Interview: Meshuggah Discuss Their New Album, 'Koloss'
It's 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 5, and Sunset Boulevard is filled with the type of scenery native to few places outside of West Hollywood: groups of guys with fancy jeans, designer shoes and artfully mussed hair, and packs of tanned girls in impossibly short skirts, high heels and tiny tops are bouncing from bar to bar, indulging in the Cinco de Mayo festivities.
Guitar World is witnessing this roving party from the outdoor deck of the House of Blues, a several-story, faux-ramshackle building fashioned in the style of old tin-roof blues shacks. We can’t help but laugh at the reactions of the shiny, happy people of L.A. as they attempt to navigate past the growing mass of shaggy, black-clad metal acolytes that are lined up in front of the venue. While the passersby may be on the hunt for tequila and tacos, the concert crowd has come out for some decidedly heavier fare: Meshuggah, Sweden’s leaders of technical groove metal, who are at the House of Blues tonight to perform in support of their newly released seventh album, Koloss.
“Do you know tonight is Cinco de Mayo and the supermoon?” asks Fredrik Thordendal, as he steps out onto the deck. The Meshuggah guitarist has just been informed that, by some twist of astrological fate, the group’s show not only falls on Cinco de Mayo—the hard-partying holiday on which people of all ethnic backgrounds celebrate Mexican culture—but also aligns with a cosmic phenomenon in which the full moon is at its closest point to the Earth, causing it to appear significantly larger and brighter than usual. To Thordendal and his bandmates—co-guitarist Mårten Hagström, vocalist Jens Kidman, bassist Dick Lövgren and drummer Tomas Haake—the synchronism is alarming. Says the guitarist, “It’s gonna be crazy!”
Which is appropriate, given the occasion. When Meshuggah unleash their live musical juggernaut on even the most inauspicious of days, it’s like witnessing an elemental force of nature—a sublime convergence of down-tuned eight-string guitars, relentlessly creative rhythmic propulsion and brilliantly savage energy. Meshuggah’s power and influence within the extreme metal scene is undeniable.Witness the popularity of the metal subgenre known as “djent”: the movement, which includes bands like Periphery and Animals as Leaders, takes its name from the vocal approximation of the sound produced by Thordendal and Hagström’s high-gain, palm-muted guitar work.
So with the stars lining up, a sci-fi–worthy moon floating on the night’s horizon, and Meshuggah poised to deliver a one-and-a-half hour set to a fanatical sold-out crowd, one can only imagine what form of creation, or perhaps chaos, is about to be unleashed. Guitar World has been given exclusive access to this evening’s proceedings to shadow Meshuggah, get the story behind Koloss—their most accessible, grooving album to date—and document what happens when a Swedish metal band and its horde of fans overtake West Hollywood.
The strange scene begins to unfold a few hours earlier at load-in amid a cloud of burning rubber and the arrival of a tow truck that, like the rising moon, is bizarrely oversized.
When the bus carrying Meshuggah pulls up to the side entrance of the House of Blues, the group finds that the bus belonging to opening band Baroness is stuck on the nearly 30-degree incline and is partially blocking the load-in area.
In an unfortunate miscalculation, Baroness’ driver has pulled too close to a barrier at the end of the incline and is desperately trying to correct the situation by backing up the hill. But because the angle is so steep, the bus can’t gain enough traction to reverse, and with every attempt the vehicle skids closer to colliding with, and most likely destroying, some massive concrete planters. After a few headshakes and eye-rolls, Meshuggah’s techs jump to the task of off-loading road cases filled with racks of guitars, drums and amps, as well as the elaborate stage props and lighting setup, while the band makes its way into the venue. The techs complete the task just as a massive tractor-trailer tow truck—the biggest we’ve ever seen—arrives to extract Baroness’ bus.
We head inside the House of Blues and navigate through its many anterooms until we stumble upon Meshuggah’s third-floor dressing room, where Thordendal and Hagström are settling in. The two guitarists are visions of Nordic pedigree: tall, massive men with strong features and long dark hair. It’s not a jump to imagine we’re meeting a pair of ancient Vikings—just swap out the eight-strings for battle-axes and you’re almost there. The guys might cast an imposing shadow, but within minutes of exchanging hellos, it’s apparent that they are exceedingly accommodating and gracious hosts, and very excited about tonight’s show.
For this evening’s gig, Meshuggah will be delivering an epic set that draws from nearly every stage of technically intoxicating metal in their 25-year career, including Koloss. They’ll also be unveiling their recently reinvigorated live act, which features an over-the-top theatrical light show and larger-than-life presentations of the album’s cerebral, tripped-out artwork.
“We’ve been talking for a while about how we wanted to incorporate a better light show and better scrims with a really good set,” Hagström says as he takes a seat in the dressing room and prepares to film a demo for his new Ibanez M8M guitar. “At this point in our career, we have the catalog for it and we had the time to make some good informed decisions about the presentation. It feels really inspiring to deliver something better.”
Along with debuting four new tracks—“I Am Colossus,” “Demiurge,” “Do Not Look Down” and “The Hurt That Finds You First”—the guys will be treating fans to some lesser-performed gems, like “Dancers to a Discordant System,” from 2008’s obZen, and a 15-minute excerpt from their 2005 concept albu Catch Thirtythree. “We decided to challenge ourselves and think about what songs we hadn’t played that we’d like to,” Hagström says. “We’ve never been this organized with a set list. The first four tracks are right after each other, and then we have a break. We ordered it so that it allows us to have natural breaks and an up-and-down flow to the set. It challenged us, but we’re having a lot of fun playing it.”
This tour also marks the first time that the entire band is using in-ear monitors with a click track, allowing each member to hear the song lead-in counts while offering no audible preparation for the audience. So when out of nowhere Meshuggah launch into one of their crushing grooves, it’s like getting dropped into a stampede of elephants. “We were a little nervous because of all the technology coming into play,” Hagström admits. “But we also feel like we’re finally doing it properly. We were really out to structure the dynamics and go for a thought-out show with a good overall vibe.”
As Hagström waits for the Ibanez crew to set up the cameras for the demo, he gives us the rundown of the new production-model M8M. The eight-string was modeled after the custom-shop guitars Ibanez created for Meshuggah eight years ago, which have since become Hagström and Thordendal’s workhorses. Thordendal sent his original to an Ibanez factory in Japan, where luthiers cataloged every spec of the custom guitar, including the Lundgren Model M8 pickup, alder body, and 29.4-inch maple/bubinga through-neck. When the guitarists received the first M8M prototypes, they were unexpectedly surprised by the results. “It’s basically the same guitar, but for some reason they are actually a little better than our original custom-shop versions,” Thordendal says. “Which is really weird, because usually it’s the other way around.”
We stay for the first few takes of Hagström’s demo, then retreat downstairs to the bar for a little refreshment.
Guitar tech Kent Eriksson with Thordendal and Hagstrom's custom Ibanez Iceman eight-strings (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Setlist (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
A rack of Fractal Axe-FX Ultras (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah's road cases (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Fredrik Thordendal (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Marten Hagstrom & Fredrik Thordendal (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah soundcheck (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)
Meshuggah (photo by Jimmy Hubbard)