Thursday, 8 March 2012

Meshuggah versus the league of djent-lemen (v2)

This article started out as something quite different to the way it ended up. Just as I was finishing it up, I read a review of Koloss and an accompanying comment which summed up everything I had tried to express to that point, albeit more succinct and precise. It happens. Instead, I decided to take that thought as a starting point and redo this article from scratch. First though, a quote from the abovementioned review (found at NO CLEAN SINGING)

“For the first time ever, minimalism is the watchword. For example, Koloss launches right into the tank-tread chugging of “I Am Colossus,” with Kidman’s vocals following the rest of the music in short succession. Almost like hardcore punk, Meshuggah disregard the intro, and skip right to the meat of the music. Then, much like the one-two punch of the best heavy album openers [...] “The Demon’s Name Is Surveillance” launches into a more rapid attack, as if the engine of the band kicks up a gear and explodes from suburban street to highway. What does that mean? Moshing. Headbanging. They will happen with great frequency and at prodigious magnitude.

It also makes Koloss out to be a willing step away from Djent. If their followers have been adding more and more flourishes to their music, putting on fancier clothes if you will, Meshuggah have been lifting weights — exchanging aesthetics for killing capacity. The difference between Koloss and ObZen is like the difference between Chaosphere and Destroy Erase Improve.

There are three points of relevance to me in this review. The first is the identification of Koloss with “metal” via moshing and headbanging. This is very important. Djent, in its current form as practiced by groups such as Periphery, Tesseract (do I really have to capitalise that last “T”?), Animals as Leaders, Cloudkicker, Monuments, Vildjharta and Uneven Structure, is primarily concerned with abstract technicality and production aesthetics. It elevates form over function to such an extent that although it contains elements of metal: powerful, sonically dominant rhythms, distorted guitar tones and even non-clean singing, it seems somehow distant, divorced from metal. Which is odd considering how metal - especially genres such as technical and brutal death metal -  frequently makes use of precision at a hyper level. This leads to the second point: Koloss, however, is squarely connected with metal tradition.

Although it risks treading misogynist/homophobic stereotype waters, the truth of the comment – “If their followers have been adding more and more flourishes to their music, putting on fancier clothes if you will, Meshuggah have been lifting weights — exchanging aesthetics for killing capacity”, nevertheless holds true. Koloss sounds like five metal heads in a room laying down the jams. Even if it was not recorded that way- that is how it sounds. There is a lean, limber, muscle rippling strength and confidence at the heart of this new album. On a recent revisit to the djent canon by way of the luminaries listed above I could not help but to notice an inherent fragility in the compositions, a tense sense of creative, yet contained explosion. An ideas big bang of sorts which picks up fragments of this and that and assembles them into something new. The problem, however, lies with context. This is a kind of metal not made by dudes (whether male or female) in a room but solitary composers enveloped in social media. The context of creating this new form of metal could not be further from metal’s origins.

And now the third point: if Koloss is more hardcore punk in its approach, in that it cuts straight to the meat that is because at its core, Meshuggah has always been a metal band. They arose from a tradition that saw them move effortlessly through the tail-end of thrash, through old school and new school death metal, to nu-metal and metal/deathcore along the way without fundamentally altering their sound. Therefore, if Meshuggah are a metal band, then what exactly are djent bands?

As I wrote above, djent draws on stylistic elements from metal and foregrounds technicality above all. Djent is largely a solitary endeavour governed by the rapidly shifting torrents of information swirling about the social media landscape within which it is ensconced. Djent is also a relatively new genre, which like many contemporary cultural developments has seen itself attain legitimacy and truth value at a speed incongruous with duration of existence. Cultural products of the social media sphere, seem to me to embody the zeitgeist of post millennial capitalism in which novelty, disposability and obsolescence are almost perfectly realised. Thus it is possible to say, in spite of its appropriation of some of metal’s more extreme musicological elements, djent is essentially a form of pop music in a post-physical media music marketplace.

Bear in mind that this is not a value judgment on my part of djent as a form of “legitimate” or “good” (metal) music. Instead, it is a conceptual and contextual positioning of the genre in relation to how it is being made and distributed and its relationship with an older form of (metal) musical expression. Personally, there are aspects of djent which are interesting to me. The integration of electronic timbres and deliberate calculatedness of meters blurs the boundaries between complex electronic music (drill and bass, IDM, technical dubstep) and more traditional notions of progressiveness as frequently found in metal. Further, its general predisposition to hybridization and musical cannibalism makes it similar to jazz and in that respect, commendable.

Where it tends to fall flat for this listener is that sometimes it is both too aware of its existence and connection to the present and is unable to properly conceptualise itself within the broader metal tradition. In almost all leading examples of the genre I found the frequency of regression to the recent past of metal/deathcore and emo to be somewhat excessive. In other words, the melodic zeitgeist of contemporary metal of the second half of the first decade of the twenty-first century seems to weigh somewhat too heavily on their compositions. This in itself is not a negative and perhaps it is an inevitability, after all that was the metal these artists likely grew up on. So while this is a sound that does not particularly interest me, it will be interesting to see whether djent has the fuel to attain mileage for a second or third wave wherein it begins to cannibalise itself, locate its compositional clich├ęs and reconnect with metal tradition.
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