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Road Reports

Who: Meshuggah, Baroness, Decapitated
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 decade—and closing in on their third as a band, remarkably—is 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 arrived—at 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 gentry—cultured 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 Meshuggah—two 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 time—scraggly beards, cutoff Ts, duct-taped and hot-rodded Les Pauls run into tattered Marshalls—but 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 style—lineup mismatches be damned—and 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 charmed—one malcontent threw a beer on stage and may have gotten kicked out for his troubles—but many among us were quite impressed, and conversation after the show focused as much on them as the headliners.

And, then—Meshuggah. Or rather: eventually—Meshuggah, 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 changed—splicing together the same two minute segment of the same dance pop tune without pause—added 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 human ears.

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 arcane science.

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