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Meshuggah: Voicing the many dialogues of ‘heavy’ with Immutable

New album Immutable (their ninth studio LP, and first since 2016’s The Violent Sleep of Reason) contains more than a hour of mind-bending, riff-loaded, idiosyncratic extreme metal. BLUNT stares into the rational gaze of drummer Tomas Haake to find out more. 

During a 30-year plus career, Swedish tech-metallers Meshuggah have achieved a rare feat – crafting an instantly identifiable, progressive sound, consistently remaining several steps ahead of their numerous imitators. 

Immutable features some of Meshuggah’s heaviest but also quirkiest material yet. How are you still able to push the boundaries after this long in the game?

We just kinda set out to do something a long time ago, and of course it’s not the same music now as it was like 25 or 30 years ago. Because you change as people, you mature, times change and everything. But we’ve just been on this journey, a deliberate lateral move away from what… Would be considered “mainstream metal”, if you will, if there’s such a thing in this day and age. 

It’s hard to put your finger on what it is that makes you write a certain thing at a certain year. Why did we write The Violent Sleep of Reason the way we did that? Why is this one different in the way that it is different? With each album you always, you do get the questions, and I understand that people are interested in knowing that. But at the same time, it’s really hard for us, because we never get to step out of the bubble. We’re always in it. So a lot of times, you’re really aware of where you’re going or why you’re going there. So whatever ended up on this album is just… Whatever’s going through our minds and the tastes that we had at the time of writing are what you automatically kind of feel. ‘I like this vibe, but maybe that vibe wouldn’t have worked for me five years ago.’ 

I think we say this with every album, that every album is different, and to a certain degree, yes they are. And to a certain degree if someone would say, ‘no, it’s not different, I hear instantaneously that it’s Meshuggah, so it can’t be that different if it’s immediately recognisable’. And there’s some truth in that too, because we only have this particular set of tools. We have this box with our limitations, tastes, and where we see the band going, and what we accept as far as, ‘this sounds cool for this band’, or ‘no, this is not us, this is too far off for us’. With all that said, we do feel like we accomplished something that was a little different this time.

Can you elaborate?

It’s a lot of little things, from production and how that ended up. We definitely wanted a little fatter, and less harsh sound this time going in. And since basically at the studio we were recording and during the mixing to a great deal too, it was me, Mårten (Hagström, guitars) and Dick (Lövgren, bass) that kinda dictated more maybe this time than we have before. So that’s where the production side comes in, and why it sounds a little different. 

But then you also have elements like Marten wrote like more than half of the album this time, and the more we have of his music, or the more you have of Jens’ (Kidman, vocals), Fredrik’s (Thordendal, guitars), mine or Dick’s music, that’s always going to tilt an album this or that way, because we don’t write the same style of music, all of us. It all works for Meshuggah, but it’s not all one type of style. This is just what came out this time around. We feel pretty good about it. I think everything has its place, and the songs, the pacing and what the album goes through, the vibes, the tonalities, the rhythmical aspects, it all sounds interesting to me. 

Do you feel there’s a limit to how heavy music can be? Are there boundaries of how extreme music can become, and will that marker will be reached at some point? 

I think so, but those limits are set mostly by your individual tastes, as in what you like to hear in your own music and other people’s music. For me, I’m not a fast drummer, and I’m not a fan of fast bands, like that blast-beat… Like black metal or extremely fast death metal or whatever where it’s really about speed. That does nothing for me personally. And also, if you go to bands like Sunn O))) or something that’s extremely like (hums slow, sludgy-style riff) when you don’t even really have a pulse because it’s so slow, like the most extreme Sleep songs or something like that, where it’s really sludgy and super slow. That kinda takes away for me a lot of times too. Like, yeah, that’s fucking heavy, but I still want to hear, I want to at least have a feeling of this is the beat, even if it’s slow.

But then there’s so many other sides to what constitutes heavy. Heavy, to me, it’s not (necessarily) about playing slow, because some people can play really slow, but does it come across to you as heavy? Or is it just slow? And then you come into the world of musicianship and how you approach things; how you play your guitar for example. I do feel like we’re a heavy band to a great deal because of the musicians that we have. It sounds very different if Marten or Fredrik are in the mindset of playing something that is like heavy with a slow mindset or a slow hitting of the strings, and how they hit the strings, with the pick and so on. And a lot of guitarists, they can’t do that. They can play slow, but they can’t play heavy. It’s something that’s in your hands; you either have it or you don’t. 

