Welcome back, Tomas Haake. It was quite impressive how natural (natural for extreme metal, anyway) the programmed drums sounded on 2005's Catch Thirtythree, but listening to Meshuggah's latest, obZen, it's clear that Haake brings something to the table that no drum machine– programmed by the man himself or not– can ever achieve. Haake's performance on obZen, the band's sixth full-length, is technically near-perfect, but it's also decidedly human. It's got that human feel and groove that no computer could ever faithfully recreate.
Tomas Haake certainly isn't the only one who deserves recognition here, though– every member of the band delivers an impressive performance on the album. And artistically, Meshuggah is at their peak– obZen occupies a razor-thin slice of creativity between the inventive but occasionally disjointed material on Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere, and the more coherent but less immediately accessible material of Catch Thirtythree.
Opener "Combustion" begins with a brief, shimmering intro that lasts all of nine seconds before the band kicks in with a full-on um-pah assault that hammers away almost without pause for four minutes before giving way to the angular, tribal, tom-heavy "Electric Red." In "Bleed" we get a seven-minute-plus punishing gallop that's an exercise in double bass drum finesse and consistency as well as one of the album's highlights. Despite its blistering, hiccuping guitar/bass drum pattern, "Bleed," like many Meshuggah songs, is strangely and unexpectedly relaxing.
In almost any other context, "Lethargica" would be an ironic or even inappropriate name for obZen's fourth cut, but by Meshuggah standards the name seems to fit. Guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström slow the signature Meshuggah sound down, allowing some space and breathing room into their angular riffing.
One of obZen's heaviest moments comes on the album's title track. "obZen" compels the listener to engage in some straight-forward headbanging unlike many Meshuggah songs, which tend to induce a sort of 'Wonka-vator'-esque meandering head motion.
Closer "Dancers to a Discordant System," the album's longest track at 9:36, finds Meshuggah in rare ternary form. The song's slow burn is relatively relaxed in context and makes for a fitting outro to the album.
obZen sounds great– it's thick and meaty without being muddy and it's technically proficient without being stiff. The album is laced with all the elements Meshuggah fans have come to expect from the band– the angular riffs; the discordant, eerie guitar solos; the polyrhythms and complex arrangements– but here these elements are melded together into one seamless product which represents a band at the pinnacle of their career.
You either like Meshuggah or you don't. If you're a fan, obZen may soon become your favorite of the band's catalog. If you're not a Meshuggah fan, well, you're probably not reading this review.