What’s in a name? In the nine letters that mark the band known as Meshuggah, there seems to be more and more with each passing moment. Like the laws of physics embodied in modern metal, for every definition that describes the Swedish group propelled by drummer Tomas Haake, there seems to be an equal and opposite descriptor that fits just as fiercely.
Everyone seems to know – and if they didn’t, it would be easy to guess – that the Yiddish word “meshuggah” literally means “crazy.” But although the primal energy unleashed by the songs from their new album, obZen, evokes welcome waves of craze in the listener, Meshuggah, the band, is as calculated as it is crazy: a full 21 years in existence, a 12-entry discography, and worldwide acclaim for an uncompromising adherence to an undeniably their successful master plan.
Intuitive raw emotion escapes from every particle of Meshuggah: The heart stopping vocal brutalities of Jens Kidman, the mind-scrambling guitar force of Mårten Hagström and Fredrik Thordendal, the ear-popping bass solidity of Dick Lövgren, and that astonishing drumming. Yet every inch of it is so methodical, a scientific approach to pure expression where computers, procedure, and technology are welcome partners in every stage of Meshuggah’s quest to chart new and serious artistic territory.
Tomas Haake. A primary driver on this critically important musical vehicle, Haake is comparison and contrast ad infinum. He is a drumming benchmark, yet he practices only when necessary and can happily go six months without touching a stick. Haake is viewed by the outside world as an odd-time genius, yet insists he and his bandmates never speak of strange time signatures. Regarded as a rhythmic icon by two generations of drummers and counting, he says he is happy simply to be in business.
“We feel very flattered that people are into what we do,” says Haake, his voice positively sparkling on a crystal-clear connection from Stockholm. “It’s a very niche kind of music that we’re playing, and that can be hard to take in at first, as it would for any band playing any type of extreme music. A lot of bands struggle with that. We just feel very fortunate that people have continued to buy our albums and show up at our shows.
“To some extent, I think it’s partly due to the fact that we try and succeed in doing something different with each album. Our fan base is very dedicated, our music is not a part of a trend, and as such the few people we gain with each album stay with us and buy the next albums as well. That’s why we’ve been able to stick with it.”
The fullest realization yet of the potential of experimental metal, the nine-song obZen is a perpetually fascinating rhythmic exploration beset by jagged edges, paranoia-inducing sound assaults, lonely landscapes, and endless inspiration. With both 2004’s EP, I, and 2005’s Catch Thirty Three pulsed solely by rhythm programming, obZen happens to be Meshuggah’s first studio album in three years to feature live drums. According to Haake, however, the gap represents time well spent as the bandmembers got a chance to tailor the obZen studio experience precisely to their liking.
“We started writing for this album two years ago,” he says, “and I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much time writing and recording an album as we have with this one. We took a full six months to complete it with tracking, mixing, editing, and mastering. So for us it was a big work. It’s the biggest effort we’ve done so far in the music, but especially in the production. I’m very satisfied with what went on there: It’s very crisp and you can hear everything. It’s been a cool experience, but it also kind of drained all the energy out of us.
“Of course, we all get better at what we do all the time, not just instrument-wise, but as far as mixing and getting stuff to sound the way we want it to. The means for doing that gets better with each album that we do, using different recording styles that we’ve gone through over the last few years: on the I EP and Catch Thirty Three we all worked together over one computer. obZen is the first time I’ve recorded, edited, and chosen the drum takes myself. In the past, it’s always been someone else in the control room recording me, but here I had a laptop computer [next to the drum kit], so the start and stop I did all myself. I was in total control of the drum aspect of this album.”
Perhaps in anticipation of this greater level of control over the recording of his trademark attack, Haake dug into arranging and rehearsing his drum parts like never before. “The goal for the music overall was to make something more diverse than anything that we’ve done over the last few years,” he notes. “Drumming-wise, I’m really proud of how the drums came out. It’s an album that took more practicing. There’s more fills going into it – I’ve put more time and effort into doing the right stuff at the right time in the song. And not just putting in a fill, but actually thinking and trying different styles of fills to go in that very place.”
