Meshuggah “obZen”


Meshuggah is on a tour they’re calling “25 Years of Musical Deviance,” marking the 25th year since their first official release, Meshuggah EP (1989). I saw them perform with Between The Buried And Me here in Chicago on June 15th, which got me thinking about commemorating this anniversary in my own way. Meshuggah is famous for their mind-bending rhythm tricks and their devastatingly heavy sound. What better way to pay tribute to their career so far than a series of posts about progressive metal rhythm?

For the start of this series, I’ll begin with analysis of rhythm in one of the songs I heard Meshuggah play live.1 Meshuggah compiled a setlist for their tour by asking fans to vote for their favorite songs in an online poll. One of the songs chosen was “obZen,” from the 2008 album of the same name, was part of a setlist for the tour compiled.2

“obZen” begins with a riff based on a kind of rhythmic process that appears frequently in Meshuggah’s music. This rhythmic process sounds quite chaotic for a number of reasons I’ll explore, but it is really based on a simple form of repetition. The whole riff is based on one little fragment that in my transcription is four quarter notes long, and contains lots of syncopation:


This fragment is repeated seven and a half times in full, with one catch: the second, fourth, and sixth times there is an extra syncopated eighth note at the end of the fragment, which offsets the following fragments. Thus the third and fourth fragments begin an eighth note after the beginning of the 4/4 measure, the fifth and sixth are a quarter note off, and the last two fragments are three eighth notes off. In other words, the whole riff can be thought of as progressively getting further misaligned, further off beat. The last fragment ends three eighth notes early, which brings the beginning of the next riff back into alignment with the regular pattern in the cymbals and the snare. The image below shows the whole rhythm.


One particularly interesting feature of this rhythm is that the whole riff consists of very little rhythmic material. Syncopated eighth notes and the gesture of two thirty-second notes basically make up the whole riff. One tab of “obZen” I found on the internet transcribed this riff in three measures of 4/4 and one measure of 5/4, to accommodate the extra note in every other repetition of the fragment.3 However, in the recording the drums continue to loop every four beats. Since the guitar rhythms are all played on the same note (Bb), it is very easy to lose your bearings partway through the riff, and I have trouble counting the song in 5 and 4 as this tab transcribes it.


What I have transcribed as a 4/4 beat is much easier to headbang along with, because it is expressed clearly in the drums. In the online tab I mention above, the 4/4 and 5/4 measures make every fragment begin on a downbeat. My 4/4 interpretation gives an explanation for why the riff feels off-beat — the beginning of each fragment is getting further from the 4/4 barline with each repetition.

Which meter is the right transcription? I think my 4/4 transcription is visually neater, but either is correct in a literal sense. Each places a different emphasis: the transcription in 5 and 4 places barlines to clearly show the repetition structure of the guitar riff, while the 4/4 transcription is more relevant to how I experience this song as a headbanging listener.4

It’s important to notice, however, that as exciting and confusing and progressive as Meshuggah’s rhythm can be, it is usually based off of straightforward repetitions that are manipulated in very clever ways. By just extending the fragment a single eighth note with every other repetition, Meshuggah has used a syncopated rhythmic fragment that is already frequently off the beat to build a beautifully chaotic rhythm that veers into disalignment and disorientation before it miraculously resynchronizes just in time for the next guitar part to come in at 0:22.5

With the music of another band, this difference of metric interpretation might not be so crucial. But Meshuggah’s music does not always have much melodic shape, and at the volumes they perform it is hard to hear pitch clearly anyways. Seeing them live two weeks ago, my experience was mostly rhythmic, the huge sound of Tomas Haake’s drums pounding my skull and my chest and the rhythms of the guitar riffs visceral and almost pitchless, as if they were another percussion instrument. The stage lighting was carefully synchronized to flash with the guitar riffs and drum patterns, brightly silhouetting the members of the band in harsh, epileptic syncopation.6 In other words, the main attractions of Meshuggah’s live show are the overload of crushing, viscerally heavy distorted sound, and the kind of rhythmic tricks I analyzed above. Since the physical experience of the rhythm is so important to Meshuggah’s music, the most important choice in transcription is whether the notated meter should reflect an abstract structure of repetition or the headbanging pulse that frames all the listeners’ rhythmic experiences.

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  4. Almost everyone I saw moving to the music throughout Meshuggah’s performance on June 15th was headbanging to a quarter note, eighth note, or half note pulse. The music theorist Justin London describes musical meter as “a mode of attending,” and nothing could make that mode of attending more emphatic than throwing yourself forward with each beat. []
  5. This timing is for the album version of the track; in the video above, the guitar comes in at 0:25. []
  6. The only time a band member was lit from the front was a spotlight on Fredrik Thordendal during his dissociative guitar solos, which were not always audibly distinguishable from the higher spectra of distortion produced by the rest of the band and the drumkit. []

2 thoughts on “Meshuggah “obZen”

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  2. Jan-Bas Bollen

    Thank you Stephen, for your in-depth observations. I especially agree with your statement “…the most important choice in transcription is whether the notated meter should reflect an abstract structure of repetition or the headbanging pulse that frames all the listeners’ rhythmic experiences.” This is exactly what I experienced while transcribing Meshuggah’s “In Life is Death” from Catch33 for solo piano: Furthermore, as I also wrote in the programme notes for the transcription, sometimes there are rhythmical trends rather than straight repetitions. The interpolation and rotation of patterns are two very efficient tools to achieve just that.

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