The paradigm-defining Swedish progressive metal band Meshuggah just released their new album The Violent Sleep of Reason today, but we’ve already had weeks to listen to two singles the released leading up to the album: “Born in Dissonance” and “Nostrum.” There’s any number of things I could say about how bone-crushingly heavy these two songs are, which you can probably read in a hundred other blogs and metal industry news sites. I could also talk about how the band is continuing to use some of the same riff-writing techniques the band has used for decades. I could even show how many songs on the new album are great examples of musical structures scholars and fans have already found in Meshuggah’s music. (Meshuggah has definitely attracted it’s fair share of scholarly research — conference papers, several Master’s theses, chapters in doctoral dissertations, and even an article in one of the most prominent music theory research journals, Music Theory Spectrum.) But instead, I’d like to talk about something Meshuggah does in “Nostrum” that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, either in writing about the band by other critics and scholars, or in my own analyses.
(Update October 11, 2016: Dr. Olivia Lucas, who received her PhD from Harvard this last May, has just written me to tell me that in chapter 2 of her dissertation about extreme metal, she observes a similar kind of isorhythm to what I describe here in the Meshuggah song “Pineal Gland Optics” from ObZen (2008). She pointed out that in “Pineal Gland Optics” the pitches form a repeating pattern, but in the second riff from “Nostrum” there is no repeating sequence of pitches, so it’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty similar. Based on the few pages I’ve just read, I highly recommend her dissertation to anyone interested in rhythm and meter in Meshuggah’s music!)
The song “Nostrum” opens with some ambient guitar sounds, and the first real riff begins at 0:12. This opening riff, which I’ve transcribed below, could be a stock example of Meshuggah’s established style: there’s an irregular riff fragment W that repeats several times without lining up with any 4/4 barlines, creating what some have called “polymeter” or “superimposed metrical layers.” Although the 4/4 meter is not clearly played by the drum kit in this case, we can infer that it is the active meter in this part of the song partly because the large-scale structure fits into multiples of a 4/4 bar1, and partly because in the drum-cam video Tomas Haake can be seen tapping out the quarter note pulse on a silent hi-hat2. Every other instance of W is slightly different (labeled W’) because it has three consecutive eighth notes near the end instead of just two in a row. When Meshuggah uses this kind of asymmetrical repetition, after 8 or 16 measures of 4/4 there’s usually a kind of a “reset” that interrupts one of the riff fragments (here labeled X) to make the large-scale phrase rhythm fit in units of pure-duple hierarchy (either 4, 8, or 16 measures, instead of counting out 12 or 15 measures, or other numbers with prime factors besides 2). This kind of riff construction and polymeter feel can be observed in the majority of Meshuggah songs, and it’s been described by music theorists a few times (although not in exactly the words I use here).3
While the first riff in “Nostrum” remains within Meshuggah’s established style as described countless times before, the second riff has something new and really fascinating. This part of the song is comprised of what could loosely be called two verses, one starting at 0:38 and the other at 1:23. Each of these first two verses starts out with the same verse riff, transcribed above, and then each one plays out with different musical material. The second riff initially sounds chaotic, maybe even completely random.
In fact, this second riff is highly structured, but to me the structure isn’t clearly audible. This structure can be seen easily, though, in a tab or transcription like the one below. There is a short sequence of durations labeled Q that is repeated over and over (a recurring sequence of time intervals measuring 4, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, and 3 eighth notes). The type of duration structure used in this riff is similar to the structure of the first riff: a repeating rhythm with an odd total length (in this case, 19 eighth notes) is superimposed on a regular 4/4 drum beat. The result, as you can see below, is that each time the riff fragment is repeated it falls against the barline in a different way than the previous two times. In this riff there is another “tail” (here labeled with an R) that makes the riff break evenly into a whole number of 8 bars.
Why is it that many of Meshuggah’s riffs that use this kind of rhythmic structure sound like “polymeter,” but the second riff of “Nostrum” kind of sounds like random notes in 4/4? The second riff makes the recurring duration sequence Q almost impossible to hear by not consistently using the same pitches for the rhythm pattern. Below, I’ve lined up individual instances of the pattern vertically, so you can see how the pitches are completely different in most of the repetitions of the 4-2-2-3-2-3-3 duration pattern. Also, all of the A’s (the lower notes) are palm-muted while the Bb’s (the higher notes) are allowed to ring free, which makes the A’s feel short and punctuated. So while the sequence of durations is the same each time Q is played, the rhythm sounds different each time because of the changing pitch contour and changing palm-muting.
