A presentation of the musical expression
of the band Meshuggah
through an analysis of the song
'Future Breed Machine'
This is a thesis I wrote as part of the exams for my music studies 1995 at the University of Oslo. The working title was "A presentation of the musical expression of the band Meshuggahthrough an analysis of the song 'Future Breed Machine'." This is a translation of the original thesis in Norwegian, and this translation has many modifications and updates compared to the original.
As a result of this being a university thesis, the language is academic, and I discuss many things that may seem obvious to most music and metal-fans. I will change this for the better eventually. Also - please excuse the English, it is not my native tounge.
The thesis will be further updated soon, with some transcriptions and some news on Meshuggah. I do however take no responsibility in updating the pages on a regular basis.If you want the latest news on Meshuggah, then please visit the Meshuggah Homepage. (The URL is in the references section of this document).
I hope you enjoy reading this discussion, and please feel free to send comments and suggestions to:
Espen T. Hangård.
The starting point of this thesis is the song "Future Breed Machine", the opening track of Meshuggahs most recent album, "Destroy,Erase,Improve", released in May 1995.
I find it practical to present Meshuggahs music through this single song, as it contains many of their distinctive features, and I will be able to thoroughly examine a piece of music. I will take a closer look at rythmics, song-structure and playing-techniques. I have chosen to discuss the "sound" as an individual subject in the thesis, even though it must be said to part of the musical expression of the band. Under the subject "sound" I will deal with recording-techniques, instrumentation and soundprocessing.
Transcriptions of the music will also be used to describe the music, but some of the elements are hard to notate, like for instance the "sound". To a certain extent I will try to describe the sound with words. There are references to the bar-numbers of the notation in the text.
The thesis mainly deals with the purely musical, but I have also tried to interpret the music and relate it to the lyrics and other extra-musical factors.
Meshuggah play a sort of metal music. Their single most distinguishing feature is their rythmics. Their riffs are basically thrash metal-riffs, but the complex rythms and song-structures indicate some influences from fusion and progressive rock. Sound-wise Meshuggah continure to develop the concept that Metallica invented in the 1980s, with huge guitars and clicking drums up-front in the soundscape. This sound has become very popular in the '90s with bands like Pantera and Sepultura.
ten years ago the Heavy Metal genre was a very vast catgory of music, covering many different bands. This led to a further sub-categorization of the music. The metal-genre around 1990 was divided into many sub-genres like death metal, thrash metal and speed metal, mostly on on stylistic premises, but also on lyrical. The last couple of years there has been a tendency of crossing over between these sub-groups, and I therefore find it suitable to talk of Meshuggahs music as 'Metal', without any further genre-categorization.
Meshuggah was formed in 1987 in Umeå, Sweden. I do not know anything about the personnel of that time, but guitarist Fredrik Thordendal, bassist Peter Nordin and vocalist Jens Kidman all played on their debut-EP of 1989. At that time Jens Kidman played the guitar as well. Umeå has a healthy scene, and a lot of people are involved in rock music. According to Jens Kidman there are a lot of good bands from Umeå, "probably because there is not a lot to do".(3) The fact that there is a university in Umeå might also strengthen the rock-scene. A lot of people play in bands, but few of these are known outside the town. The majority of the musicians wanting to get anywhere with their music leave town. Many of the session-musicians in Stockholm are from Umeå, according to Mårten Hagstrøm.(1)
It is quite easy to hear some of Meshuggahs early influences on their first release, "Psykisk Testbild" from 1989. (The title translates to something like "Psychological Test-Picture".) I would mention Metallica as a major influence. The music of this EP is simpler and more "straight-forward" than their more recent material, but some of their more progressive elements are present in the form of time-changes and polyrythmics, and Fredrik Thordendals lead-playing stands out.
Tomas Haake joined on drums before Meshuggah recorded their first LP,"Contradictions collapse", which was released in 1991. The band had signed a recording deal with the German record-label Nuclar Blast, which specializes in metal-releases. The songs on this record are much longer and ymore complicated, in both structure and rythmics. The record company did nothing to promote the album, which consequently sold badly. Between this record and the next one guitarist/vocalist Jens Kidman decided to concentrate on the singing and left the guitar duties over to Mårten Hagstrøm, who had played in a band with drummer Tomas Haake already when they were in sixth grade (!). (1).Mårten Hagstrøm feels that the song-title 'Building a big building' from that time accurately characterizes that band ...
