C O L U M N S
Who: Meshuggah, Baroness, Decapitated
Where: House of Blues, Chicago, USA
"the low-pressure zone that had been brewing between my earplugs and cerebellum was beginning to quake in unnatural ways.
So we dispersed into the night: some dazed, some euphoric, some simply sated. And all in thrall to Meshuggah's arcane science."
If there's a better way to kick off the summer concert season than to utterly dismantle
an audience, scramble their insides, and reconstruct them as brain-blasted Borg, then I
don't know of it. In other words, Meshuggah are back. After officially achieving a
worldwide blockbuster with 'ObZen' in 2008, the band has returned from dormancy with
'Koloss', a dense puzzle of a record instantly recognizable as Meshuggah and yet still
guaranteed to stir new controversy and confusion. It is overall a more tuneful record, at
least relatively speaking, with more distinctly separated songs than metrical treatises.
In the likes of 'Do Not Look Down', we may even recognize the qualities of a 'single',
though hardly for the wrist-snapping hypnosis of their last and biggest hit, 'Bleed'.
Rather, Meshuggah in this new decadeand closing in on their third as a band,
remarkablyis pushing at the boundaries of their style in new ways, with more actual
riffs that seem simple until physically attempted and massive passages bordering on sludge
psychedelia. They are slowing things down, opening them up, and breaking them down to
their absolute base elements. And then grinding them into stardust.
The Chicago stop for this tour sold out at the House of Blues, with support coming from
Poland's Decapitated and, unexpectedly, Georgia's Baroness. For some reason as yet
unexplained, the venue deigned to begin the concert before its (already early) scheduled 6
pm start time, meaning that Decapitated's set was virtually over by the time I
arrivedat 6. The house was nearing capacity by that time anyway, so at least the
band wasn't playing to the sound booth, but I'm sure most of us would have liked to hear
more than 'A View From a Hole' from the box office downstairs and 'Spheres of Madness'
from the stage-side bar. The portion of the set I missed, reportedly, ran 'The Knife',
'Pest', 'Mother War', and 'Post-Organic'.
This was the first I'd seen of Decapitated since their direct support slot of Necrophagist
on 2007's Summer Slaughter, before that tour collapsed under a critical mass of breakdowns
and preposition-riddled lineups, and also shortly before the accident that laid Covan low
and took Vitek's life. In a genre often struck by tragedy and premature deaths, that Vogg
has persevered with Decapitated is one of metal's most important stories. Let none of them
be forgot: Vitek at rest, Covan (and the family that cares for him) pushing ever on, and
Vogg, who manifests their their vision.
A revamped lineup includes vocalist Rasta and drummer phenom Krimh, and has been more or
less on the road since '09. Last year, they recorded and released a grinder of a comeback
record in 'Carnival is Forever', which shows a new, increasingly modern side of the band
that made them a perfect complement to Meshuggah on this bill. They looked a little
businesslike on stage, mostly stony-faced and focused on their complicated rhythms, but
whatever Vogg's demeanor, he cuts a brash figure on stage with his feet widely planted to
match the strident splay of his Dean ML, a Flying V/Explorer hybrid. While a little is
lost in the mix for having only one guitar on stage, the sound was still satisfyingly
thick, and Vogg's command of sneaky pinch harmonics was fully on display.
Vocalist Rasta, a pun on his given name that reflects his waist-length dreads, is a
forceful and committed frontman who worked the crowd, even leaping down into the photo pit
to join forces with the front row fans. His style is predominantly a gruff half-growl,
half-shout that continues the trend that Covan had begun away from Sauron's guttural
emissions, but Rasta can still deliver some full-lunged screams and may be the most
broadly expressive vocalist of the three. He was also the only member to appear at the
merch table after the show, gamely taking photos with a line of fans amidst the
ill-managed crowds that flood the House of Blues' back hallway. Per usual, 'Spheres of
Madness' concluded the band's set, and the audience took this as their first opportunity
to test their collective moshpit mettle. Unsurprisingly, the results were positive.
Next to the stage were Baroness, the palate-cleansing sludge/prog/rockers from Savannah.
