema that’s been plaguing the inside of his hands for two years. It’s a relief they aren’t some kind of Michael Jackson-like affectation. He prefers watching Netflix on his sofa to regular cardio workouts. He’s had back injuries which meant he lost some control in his right foot. It’s not ideal for the drummer expected to perform the Gatling-Gun double bass drum of “Bleed” on tour every night. Hagström has experienced pain in his hands, forearms and shoulders from the strain of playing the band's riffs. The physical challenges of performing Meshuggah’s music are better suited to twenty and thirty-somethings.
When I interviewed Slipknot’s clown last year about their new single “The Chapeltown Rag” and their forthcoming album, he spoke about the music making him feel sad in a strange sense, now that he’s getting older. I ask Haake whether he feels the same.
‘There is a certain sadness to it, I guess, because you also realise that neither life, nor your band, nor what you're doing for a living, is something that’s going to go on forever,’ Haake agrees.
But the intent behind Meshuggah’s music will always remain. They sound as baffling and brilliant as always. “Future Breed Machine” was the alarm-call breakthrough song from ‘Destroy Erase Improve’. Meshuggah is still the machine defining metal’s future. They can now also reflect on the seismic contributions they’ve made to the genre. It’s still unfinished business.
Nothing’s changed about that.
Immutable from Meshuggah arrives April 1st via Atomic Fire Records. Get the album - HERE