The new line-up recorded the EP "None" in 1994, in my opinion their best and most focused release. It was not until now that the record label realized that the band has a certain sales-potential, but a couple of accidents forced the band to remain silent for the rest of that year. Fredrik Thordendal managed to cut off the tip of his left middle- finger (He is a carpenter).The finger tip is sewn back on, and he is able, to a certain degree, to play with it again. As if this wasn't enough, Tomas Haake short after mangled his hand in some sort of grinding machine. Several months passed without much practice. The EP "Selfcaged" was recorded in April and May 1994, but the release was delayed with one year due to the accidents.
January 1995 saw the band returning to the public, when they left off for a short European tour organized by the record-label. Short after returning back home they recorded the album "Destroy, Erase,Improve", and then they were off again on a two month European tour supporting the american band Machine Head. "Destroy,Erase,Improve" was released in May 1995, this time with a more proper marketing by the record label.
Meshuggahs music is aggressive and intense. The polyrythmics, the time-changes and the odd time-signatures make it hard to see the structures of the songs. The sound is tight and hard and in-your- face, and there is a lot going on in all the instruments. The music must appear very chaotic to anyone who hasn't heard the band before. The drums are very up-front, with the vocals. The recording sounds very modern. Together with the lyrics they give associations to a technified society. The Internet'Zine N.O.X. described the music as follows : "Meshuggah's new record, 'Erase...Destroy...Improve' is like the audio version of Terminator2, complete with cycles of devestating destruction and cheesy human-emotion segments." (4).
Meshuggahs music, and nearly all other metal-music, is based on the guitar-riff. Consequently the guitar has a central part in the soundscape. The riffs are rather linear than accordic. Since Black Sabbath and other hard rock bands of the '70s the "Power-chord" has been the most common guitar-chord in the metal-music's riffs. The power-chord basically consists of only two notes, the root and the fifth, and is not an accord in the real sense of the word. Some guitarists play it with just these two notes, some with three (root,fifth and the octave of the root), and others, for instance Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah, play it with four notes, ie root and fifth in two octaves. (6).
Example of Fredrik's powerchord-fingering :
The power-chord is not used in a harmonic context, it's usage is rather related to the sound it creates. When the guitar-amplifier is over-driven this consonant interval (opposite of dissonant) generates a full,clear tone. Too many dissonances and too much distortion create an unclear, muddy tone. Even though a metal-song might follow a clearly defined tonality the fifth of the power-chord remains a perfect fifth, and is not necessarily altered to fit the scale. In a song in G major, for example, the chord on the seventh note of the scale would be F# (root) and C# (fifth). We see that the fifth is not C, which would be the diatonically "correct" in G major. This perfect fifth has become a principle, with the sound generated by the power- chord being of the greatest significance.
The guitar-playing of Meshuggah can roughly be divided into three categories:
Both guitarists play riffs (rythm-guitar), usually in unison. Fredrik Thordendal takes care of the leads, and Mårten Hagstrøm does the chord-playing. For each of these three playing-styles the guitarists use a special technique and a special setting on the guitar amplifier.
When they play the riffs the play through a distorted amplifier, and an equalizer is used to remove the mid-tone frequencies.They both play a Marshall Valvestate stereo head amplifier, through a 4x12" Marshall Valvestate cabinet (smaller than the regular Marshall cabinets). The Valvestate uses tubes for the preamp and transistors in the poweramp, hence the name 'ValveState'. This gives a distinct, rythmic sound, often refered to as "Crunch". By muting the strings with the palm of the picking-hand close to the bridge, a short, percussive tone is created. This technique is called "Palm Muting" and is notated "pm" in the transcriptions. This technique is very central in the riffing.
The riffs are mostly played on the four deepest strings. Both guitarists in Meshuggah play an Ibanez Universe guitar, which has seven strings instead of the usual six.(6). The extra string sounds a perfect fourth lower than the sixth string, and adds further depth and heaviness in the riffing. Moreover, Meshuggah detune the guitars by a minor second, so the deepest string sounds a B flat. The riffing is a very dominating factor in the music and is used almost all the time.