Haake points to the album’s second track, “Electric Red,” as an example of his increased care. Starting out on a tense low flame (by Meshuggah standards), the song churns steadily to the boiling point on a rhythmic guitar-and-vocals propulsion, with Haake keeping the action anchored to a patiently rolling, relatively spare tom and kick arrangement. A long-legged slot of space kicks in at 4:00 or so, which Haake helps to violently slaughter at the 4:38 mark by opening up a heart-pounding, tribal tom beat. The segue into the intense final section is marked by a lighting-fast long-form fill that explodes as it goes.
“Right at the end, there’s a long fill over the toms, snares, and kicks,” Haake says. “I wanted it to be totally, intimately connected with the riff, and be heavily accented as well. I had to scratch my head before I got that one right! It’s not just a fill. It’s something that contributes to the actual buildup.”
Haake pauses here to explain in more detail his current thought process for drum fill design, analysis, and implementation (Patent Pending). “Usually the first aspect will be to really consider what the music will accept and not. I don’t want a fill that’s flamboyant for the sake of it. It has to be something that flows with the music, rather than taking attention from it – you want it to kind of pass by and fit where you’re coming from and going to. That’s the main aspect of what you’d consider when writing a fill.
“For a lot of previous albums, there was so much drumming going on, I never really took the time to do a lot of fills. I didn’t consider it that much. But over the last few years, I heard a lot of different albums, and it grew on me. For hectic drumming with a lot going on, maybe you don’t have to do fills other than a tiny something, but for me the fills on this album came out more playful sounding. It just sounds like you’re having a little more fun.”
Meanwhile, the meat of the beat came under just as much scrutiny from Haake, who admits to some extra emotional attachment to his work on the obZen track, “Bleed,” a monumental addition to the metal canon that enters a new dimension with its mind-slicing rhythms, unsettling morph tones, and spatial application of force. Haake propels it with an extremely quick, agile interplay of double kick work and smacking snare that melds intricately with up- and down-ramping guitar and bass parts.
“It’s the most intricate drum part work I’ve ever done,” he confirms. “It has some sick double bass stuff. It took a lot of practicing, and I had to change my whole style of playing double bass drums. Usually if the song is fast, I play them really hard and go for it, but this is too intricate, with fast little bursts. I had to lay back on the amount of force I put into the strokes and play on a softer level to make the strokes more even, although the second one is usually a lot harder than the first one.
“One aspect of ‘Bleed’ is just being able to play the main pattern that opens up the song, which is the most important part. As the song goes on, that pattern is cut into different segments and taken to the very extremes, not just as far as how much you can learn and play, but put into your head. There’s underlying patterns that go very long. The challenge of learning that song would be equal to learning all the rest of the songs on the album combined, pretty much. I started rehearsing that in November [of 2006], recorded it in May, and still didn’t really have it down. Even in the recording phase, I could only do it part by part: I didn’t record the whole song through over and over, but instead recorded the first part ten times, the second part ten times, etcetera, so I had a lot of good takes for each part. It’s not until now that I can play the whole song through.”
The effort that Haake poured into preparing for the album was representative of his approach to practicing, which doesn’t require him to sit down studiously with a metronome 365 days a year. “The band doesn’t have a rehearsal routine at all, and I don’t have a practicing routine either,” he says. “Sometimes I go for months without touching the kit, so challenges like that are what help me to maintain at a certain level and grow as a drummer. I need those serious bursts of challenges that come with each album – that’s the most important part for me to be able to grow as a drummer and evolve, if you will.
“Discipline for what Meshuggah does and wants to do is a definite must, and it’s a shame that I don’t have that discipline all year ’round. Some people practice drums for ten hours a day, and if that’s what makes them happy or allows them to create something new, great. But for me, I don’t have that automatic urge to play. So sometimes for periods I’ll play a lot, and then sometimes I go for six months without really playing the drums, depending on what we’re doing as a band.”