Led by the increasingly visionary John Baizley, Baroness has stitched together a colorful
career that evokes comparisons to High on Fire, Mastodon, etc., but which resonates with a
unique optimism. If High on Fire is dense and smoky, Mastodon increasingly fraught and
frilly, Baroness is vibrant, striding southern gentrycultured but forthright, full
of thematic melodies and vocal harmonies, righteous pentatonic riffing, and strong
percussive momentum. The band also delivers some of the most satisfying harmonized leads
this side of the pond (i.e. Iron Maiden, though Thin Lizzy is a neater fit), and, in
short, are perfectly suited to the live dynamic. But sandwiched between Decapitated and
Meshuggahtwo titanium blenders permanently running on 'liquefy'I wasn't quite
sure how well they'd jive with the audience.
I'd last seen them in 2008, opening for Converge at the rather earthier venue of Reggie's
Rock Club down on south State, which trades out the House of Blues' 40 foot drapes for a
sewer drain in the middle of its cement stage and has a total capacity not far above the
House of Blues' event staff. It's a magnificent spot for metal shows and was perfectly in
keeping with Baroness's rather roughshod style at the timescraggly beards, cutoff
Ts, duct-taped and hot-rodded Les Pauls run into tattered Marshallsbut the band's
aesthetic has developed considerably since then. Indeed, they now seem closer to the band
they always meant to become and looked perfectly at home up on that broad stage. The
sprawl of their backline helped, to be sure: Baizley is a noted gearhead, and his rig
consisted of a Bad Cat head and Emperor cabinet in matching red, a copiously populated
pedalboard (two, actually), and several custom shop First Act guitars arrayed behind him
like statuary. The entire band boasted quality gear, in fact, and not in the sense of
having 'graduated' to shiny PRSs or whatever production model LTD gives them for cheap, as
many groups do once their act gets some traction. These were unique, carefully chosen
rigs, and it showed in the depth of their performance.
Another change over the past four years is that Baizley now boasts more hair below his
face than above it, giving him the look of a more slender and less substance-ravaged Kirk
Windstein. Baizley has always been an aggressive singer, and now his bare brow shows every
pulsing ounce of his efforts, the veins rippling at his temples, neck tendons rigid, and
brow intently creased. For such a fierce appearance, though, the quality of his voice is
remarkably controlled, and the harmonies he bellowed out with Peter Adams, the other
guitarist, were consistently nailed. The band entire were fully confident and unapologetic
for their stylelineup mismatches be damnedand that slightly cocksure edge gave
them a (nearly) show-stealing swagger. Along with bassist Matt Maggioni, the three
instrumentalists held court with feet broadly planted, guitars low-slung, and shoulders
reared back, confident purveyors of the 'crotch first, ask questions later' school of rock
pioneered by Slash. Behind the kit, Allen Blickle (the only other holdover from that '08
appearance) guided the band through their many peaks and troughs, regularly grooving
between three and four feels with gusto, all while rocking a Mickey Mouse T-shirt
featuring the word 'Missouri' inexplicably printed in cursive.
All visual cues aside, the real proof of the band's maturation was in the meticulous
planning of their set's progress. They stuck with ambient intros long enough to create a
genuine atmosphere, arranged songs to flow as naturally as they did on record, and even
color-coded the stage lights to reflect their 'Red', 'Blue,' or 'Yellow & Green' song
selections. Including two new songs, the set ran: 'Golgotha', 'March To The Sea', 'Steel
That Sleeps The Eye', 'Swollen & Halo', 'The Gnashing', 'Take My Bones Away', 'The
Sweetest Curse', and the ripping 'Isak'. As often happens in this genre, the new songs
tend to lean ever more heavily on melodic singing, but Baroness does so in a way that
accentuated their fundamentals instead of altering them. As for the audience at large, not
quite everyone was charmedone malcontent threw a beer on stage and may have gotten
kicked out for his troublesbut many among us were quite impressed, and conversation
after the show focused as much on them as the headliners.
