It's a Thursday night in late January 2012. The scene is The Slidebar, a cozy dive in Fullerton, California, during the annual NAMM trade show. The occasion is a listening party for the new Meshuggah album, Koloss. It’s a festive gathering of like-minded metal adventurers, except for the fact that three of the band members (minus guitarist Mårten Hagström) are seated in an elevated corner booth. The band, along with several Japanese groupies, stare at us with quizzical scowls on their faces. All except for drummer Tomas Haake.
As the room reaches capacity, Haake, gray-streaked pony tail visible across the room, is weaving through the crowd bro-hugging, fist-bumping, and playing host to the world premier of the band’s new music. It’s a surreal vibe compounded in no small part by the video screens displaying mock–Surgeon General warnings that exposure to Meshuggah’s music will corrode your soul.
Once it begins pumping from the speakers, Koloss bears the telltale signs of the Swedish metal innovators — staggered rhythms, pitch-bent tones, churning pace — yet something’s different. Instead of random clusters, people huddle in small groups to let the music flow over them, nodding and shimmying like spiritual revelers. Like we said, surreal.
The next day at noon, Haake and I meet at the Sonor booth where he just wrapped an autograph session. Amid the clangor of the Anaheim Convention Center’s Hall D, he thinks back to last night. “The music was too loud,” he says, shaking his head at the irony of an extreme-metal musician complaining about the volume at his own listening party. But the 39-year-old drummer is feeling good about Koloss, which was created in a small, stress-filled window of time at the end of last year at Fear And Loathing, the band’s private studio in Stockholm.
The album’s title is Swedish for “colossus,” a word that aptly describes the immensity of Messhugah’s sound. The name also hints at what a bitch the album was to make. “It was kind of pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” he says. “We weren’t at all ready to make this.” After wrapping the tour behind 2008’s Obzen, Meshuggah struggled to follow up their most frantic, note-packed offering, which surpassed even 1998’s Chaosphere. Notorious procrastinators, the band waited till the last possible second to embark on Koloss, figuring nothing quite motivates like a deadline.
Sitting by himself with the click track and prerecorded guitars, the marathon sessions were a lonely experience for Haake. “We force ourselves into this situation where it’s nerve-wracking to make the album, and it works,” he explains. “But at the same time it’s a boring way of making music when it should be a fun thing.”
For a sweaty thicket of beats that can be exhausting if you listen too closely for too long, drum tracking for Koloss was a wonky, even sterile process. But with Hagstr...m now living in northern Sweden and bassist Dick L...vgren in the south in Gothemburg, the writing process is fairly disconnected. The drum parts are first created by vocalist Jens Kidman in ToonTrack software to fit around guitarists Hagstr...m and Fredrik Thordendal’s parts. Later, Haake learns what Kidman programmed, and then records the patterns, beat for beat, on his acoustic kit.
“Everyone is pretty good at programming drums no matter whose song it is and knowing what you can and cannot do,” he adds. “And we can do it really fast now. It’s pretty much how it’s going to turn out once you record it with actual drums because those [ToonTrack beats] are the drums that I’m going to emulate pretty much. We usually don’t change too much from the drum program because people put an effort into it like the way they want the drums, with all the intricacies, to come out once the album’s done. It’s not like a super simple thing just to keep the beat [as you would in a scratch track].”
It’s a spare and unsentimental m.o., but the top-down workflow makes sense for music this dense. Incidentally, the version of ToonTrack’s Drumkit From Hell that was used on Koloss Haake actually created in the early 2000s. Featuring actual sounds from Tomas’ Sonor kit, it was the company’s first hit and remains a popular drum program today.
The completed tracks were then sent to Daniel Bergstand in Uppsala, Sweden, for mixing. Bergstrand, a longtime collaborator with the band, might take the original snare drum and add a sample of, say, the sound from a snare that he did with another band in Norway. “If he did not like the original take’s sound he could take one of his samples and just put up another one in there,” says Haake. “It was just for him to put his touch on it.”
With their down-tuned eight-string guitars, non–death-metal dirty vocals characterized by a near absence of phrasing, and torturous interlocking of instruments that is simultaneously tense and sluggish, Meshuggah basically invented a new genre of metal.
When you think of how frenetic and mathematic Obzen was there was no place left for the band to go except down, and as Haake says with a chuckle, “maybe a little bit to the side.” Koloss is dense and jacked up in that familiar Meshuggah way, but it feels warmer, more head bob–able. “For this one we felt like doing something a bit more visceral,” he says. “It’s not as in your face in the same way because it’s more like single kick or heavier stuff.”