Hall of Fame Countdown: Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve

Can I make a confession?  Meshuggah was a slow burn for me.  Back when I was a metal novice, I was a snobby skeptic of most heavy music, and in my early forays into the extreme scene, I shrugged off such scene nobodies as Mastodon, Godflesh and Mayhem.  Yeah, I was a dick.  It took years of discriminatory listening to finally be able to discern what everybody else was hearing.  Eventually, it all hit me like an avalanche, and I’ve been crushed under that mountain of incredible sounds ever since.

When I figured out what made Meshuggah so special, Destroy Erase Improve was absorbed into my collection quickly, with Chaosphere, Nothing and Catch Thirty-Three not far behind.  I was still years away from having enough experience to hear their individual characters, but that didn’t matter.  Savage precision mattered.  Post-modern philosophies in their most brutal form mattered.  Utter physical obliteration mattered.  After elbowing onto Nuclear Blast’s roster with Contradictions Collapse, 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve was Meshuggah’s first complete statement.  It ushered in a new kind of technicality, one that is still being celebrated two decades later (not always in the most listenable ways).  And last year, the Swedes leveled us all again with The Violent Sleep of Reason, a career high that proves there’s still more worth finding in their sound.

Today, let’s breakdown the band’s breakthrough by counting down the songs on this Hall of Fame entry.  As with others, the disclaimer goes like this:  All these songs are necessary, in their originally chosen order, for the complete Hall of Fame experience.  We’d just like to start a little conversation about the relative merits therein.  Enjoy!

 #10.  With “Acrid Placidity,” the album’s second half blooms slowly.  This song acts as the ambient breather deep in the live set that holds audiences accountable for all the violence in which they’ve been complicit so far and requires introspection on its motive and meaning.  The song’s title is a spot-on declaration of its contents – a calm that doesn’t quite sit comfortably, a darker tranquility.

#9.  In “Vanished,” Meshuggah send off the first half of the album with somewhat less engaging material.  It carries the album’s momentum just fine, and when the more nuanced sections take their turns over the song’s five-minute span, “Vanished” brings on its share of highly listenable moments.  The slower section recalls some of the calmer guitar work on the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity (also a Hall of Famer), but buries it under other layers of guitar and drums.  The hyper percussive outro kicks some ass, too.  Good song, but not great.

#8.  Some of the songs on Destroy Erase Improve are iconic and elevate Meshuggah’s formula to genius.  Other songs meet expectations but do little to expand the palette.  “Inside What’s Within Behind” is one of the latter.  It holds its place well, with its jittery time-chewing crunch and off-synch id-muttering and trade-off solo attack, but it doesn’t satisfy the full body-mind beast the way the band’s most powerful creations can.

#7.  “Transfixion” is the song that creeps up on you, whose percussion pogos paradoxically against a freer, more languid undercurrent, until the band’s human-meat-tenderizing force crushes those opposing attitudes together into a flesh-and-metal creature that devours preconceptions.  Try to move between its jaws – you’ll find yourself transfixed.

#6.  Meshuggah subtly settle into a pace with “Beneath,” its second track.  “Future Breed Machine” was the right explosion from the starting line, but “Beneath” darkens the tone, sending ominous shades across their now-signature musical approach.  “Beneath” ensures that listeners don’t immediately burn out by allowing them access to a few less frenetic, more mysterious solos.  Also, Haake’s lyrics have the opportunity to start really taking hold here.

#5.  “Terminal Illusions” finally shakes the mid-album doldrums and launches a massive new assault.  What begins with guitars tolling like funeral bells eventually tears away that rough shroud to become an unrepentant rager.  The monotony of the riff here works to ratchet up the ferocity of the song, a necessary transformation from the less dynamic material that precedes it.

#4.  “Suffer in Truth” carries the torch forward from “Terminal Illusions,” with Meshuggah employing silent beats as weapons with as much weight behind them as those filled with jagged sound.  Peter Nordin’s bass grumbles and bites from below, and vocalist Jens Kidman has a few shining moments, both through injecting pitch into his primal roar and with a short spoken section.

#3.  Opening on “Future Breed Machine,” Meshuggah immediately establishes their newfound mechanical discipline (check out that intro) while also nodding deeply to their thrash roots and dedication to the chaos that crackles between polyrhythms.  That grating alarm-clock squeal is easily recognizable by any of the band’s legion fans.  Their willingness pull back the chug-a-thud mid-song to allow a gummy prog solo its space is testament to the Meshuggah’s restless search for what sounds most interesting to them.

 #2.  “Sublevels” is the perfect capper for this kind of record.  While not shying away from the bitter rage that got us here, it also renders those emotions into something more conclusive, more artful and cast inward.  Free-jazzy drums, insistent spoken baritone invocations and lengthening waves of guitar give the impression that Meshuggah have launched themselves from our sphere, or cast us off into the void.  Either way, we must continue on without them, and leaving us this way is both terrifying and empowering.  Not all Meshuggah albums close in satisfying ways, but “Sublevels” is exactly what Destroy Erase Improve needs.

#1.  “Soul Burn” is fucking key.  Nothing else on Destroy Erase Improve roils with the drama of the album’s third track.  There’s atmosphere in this song, conjured by the bruising rhythms and Thordendal’s mighty string mastery, that stretches time and draws something animalistic from all the mechanistic pummeling.  There’s depth, layers upon layers, both between and within single instrumental performances.  “Soul Burn” feels like a journey all its own, one that transcends its rock-album position and makes it a truly valuable song for both the band and the scene at large.