Meshuggah – Alive

I understand that it’s a reflexive habit to disregard live albums with a flick of the wrist and a click of the “skip” button; a lot of listeners find the raw sound on a live recording to be sobering when juxtaposed to the Windex-clarity and spotless sheen of a highly-polished studio recording. In fact, spotlessness is taken to be a virtue by society these days, reflected in the bleach-white colors of even the foods we eat: eggs, bread, flour, you name it, all meticulously buffed and processed to just that special degree of spotless uniformity. Why be subject to every little mistake, every fumbled chord, every missed tom, every crackle and flat note the singer belts out in ardent passion before a wasted crowd too loud and drunk to care?

This is a question I hear many of my friends ask, I paraphrasing of course, when I fervently confront them with the newest live recordings I have to offer them. And to this question do I answer with seldom more than a disgruntled (and exceptionally loud) sigh. What of How the West Was Won or Live at Reading? Hell, even Metallica’s grandiose S&M warrants a listen or two; not every metal band gets the chance to be backed by a full orchestra. The live show is the cornerstone of a band’s livelihood; through constant touring, through the sweat-and-blood of driving in a stale van for several hours, making only casual stops at gas stations for fuel and Twinkies and showering under a spigot behind the roadside McDonalds does a band make its bread-and-butter, as record sales are long gone. Not to mention the fact that millions of people would resort to extortion just to see their favorite non-commercial band even post a tour date within casual driving distance to their home. So why is it that the live recording is still such an esoteric form of entertainment?

“Because it just don’t sound good.” Again referring back to the masses’ Romanization of their own rampant germophobia, things just have to be perfect. Or do they?

I personally find myself investing a degree of intrigue into the raw deliverance of my favorite tunes. The core of a music’s value, and indeed the primal purpose of music leading all the way back to our days as cave dwellers and nomads, is its ability to convey a story. Using one’s music as a vector, the deepest, rawest depths of one’s soul can be turned inside out for the world to see, if one wills it to happen this way. The occasional misstep was accepted with affectionate gazes and praise, not with scorn and resentment, as little mistakes are intimately human. What mattered was not that the musician delivered his composition flawlessly but that he was able to develop a connection with the listener on an emotional level and share in mutual catharsis. This is why I find myself so enthralled by any track that has “(live)” at the end of the title; to hear the raw flesh and bone of my favorite musicians in action.

So you’re probably asking yourself by now “How does this all tie in with Meshuggah’s new live album Alive?” The deliverance of their songs instrumentally is far from flawed; Tomas Haake drops every bass kick with robotic precision over the guttural power chords coming from Fredrik Thordendal’s 8-string. Ranging from the lethal pulsing beats on opener “Perpetual Black Second” to the machine-gun bass drums on closer “Bleed,” every tooth and nail of their songs on tape are mirrored in this impressive feat of live mathematical wizardry. This Swedish band is reputed for crafting a wholly unique sound that mirrors the hellish dystopia of mechanics. On record, the studio finish on the music serves as a barrier of sorts to separate the humanity inherit in the artist from that of the listener. The barrage of abstract melodies and non-emotive vocals are far detached from the sensibilities of human sentiment. On Alive, however, this barrier is cast down and every humanoid inflection in Jens Kidman’s vocals is laid bare.

Most of the hits off Alive are from Meshuggah’s most recent album ObZen, as would be expected. Thankfully, for Alive’s sake, the album the band set out to tour for on this record is among their best. The live album also borrows “Straws Pulled at Random,” “Rational Gaze,” and “Stengah” from Nothing, “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” and “The Mouth Licking What You’ve Bled” from Chaosphere, and even goes all the way back to “Humiliative” from Destroy Erase Improve. For the most part, the album does well at including the band’s greater hits, but some of the stronger tracks from their endeavorous Catch Thirtythree are sorely missed.

Normally, Meshuggah functions as a metal band that weaves intricate melodies of unorthodox time signatures with hellishly distorted guitars that are tuned so far down that the melodies tend to resonate in your gut rather than just brush by. The music works primarily because it is able to emulate the relentless chugging of mechanics and illustrate nightmarish situations of mortal torture. For example, the song “Electric Red,” over heavy muted chords and tribal-esque drumming, creates an abstract image of humans ripped from their bodies for assimilation into puppet-like machines. On ObZen, Kidman unwaveringly screams “We’re dormant accumulations of flesh/ In a crimson filtered twilight” with mechanical precision. On Alive, for the first time it sounds as if a fellow human is singing these lyrics. Given, Kidman’s voice sounds strained live, this being perhaps the greatest inhibiting factor on the record. If not for anything else, though, Alive, true to its name, should be heard by every Meshuggah fan out there because it exposes the beating heart behind all the band’s metal armor. And it’s a great gut kicker, too.

Score: B-

by Mason “Ow my fucking arm” McGough

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