And also, you can have a fast output, you can have a slow output, you can have this or that, but do you feel it? Just like playing heavy or playing slow and making it really do something for me, you feel it, there are certain bands that play fast that really make it work. But nine times out of ten, it doesn’t do anything for me, as far as when it’s more a competition of can they do 300bpm, 16th notes on the bass drums, or can they not? That is completely uninteresting to me. It’s about music; it’s not about speed, or slowness.  

After a few years’ hiatus from touring, has Fredrik slotted back into the band feeling as motivated as ever? 

Actually we don’t even really know yet, because he’s very busy at the studio that he built over the past three years, and right now they’re doing a new Toontrack sampling production that’s going to be massive. So he’s 100 per cent in that right now. Me, Marten and Dick, we started rehearsing, because I hadn’t played drums in a year since we recorded the album (due to eczema). So I feel like a complete newbie again. But we have just started rehearsing, and Fredrik will join rehearsals closer to when we’re supposed to go out and tour. 

We’re not in a daily conversation; we do have Zoom meetings with the whole band like once a week and he’s on those. But that’s always like business talk related more than anything. It’s hard for me to tell exactly how he feels. Yes, he’s coming back and is going to be playing live with us again. I know that he was stoked to do that, but then again, one of the reasons why he felt like he had to step aside was also because he was very tired of touring. He was just over it. And even though he’s had a breather now for a few years…  At least the idea of it is very compelling to him. Then like everything else is kinda up in the air. No one knows how we’re going to feel about it like half a year of touring into it, or how he’s going to feel about it, if he comes back to that point where he’s like, ‘ugh, man’. Or whether he feels excited and wants to come back and be with us for the rest of our active years. 

In the midst of the pandemic and major international conflict, is it a case of taking a tentative approach to touring plans because things could change quickly? 

A: That’s another thing, just for any other bands who are attempting to go out and tour now. We’re about a month-and-a-half out from when we’re supposed to start. And you have the pandemic. We were lucky with the timing of everything, because we had just finished a three-and-a-half year cycle of touring on …Sleep of Reason. So we were really lucky, and financially we knew we were solid for a good while, so it didn’t hit us financially like it did a lot of friends of ours, and a lot of bands that were just kinda in the starting blocks of going out and touring. 

But with that said, of course, right now you have different rules in different countries still as far like what happens if someone gets COVID, or they are PCR testing daily in some countries still. If we even have a crew member that shows up positive, will they let the rest of us come in, or will they block us from entering the venue completely? 

It’s really up in the air. It’s a little risky I would say too in a sense, because you do have to make a decision at some point, and we’ve already started booking and paying for future buses, and trucks for our gear, all that stuff. So you do run the risk of, if this first run we’re supposed to do, what if it just falls through? ‘Cause now you not only have COVID (but) the new strain of that. Is that going to hit hard? Is that going to mean new lockdowns, new protocol? 

And also on top of this of course is we have the Russia/Ukraine situation, which is really close to home in the sense that we’re supposed to be touring in mainland Europe, and that whole situation is very volatile, at least right now. We hope and pray that is over and done with by the time we’re going out. Not for our sake obviously, but for the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people too. We know a lot of Russian people, and I don’t know one Russian who is backing this type of behaviour that Putin, the show that he’s putting on right now.

Meshuggah is 35 years into its career. What keeps the band moving forward? It feels like you don’t have much, if anything left to prove.

No, we don’t have anything left to prove, other than maybe to ourselves, in the sense that, can we find new things that still engage us in new songs? If anything, we’re the only ones we have to prove anything to at this point. I think that comes into play for a lot of bands after a certain amount of years. And maybe that’s another reason why now it’s like six years since the last album. It tends to get longer and longer, and then you have Tool, from 10,000 Days to Fear Inoculum, that was what, 13 years in between albums? I don’t know, maybe that has something to do with that, that you’re… When you’re younger, you’re maybe more hungry to prove yourself in a sense. But at this point in time we’re just trying to continue to write and produce something that feels intriguing and exciting to us. 

Immutable is out now via Atomic Fire Records.