Moody computer-generated image of the four members of Meshuggah
Credit: Edvard Hansson and Brendan Baldwin

Meshuggah have developed an approach to progressive death metal so distinctive and compelling that it’s spawned an entire subgenre of imitators. And right from its title, the Swedish band’s ninth album, Immutable, announces that it won’t try to fix what isn’t broken. The elements Meshuggah have made familiar over the past three decades are all present: pitch-dark riffing in perverse time signatures, against which the occasional clean guitar line stands out like a titanium wire in the cinders of a house fire; rigorous drumming that nails down those knotty meters and chops them up with a backbeat, so that the competing patterns play tug-of-war with your attention; and abrasive, howling vocals that use bizarrely dilated timing to weave through this rhythmic minefield. Over time, the band’s music has grown less human, in that it feels less like a group of metalheads banging something out in a room and more like the output of an incomprehensible computer that generates Meshuggah songs. I once described it as death metal fed through the gears of a colossal alien machine, and for a few albums now, that machine’s moving parts have been getting bigger and heavier, so that their interference patterns are easier to perceive. On Immutable, Meshuggah are often as minimalist as I’ve ever heard them, not only playing fewer notes but fewer different notes. Some of the new album’s oddly weighted riffs still move like slipping chains or stuttering jackhammers, just like in the old days, but at least as often they’re anvils tumbling down a hill.

Many of the lyrics on Immutable are about deception, folly, the abuse of power, and the limits of knowledge: as guitarist Mårten Hagström puts it in the album’s press materials, “Humanity is immutable, too. We commit the same mistakes over and over.” Fortunately, the music isn’t so abstract—it clamps down on the scruff of your neck and shakes you till you see stars. Meshuggah don’t have the broadest emotional range, but they cover all of it here: fury, frustration, melancholy, regret, tranquility, and the supercharged meditative state created by the tension between option paralysis and ecstatic trance. The drumless instrumental closer, “Past Tense,” is gentle and delicate enough to pass for a sinister lullaby, while “Ligature Marks” drives home the asymmetry between its four-four backbeat and its bludgeoning, irregular one-note chug by landing on each downbeat of the latter with a distorted growl that dips in pitch like a circular saw biting into meat. Downtuned riffs make zigzags that pop out of the mix like revving dirt bikes, a keening clean guitar drifts like an air-raid siren, and all the while thickets of three-against-four syncopation make it hard to even pick a tempo for your headbanging. Immutable may just be Meshuggah making the same mistakes over and over—some fans have never forgiven them for abandoning the nervy, organic sound of Destroy Erase Improve decades ago—but they’re brilliant mistakes.

Meshuggah’s Immutable is now available through their website.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid, and he’s also split two national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and one in in 2020 for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.