On February 19, a storm that had been brewing in the popular music underground struck New York City, in the form of an uproarious concert at the Fillmore by three forward-thinking bands: Meshuggah, Cynic, and the Faceless. Touring America on the Obzen World Tour (named for Meshuggah’s latest album), they are spearheading an incursion of metal music into the avant-garde.
These musicians are technically proficient, sonically diverse, spiritually aware, and, most of all, intensely creative. Beneath the love of loud, distorted guitar and pummeling drums, this new breed of metal artist does not resemble the previous vanguard of the genre—they are more interested in the unlikely engagement of jazz fusion and extreme metal, equal parts brutality and psychedelia. These musicians dare to open doors and ask questions.
Headliners Meshuggah take the Buddhist mantra “Life is pain” quite literally. Their stage set looks like the upper torso of a skeletal zen monk, with one massive eye on its face. “It can see into my soul—I feel it.” one fan said. When the band took the stage, the audience mused on the relation between life and death by starting massive and violent mosh pits fueled by Meshuggah’s standalone brand of metal. Meshuggah’s recipe for bloody success: two eight-string guitars tuned as low as possible, and one genius lyricist/drummer (Tomas Hakke, Drum World magazine’s 2008 metal drummer of the year). Season that with multiple avant-jazz solos and more polyrhythms than the surgeon general recommends, and you get a robust stew of destruction. At the Fillmore show, frontman Jens Kidman roared stories of God, machines, and drug-addiction as the crowd chanted along seemingly in a shared trance. Most frontmen need to work themselves to the bone just to get a rise out of a New York audience; Kidman merely turned his back to the crowd and asked, as if to his own shadow, “Is there someone behind me?” to get ear-bleeding cheers. The headliners didn’t get the loudest applause, though—that honor went to Cynic.
Death metal and jazz fusion had a brief love affair in the early nineties; albums by bands like Atheist, Pestilence, and Cynic experimented with free-jazz solos and the like, but the trend didn’t catch on, and many of those records flopped. In retrospect the seeds were planted then, but it was only this year that music lovers tasted of the fruit, when Cynic released its opus: a little album called Traced in Air that has been slowly but surely racking up sales and critical acclaim. That album is a beautiful wash of guitar synth and vocoder, embodying the strengths of the heavy-metal approach and an effortless prog-rock grace. The songs succinctly offer as much textured sonic beauty as the band can muster.
The vibe at the Fillmore was certainly lively, as Cynic’s music literally brought grown men to tears. Teenagers cheered as lead singer Paul Masvidal took the stage, though many of them weren’t even born when the original Cynic broke up. One woman was following the tour even though Cynic set was the same every night: “They were my favorite band in high school,” she told me. “Hearing them together again inspired me to take a two-month vacation and catch up on lost time.” There was no moshing, only gentle singing and swaying with the crescendos and cinematic movements of Cynic’s wonderful music. They were the oldest band on the bill, but attracted the youngest, most enthusiastic audience.
Openers the Faceless were the most conventional of the three bands. Contemporary death metal bands write songs centered around self-serving technical solo sections and crowd-pleasing slow-motion breakdowns, with memorable drum parts instead of choruses. The Faceless are no different, but they stir remarkable psychedelic guitar and keyboard passages into the otherwise bland death-metal pudding. The boys in the Faceless can seem disingenuous when they attempt to simultaneously pander to King Crimson fans and death-metal scenesters alike. The crowd was wowed by their opening instrumental, which was clearly a tribute to Cynic’s guitar style, but bored by the rest of their set. Still, the Faceless are youngsters, barely out of high school, and that they are so inspired by the jazz-metal approach solidifies a belief that something is changing.
The breeding of free jazz with pummeling guitar music may seem antithetical at first, but it’s important to remember that swing was the “original” extreme music of its day. Jazz fusion albums by Miles Davis, like Bitches Brew, can be as chaotic and alienating as modern grind metal. The resulting hybrid is a more highly evolved experience, loose and psychedelic in a way that the original Pink Floyd strived to be, while maintaining all the intensity of an exploding hand grenade. The focus for these bands is using riffs to create sonic textures that are simultaneously musical and ambient, instead of just using the riff as a hook that propels the songs. The sound is deep and immersive, bringing the womblike comfort of shoegazer pop to heavy metal. The extreme music winds are shifting, and this new direction opens the world of metal to a whole new audience.
Joseph Schafer is prying open his third eye at: http://www.extrememusicportal.blogspot.com