For the arpeggiated chord-playing they use a clean,clear sound, which allows every note of the chords to ring relatively freely. This sound, often called "Clean", is in sharp contrast to the raw "Crunch" of the riffing, and enables more complicated harmonies and dynamics. The guitar signal is also run through a Chorus-pedal.(1). The chorus-effect mixes the original signal with a tone derived from the freqency of the original signal. The derived tone cycles around the original note within a radius of a few cents (this paramter can be adjusted). Using the chorus moderatly makes the signal sound fuller, almost like doubling it with another guitar. The "Clean"-playing is usually used to vary the dynamics, as a contrast to the distortion- sound (a), as accompany for leads (b) and some times in relief to the distortion-guitar (c).
For leads Fredrik Thordendahl uses the Mesa/Boogie studio preamp. (1). This all-tube amplifer preserves the original harmonics of the instrument, which creates a warmer, mellower tone. A lot more mid-tone is used for this sound than for the rythm crunch. Thordendahl has a fluid, legato leadstyle, often utilizing modal improvisation. (Measures 84-91). He sometimes plays very freely harmonically, as in the second guitar solo from measure 129. His "outside" playing is often based on the whole-tone scale (C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C) or the octatonic dim-scale (C-C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C).
He obtains the legato tone by using a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs,
and not picking too many notes. He often taps with his right hand
on the fretboard, too.
Fredrik uses a so-called "Breath controller", a device originally made for controlling MIDI parameters on synthesizers. He has had it modified to be able to handle analogue signals instead of digital. (1). By blowing in a mouth-piece he is able to control the amplitude of his guitar-signal. If he doesn't blow, no signal reaches the amplifier (unless he bypasses the effect, of course). This enables him to copy some wind-instrument techniques that it would be otherwise very difficult to perform on a guitar:
When playing live the two guitarists each use two different amp-settings. Fredrik switches between the riff-crunch and his lead-sound, and Mårten between his riff-crunch and the clean-sound. (6).
Bassist Peter Nordins job is mainly to double the guitar-riffs one octave deeper to fill out the soundscape. As chord-playing is very difficult on a bass guitar he usually plays a "root"-version of the riffs. His sound is a mix between a clean and a distorted signal. (1). He plays with a pick and therefore has a clear and distinct touch. When the guitars are clean he too plays with a clean sound. (Measures 84-91). I am note sure what amp he uses but he played through a vintage silver-clad Ampeg cabinet in Oslo April '95.
Jens Kidmans vocalstyle is focused on the rythmic, and seldom on the melodic. He only sings melodic phrases on a few songs. He mainly recites the lyrics in a harsh, aggresive voice, mostly on one note over several syllables. He sometimes changes the register to further intensify the singing (ex. measure 37-38).
A central part of Meshuggahs concept lies in the drumming of Tomas Haake, the odd rythm-patterns upon the backdrop of the ordinary rock-beats. He very often plays the rythm of the guitarriff on the kick-drums while playing a straight 4/4 on the cymbals and the snaredrum, as in measures 108-114:
Generally speaking, one can say that he plays the regular beats, the 2-beats (2/4, 4/4 etc.), with his hands, while he plays the odd rythms with his legs. His groove is very driving and tight. He plays very focused and disciplined, and he doesn't play a lot of fills, but rather concentrates on keeping the drive and promoting the guitar-riffs. His drumkit has two bass-drums, one for each leg, which is rather normal in the metal- music since the mid 80's.
The CD "Destroy,Erase,Improve" has a very tight and hard sound, without much dynamic variation. Even though the record sounds very "produced" the sound is still very tough and "in your face", it nearly stands OUT of the speakers. Dynamically the recording is almost at peak all the time. (Audun Strype characterizes the Meshuggah- fan as someone who wants either total silence or a full blow-out ! (2).) Both the drums, the guitars and the vocals have been given a treatment which emphasize the rythms in the studio. Since there is so much going on in the rythms a clear and relatively transparent sound is crucial. As a result there is very little reverb in the mix. To bring out all the details in the music all instruments are mixed almost equally loud, everything in the entire frequency- domain is to be heard equally loud.
