Note: this post is entirely my own observations, not an objective review. Also the dialogues are fictionalized renderings of actual conversations.
After bypassing the draconian security gauntlet at Sound Academy, my friends and I finally made it inside. The cold winter wind was whipping across the harbour area mercilessly, and we were grateful to be indoors. Immediately my nostrils were filled with the odor of French fries and cheap pizza. The promoters had set up a carnival-style booth at the very back of the room where various fried foods were being sold. As you advanced forward through the room towards the stage, the various scents revealed the constituency of the audience: weed, body spray, human sweat, and cheap beer, all intermingled into the type of pungent haze that only arises at live music events. We stood taking it all in for a moment, and then examined the merch table.
Josh: “Why do metal bands always put their design across the entire front of their t-shirts? Why can’t I get a subtle design that won’t be embarrassing to wear?”
Colin: “You’re asking for subtlety from a metal band? The form is not known for its embrace of nuance or tastefulness. It’s probably because the average metal fan wants to broadcast their tastes as far as humanly possible in any given room. They’re like angry peacocks. ”
The evening’s headliner was the mighty Meshuggah. I’d seen them once before, opening for Tool about 8 years ago, and I was anxious to see them in their own headlining slot. With their brand of mathematically-advanced metal, there is a huge element of submission on the part of the audience. You can’t possibly understand the grooves that they lay down in a physical or intellectual way, so you just have to give up and let it all wash over you.
But first, there was Animals As Leaders. I was introduced to them by another friend who prides himself on his knowledge of theory and the technical aspects of various forms of heavy music. Animals As Leaders is about as muso as a heavy band can get. Their lineup is two eight-string guitarists, a demonically poly-rhythmic drummer, and a whole bunch of triggers, samples, and electronic elements. Their main dude, guitar wizard Tosin Abasi, has become a leader in the heavy sub-genre known as “djent”. Although the proponents of this genre disagree about that name and what binds these acts together, there seems to be a consensus that the genre was initiated or inspired by Meshuggah, so at least the pairing of acts on this tour makes sense. I had listened to the recordings of Animals As Leaders and struggled to make sense of them. Was this metal? Jazz? Some kind of weird futuristic New Age music? After seeing them live, it started to make a bit more sense to me. Seeing the interplay between Tosin and his bandmates, particularly the drummer, made me realize that they are really a type of heavy post-rock band. The jazz element also becomes very apparent in their live show, with their push-pull human grooves rubbing up against the purely digital synthesized elements. It was enthralling to watch and to hear, but for me their music was more about intellectual integration and sheer musical ability. It’s not music that you can move your body to. But regardless, Tosin Abasi is a brilliant guitarist, and their set was the best kind of mind-fuck.
We quickly ran outside for a smoke before the headlining set.
Adrian: “What the hell was that? I heard of them, but I’ve never actually heard that band before. I’m not sure I understand them.”
Colin: “We’re not supposed to understand them. It’s the musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors. It’s designed to be disorienting and dense. We’ll never really understand what they were doing. Nothing is what it seems. ”
We returned from the frozen shore of Lake Ontario to the now extremely odoriferous Sound Academy. The Slightly Drunk members of the crowd had transformed themselves into Total Drunks. By this point, the venue was nearly three-quarters full, and mostly male (obviously). As the artwork for Meshuggah’s most recent album Koloss was erected on the stage, the sense of tension in the air increased immeasurably. Metal fans are loyal and devout, like followers of any faith, and these are their High Priests. On nights like these, the rest of the cultural world can go to hell as far as they are concerned. It’s a beautifully insular, self-sustaining community of fans and musicians. Nobody in this world cares about pop culture trends. Simply put, heavy music is all about the music itself. Almost nothing else matters to the fans or artists. That kind of purity of intent and execution is extremely rare in our media-saturated contemporary culture. It’s almost the exact antithesis of “indie rock”, which extremely susceptible to influence by the popular culture and neutered by its lack of sense of self. Metal doesn’t need to be re-contextualized or parsed apart to be understood or appreciated. You just need to crank it and rock the fuck out. Once you feel it in your body, you’re hooked.
They slowly entered the stage as four or five light towers bathed the stage in an eerie glow. The first notes erupted and the entire crowd began to heave, transfixed by their syncopated mid-tempo grooves. The concept of how to move to a Meshuggah struck me as interesting: some people truly head-bang, others shuffle from side to side or lurch forwards, and some drunker dudes do the “I’m gonna just slam my body around and occasionally throw some fists and elbows” move. Weird time signatures are one of the band’s sonic touchstones, and as such it can be challenging to find “the centre” of the beats. The part of my brain that deals with music theory was engorged by all of the sonic information flickering through my synapses. Then something really strange happened. After the third or fourth song, I began to feel the beats my body. Actually, it was more like I was seeing behind the beats, into the rhythmic structures that made the whole thing hang together. I felt like I had mentally penetrated some kind of rhythmic veil via a physical absorption of the music. I began to see the centre, the kernel, the heart of the beat. Then I had the revelation that the complexity of Meshuggah music comes from what they do between the beats. There’s almost always a crash cymbal or hi-hat keeping steady time in some form, and the craziness is in between those basic rhythmic structures. It’s difficult to explain without devolving into esoteric hippie-speak (i.e. “I could see the music, man”), but that’s what happened. I experience a true moment of psycho-spiritual physical transcendence, via the absorption of vibrations and sound waves into my body. It was as if the entire venue was transformed into an extreme form of a sound bath. It became a heavy metal singing bowl.
My friends and I left with our ears ringing and our minds pummeled, and I was left to ponder my musical epiphany. Long live Meshuggah.
Setlist (courtesy of Setlist.fm)
- Behind the Sun
- Do Not Look Down
- The Hurt that Finds You First
- I Am Colossus
- In Death – Is Life
- In Death – Is Death
- Personae Non Gratae
- Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave It Motion
- Straws Pulled at Random
- Dancers to a Discordant System