Whether listening to “Electric Red,” “Bleed,” or any of obZen’s seven other highly stimulating tracks such as “Combustion,” “Pineal Gland Optics,” “Pravus,” and “Dancers To A Discordant System,” the eternal mystery of Meshuggah re-emerges: What the hell time signatures are these songs in? “They are not in odd times,” Haake states for the umpteenth. “It’s not a big deal to us. It’s not a matter of us wanting the listener to hear the music the way we do it. This whole album is straight 4/4 all through.
“You have of course a cycle that’s repeating. For example, a pattern of snare and kick could be nine hits over an 8/8 bar, and that nine-beat cycle keeps repeating while my cymbal/hi-hat hand and the snare play a straight beat as well. So the context of the song is 4/4, but if you wanted to you could say this measure is 13/16 or something, but we really don’t think about it like that. We just think bar by bar, and think of each bar as a different movement.
“I’m not a schooled drummer, but I’ve heard a lot of explanations of what we do. The great Terry Bozzio explained to me what we did as far as our notes are considered. I guess you could call it alternative cycles or odd groupings or permutations because it’s this odd number of hits in a riff. Eighth-notes in an odd number over 4/4 just sounds trippy after a while.”
Recorded at Meshuggah’s personal facility in Stockholm, Fear & Loathing Studios, obZen’s production values are state-of-the-art. And drummers will be especially pleased to be able to hear Haake’s playing with unprecedented clarity. Every kick, snare stroke, tom hit, hat crush, and cymbal smash is in perfect view, thanks to a number of key factors. The first springs from the band’s continued progress as audio technicians, which allowed them to forego the need for a dedicated engineer forced to press “record,” “play,” and “return to zero” for drum take after drum take. With the transport controls right at his fingertips, Haake felt an unprecedented freedom to work in total solace, nailing each part to his complete satisfaction before moving on.
Just as important was Haake’s mastery of advanced drum replacement techniques to assert maximum control over the drum sounds. “We used a pretty standard miking for all the drums and hi-hats and we used four overheads, one in between each pair of cymbals – about 10" up from them – and then one additional under the main China to be able to tweak that one separately.
“For all toms and snare we also had trigger mikes on and recorded them as microphones – that is, just recording the very ‘click’ of each hit on separate channels, so that we could easily exchange the tom/snare sounds with prerecorded/sampled ones if we wanted to. The main reason we did this was that using prerecorded/sampled sounds for the drums makes the whole kit a lot more controllable. Also, since I play pretty hard, we would have had to change out the heads and retune the drums all the time, which is a bit of a hassle. So the actual drums that you hear on the album are from Toontrack’s DFH [drum sample library], for which I sampled the exact same Sonor kit, some five years ago. Another great feature of doing things like this is that you make the snare drum very controllable and you can really tweak and EQ it without having cymbals and other drums disturb the snare sound.”
Similar care was taken with the kick drum tracks, where Haake used the Drumagog drum replacement program to switch in a more open-sounding kick drum later on. “When I play, I really like the kicks to be very muffled,” Haake says of the procedure, “just because I like the feel of that better than playing on open, less-muffled kicks. Really muffled kicks have a tendency to sound real flat and dead though, so to get the best of both worlds, I had the kicks really muffled with a pillow inside to get the feel I like, and then we exchanged the sounds with more open ones.
“Finally, we used distant/ambient mikes about 12' away from the kit, and these two channels were later on blended with Toontrack’s Avatar Studio’s drum room recordings, which are coming on the Toontrack release DFH Superior 2.0. Then we fairly heavily compressed them to get that nice pumping wash to the cymbals and big boomy addition to the toms and kicks. So, in other words, the drum sound you hear on the album is basically a mix of our closer miking and close mike samples, and the awesome-sounding room that they have at Avatar Studios in New York City.”
The improved production values will particularly strike a chord by the drummers worldwide who set their sights on learning how to play Haake’s complex parts. If simply hearing them better isn’t help enough, the Meshuggah Man offers up the following pointers: “If you want to be able to duplicate the drumming, you have to feel the ‘ground’ beat,” he says. “If I’m not playing the double bass, I’ll switch over to the hi-hat to make it swing – if you really want to be able to play it and feel it, you have to swing to play it.