Music theorists have a name for this kind of process already: “isorhythm.”4 The term isorhythm is a fairly modern one, coined in the early twentieth century, but the musical phenomenon it was invented to describe is hundreds of years old, originating in polyphonic motets in the middle ages. Modernist classical music composers in the twentieth century used this technique as well, especially Olivier Messaien and John Cage. But to my knowledge there aren’t many metal musicians who have used this kind of isorhythm.
Some reviewers have compared Meshuggah’s music to various modernist composers and free jazz musicians before, but it would be jumping to conclusions to assume that Meshuggah is copying avante-garde art music. I think it’s more likely that one of the band members was thinking of things to do with riffs and came up with this idea on their own. I even have a guess about how it might have happened. In several interviews (such as this one)5 Thomas Haake has alluded to coming up with riffs as rhythmic ideas on the drum kit, then bringing them to the rest of the band to create an arrangement that has notes and lyrics. He even demonstrates this process in a studio report from last year, while the band was working on the new album (see the video below). If Haake came up with the second riff in “Nostrum” on the drum kit (and he is listed with songwriting credits), he might not have had pitches or melodic contours in mind. If the pitches were added afterwards, it’s very plausible that the band members deliberately strayed from their normal practice by making pitches that didn’t line up with the repeating rhythm.
This gives us some idea of what Meshuggah means when they tell us that they like coming up with puzzling and confounding riffs, and that they are always looking for new twists to elaborate on their experimental style. After nearly 30 years of trailblazing new paths for metal music, Meshuggah has still found ways to innovate within their own trademark style, as opposed to some other long-lasting bands that just switch to different styles every few albums (I’m looking at you, Metallica). Does the band need to continue changing their style in ways that are as quantifiable as the isorhythm technique I’ve observed here? Would they really sound stale if they continue what they’re doing, given that so few other musicians have successfully been able to copy the feeling of their grooves and sound production? Those questions deserve more thought. But what is sure is that Meshuggah seems to be clever enough to keep finding new rhythmic tricks as long as they want to.
Capuzzo, Guy. 2014. “A Cyclic Approach to Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah.” American Musicological Society / Society for Music Theory Joint Meeting 2014. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Osborn, Brad. 2010. “Beats That Commute: Algebraic and Kinesthetic Models for Math-Rock Grooves.” Gamut 3/1: 43-68.
Pieslak, Jonathan. 2007. “Re-Casting Metal: Rhythm and Meter in the Music of Meshuggah.” Music Theory Spectrum 29(2): 219-245.
Smialek, Eric T. 2008. “Rethinking Metal Aesthetics: Complexity, Authenticity, and Audience in Meshuggah’s I and CatchThirtythr33.” Master’s thesis. Montreal, Quebec: McGill.
- Pieslak 2007 identifies and theorizes Meshuggah’s tendency to structure songs in 4/4 even when there is no drum part explicitly marking 4/4 time. [↩]
- Osborn 2010 tells us that silent left-foot tapping as a way of keeping track of the beat is not uncommon among math rock and metal drummers. [↩]
- Pieslak 2007, Smialek 2008, Capuzzo 2014 [↩]
- This reviewer uses the term isorhythm when talking about Meshuggah’s music, but I think they are talking about a different property of patterning, not a fixed rhythm with changing pitches. [↩]
- Here’s the relevant portion of the interview:
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How does the songwriting work in Meshuggah?
Tomas Haake: When it comes to the actual songwriting, we’ve been doing it the same way for a long time now, in the sense that we sit by a computer, usually me and a guitarist or sometimes just the guitarist on their own, or whoever writes the song. And basically, it starts with a riff or sometimes even the drum beat is the leading factor in what kind of riffs you’re writing.
I’m not a guitar player, so I will generally have an idea that I program drums for, and then I explain that idea to one of the guitarists, and then we take it from there.
So in the writing process, it’s always programmed drums, because we’re so accustomed to that now. That’s a very easy and quick way to do it and you get very fast at it, with the years that we’ve been doing it. It’s fairly quick to do changes by programming drums. That’s the starting point for each and every song, and that’s how we’ve been writing for a long time.
Songfacts: So if you have a melody in your head, would you just sing it on the demo?
Tomas: I can sing an idea, but normally, as we’re not a very melodic band, it’s very rarely a melodic starting point, it’s always a rhythmical one. That goes for most of us in the band. It rarely ever starts with something that is a melodic take on something, but more of a rhythmical idea for a song that will be the context of that song as the starting point.
In that sense, we’ve always been a rhythmical band, but that doesn’t just apply to me as a drummer, being the rhythm section of the band. Everyone else in the band, that is definitely the starting point: the rhythmical aspect of a riff or the rhythmical aspect of drums, and then you try to write riffs for that rhythmical idea. [↩]