The album is recorded at Soundfront Studios in Uppsala, Sweden. This is by no means a live-recording, only one instrument was recorded to tape at a time. This makes it easier to separate them in the mix than it would be if everyone was in the same room playing simultaniously. The drums were recorded first, with Tomas Haake playing along with a rythmguitar rather than a metronome or a click-track. The drums have a sharp, short sound, with a lot of attack. No reverb has been added after the actual recording. The bass-drum sounds clicky and trebly, because the harmonics have been emphasised in the equalizing, while the "root"-note of the drum has been pretty much muted out in the processing. This has been done to prevent a rumble during the intricate bass-drum patterns. All drums are heard equally well. A gate has been utilized to give the drums the explosive attack. To further equalize the dynamics the drum-signals have been compressed. The snare has been sampled from Tomas' own drum and the sample is triggered each time he hits the snare, the other drums are "real".
The guitars have also been gated, which makes the rytmic riffs much more distinct, since the amp-noise is muted during pauses. Both guitarists have recorded two "identical" rythm-tracks to fill out the sound. The rythm guitars are heavily distorted. According to Audun Strype Meshuggah's approach to distortion is, if not scientific, very conscious. (2). They show little respect to the original waveform. The distortion of a transistor-amp makes the waveform square. This gives the root-notes an artificial harmonic spectre. The treble-spectre of this recording is in other words distorted signals from the original bass-tones. This approach to recording is the total counterpart of the norms of recording "classical" music, where one strives after preserving the original dynamics, and where the amplitude of the recording should correspond to the original source of the sound. Meshuggahs recording will, on the other hand, sound very much the same wether you play it loud or quiet, because it has been made with the idea in mind of keeping the nominal level near max almost all the way .
The rythm guitars almost always play the same, and the bassguitar doubles the riffs an octave lower. Very often all instruments play the same rythmic patterns, and they then almost sound like an entity. The powerful sound is obviously a more important effect than harmony. The "comp" is almost constant in intensity and amplitude, and it is used against the vocals or the lead-guitar. The vocals and the solo-guitar are never used against each other, but alternately. The dynamic variations occurs when the distortion is turned off on the guitars during clean-guitar parts, or by letting a single instrument (guitar or bass) present a riff before the entire band kick in. (ex. measures 28-29). The guitars are tuned so low that the clicky bass-drum is crucial to separating the notes of most riffs.
A lot of criticism has been risen against the analysis and interpretation of rock music, "rock is intuitive". There are some things speaking against a total interpretation of the musical expression, also with Meshuggah; According to Tomas Haake the songs are made before the lyrics, and verses or text-phrases are left out to fit the music, as in the case of "Future Breed Machine".(1). The music comes before the lyrics. The structure of the music is the most important thing, that the song flows well, that the drive doesn't stop. The clean part in the middle of the song is an example of the music beeing more important than the words - the song needed a calmer part, even if the lyrics don't hint at this. That rock is intuitive and that the immediate feeling for the music is important is very strikingly stated by Mårten Hagstrom : " We can under no circumstances comment on what we're doing." (1).
I still find that Meshuggahs expression is unified and total enough to see put some of the lyrics in context with the music. "Future Breed Machine" is about a machine taking over, and starting to produce artificial humans which subdue to it. (See the appendice.) Lyricist Tomas Haake says the text is pure fiction, but also states that this could happen, not literally that a machine takes the control, but rather symbolically , in the shape of a regime or a system which shapes the people into what it wants. (6). Some technological terms are put in a negative context here, like "synthetic", "machine", "programmed" and "computed". The cold technology is reflected in the hard and insensitive sound. The dynamics are "binary", like the bit-prinsiple of a compter - on, off, on, off...
The lyrics are set as a long stream of sentences on the cover, almost void of interpunctuation. It is hard to see the synthactic structures, just as in the unsymmetrical, syncopated riffs and in the complicated song-structure. The listener does not immediately see the connections. All the rythmic details and the relatively free structure of the song can illustrate the alienation of the individual to the system in the lyrics, but can also be interpreted as a protest against the shaping of the stereotypical and the conformity which the lyrics describe. Apart from the many rythmic dissonances there are many harmonic dissonances, both in the riffs, the alarm-motif and in the cluster-chords of the clean-part.
Here are some examples of musical effects that illustrate the lyrics. The "alarm-motif", which leads us into the song, refers to the first phrase of the lyrics - "An even strobe a pulse of flashing hatelights". The dissonant minor second is sharp like the light, and the even quarter-pulse illustrates the even strobe. The phrase "hammered into shape" is also very well illustrated by the music , through the instrumentation and the beating rythms.
Meshuggah have found a total and original way of expression, where music and lyrics go well together.