And, thenMeshuggah. Or rather: eventuallyMeshuggah, some 40 minutes later.
None of us was precisely sure why a band with no live amps on stage would require such a
long layover, especially considering that their stage setup (massive 'Koloss' backdrops
like the world's largest 3-D eye-crossing puzzle) was set to go almost immediately. The
fact that the house music never changedsplicing together the same two minute segment
of the same dance pop tune without pauseadded to our ire. I can't expect every venue
to serenade its metal crowds with 'Angel of Death', but having relevant house music is one
of the quickest ways to win credibility with an audience. In any event, the lights did
eventually dim and the obligatory intro music began. The track was 'Obsidian', a natural
choice for its grave tempos and thick low synth tones that segued perfectly into the
band's arrival on stage, heralded by a round of suboctave explosions that sucked the crowd
towards the stage like the event horizon of a black hole. And we went willingly.
Not that I expected any less, but it's still noteworthy that the band were a perfectly
synchronized unit, though not utterly unanimous in approach. Jens, the bald alien egg of
the group, snaked his wiry frame about the stage, leaning out over the photo pit to
deliver his half-time style of vocals with unerring force. To achieve the 'a' vowels, he'd
often let his jaw hang open and his tongue push out towards the mic, but by far his most
common expression was the patented Meshuggah face: eyes rolled back, brows collapsing
inwards, lower jaw jutting out, and lips contorted as if to accommodate tusks. Someday,
that face will stick.
The remaining members, burlier fellows all with fuller beards and longer hair, churned
along with a hypnotic symmetry, their heads rising and falling together like hirsute
pistons, driving ever lower. Fredrik would break from the mold but rarely, and then only
to orchestrate some spasmodic tapping madness on his 8-string Ibanez that danced around
the beat of the song only to slip back into the fold at the most unlikely juncture. From
the pit, as I leaned over onto the stage for a shot of Jens, I passed the PAs'
supermassive rhythm tone and began to hear only a biting, harsh transients that had all of
the presence but none of the body we associate with Meshuggah's legendary grind. The live
context has its own demands, of course, but I have to wonder how much of the guitar tone
we associate with Fredrik and Mårten is actually coming from Dick's Warwick 5-string
bass. On the other hand, in registers so low, it may not make much of a difference to
And while on the topic of rhythm sections, it's not too easy to stay focused on drummers
at the House of Blues, except from the balcony seating, due to the ubiquity of high risers
and depth of the stage. Too, some drummers are so meticulous, so consistent, that one
hardly remembers that they are there, hidden away behind a bristling kit (check), strobing
fill lights (check), or sea of fog (not this time). So I found myself at least twice
having to remember that it was not, in fact, a hardwired click track behind this wall of
guitars, but rather the unflappable Tomas Haake, whose metronomic brain should earn him at
least half-cyborg credentials. Often beating a regular 4/4 groove on a cymbal to govern
the entire venue's collective headbang, his other appendages scattered ghost notes,
polyrhythmic tattoos on the toms, and syncopated accents on the snare with deadpan ease.
Altogether, the set progressed: 'Demiurge', 'Pravus', 'Combustion', 'Glints Collide',
'Lethargica', 'Do Not Look Down', 'The Hurt That Finds You First', a recording of 'Minds
Mirrors' that gave us all a little time to pick our eardrums up off the floor, 'In Death
Is Life/In Death Is Death', and the titanic closing salvo of 'Bleed', 'New Millennium
Cyanide Christ', 'I Am Colossus', and 'Rational Gaze'. A second brief interlude before the
encore, then 'Future Breed Machine' and 'Dancers To A Discordant System' to close the
night, where life imitated art through the fiercest moshing and most raised hackles
amongst the crowd's drunken and/or muscle-bound members. I'm sure, in their trance, some
of them could have danced all night, but Meshuggah chose to end on that high note. Or low
note, as it were. This was wise, since the low-pressure zone that had been brewing between
my earplugs and cerebellum was beginning to quake in unnatural ways. So we dispersed into
the night: some dazed, some euphoric, some simply sated. And all in thrall to Meshuggah's
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