“You have to think [about] the music like we do,” he continues, “and to do that, the best way is to go bar by bar, repeat those four bars and play along with those. If you have a music editor software program, then take one of our songs and make a project of it: Put a click to the tempo, just repeat any number of bars, and as you learn you can just make those parts longer and longer.”
Interestingly, although Haake takes full credit for performing the drum parts for every song, he makes no claim to having written all of them. “Actually, most of the Meshuggah drum parts are written by whoever writes the song,” he says. “I guess this is somewhat unusual, especially in a band where the drums have a big part and are usually quite intricate and technical. But what it all boils down to is that everyone in the band has a great sense of what kind of drums will best support the riffs of any given song. So, as far as our songwriting goes, we usually program all drums and drum parts at first, and we use computers and recording software throughout the whole writing process, and only rarely do I feel the need to change a drum part or drumming style for a song. It’s usually a process of refining each song until we’re all satisfied with it – and then I basically just emulate the playing and the way the drums are programmed onto the real drum set.”
Such a workflow can create problems, even for the great Tomas Haake. “A certain song might not sound too hard or difficult drumming-wise when you hear the programmed demo, but can feel real awkward once you get behind the kit,” says Haake. “Usually, what is the most common issue would be that the song is written for a certain tempo and sometimes those BPMs are just not what your body wants to play! For example, the title track on obZen is at 170 BPM, and I have somewhat of a gap in between around 160 and 180 BPM, where playing certain things is just awkward due to the very tempo. It took a lot of effort to even begin to feel relaxed when playing that one.”
Experienced Meshuggah fans may notice that although every second of obZen is energized with their electrifying spirit of innovation, Tomas Haake in a way sounds more relaxed than ever behind the kit. “When I listen to obZen, I feel that way myself – it’s cool that it comes across,” Haake agrees. “I think it’s just due to me taking the time I wanted, and not having a guy in the control room saying, ‘When will he nail the part? I want to go home.’ This album is me moving at my own pace, fooling around with stuff, and no one caring if I sit with one part for ten hours or not. At the end of the day, all the parts that ended up on the album were the last few takes for each part, where it had come together so I could play it in a relaxed sense.”
In the process, Haake has made an important addition to the list of truly exciting drum recordings – a selection that in this rhythm pioneer’s mind need not include double kick ballistics, indescribable times, or rocket science in the studio. “I love listening to a really soft, great beat, if it’s played the right way,” Haake says. “A drummer like ?uestlove plays a simple soul beat and for some reason it can sound really exciting. There’s so many things that I might find exciting about a drum part. Maybe you don’t hear it all in the first track, but then more and more stuff starts to ooze out of the drum kit.”
Meshuggah has a well-earned reputation for playing some of the most rhythmically adventurous metal around. Polyrhythms, polymeters, and cyclic displacements abound. Their latest release, obZen, certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard and features the type of dastardly difficult drum parts that have made Tomas Haake a metal drumming legend.
A great example is the following section of “Bleed.” At first, I thought it was in some insanely strange sequence of time signatures, until I wrote it out. What I found was a very clever drum part that tightly mimics the guitar riffs. Haake plays a simple pattern with his hands – quarter notes on sloshy hi-hats with his snare drum falling directly on beat 3. His feet, however, are playing a futuristic drum part of repeating hertas (RLR L) and mixing time signatures. The bass drum pattern can be most easily thought of as a repeating sequence of one measure of 13/16 followed by one measure of 4/4. If you look closely you can see that the bass drum pattern keeps shifting earlier by three sixteenth-notes in each line of the transcription under Haake’s rock-solid hands. This is one scary and very difficult drum part.
Drums Sonor Designer Series (birch shells) in Walnut Root finish
Tomas Haake also uses Axis A Longboard pedals, Danmar Percussion redwood beaters, Evans drumheads, Vic Firth Signature sticks, XLSpecialty/Protechtor cases.