Legions of metal bands have sung about the Apocalypse, but few have managed to create a racket that sounds horrific, chaotic and unpredictable enough to resemble a soundtrack to the Rapture itself. Enter Meshuggah. “Born in Dissonance,” the first undulating mindfuck the band is releasing from its upcoming The Violent Sleep of Reason, rattles and rumbles in unheadbangable rhythms (a Meshuggah trademark) while frontman Jens Kidman emits guttural grunts about obliteration and fear – words that lyricist and drummer Tomas Haake wrote specifically to evoke end times.
“It ties in with the Biblical Apocalypse, the idea of a deity coming back to undo it all and taking to heaven the ones who are righteous,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s about a monster that’s coming for us, or maybe an asteroid hurtling towards the earth. It’s always been a weird conundrum for me how some people, even devout people, fear the Apocalypse whilst others welcome it. I’ve never understood that.” Haake laughs.
Despite the drummer’s laughter, he takes The Violent Sleep of Reason – due October 7th – seriously. As with every LP the group has put out over the past quarter century, he and his bandmates labored to perfect their signature, skull-shaking rhythmic sleight of hand on 10 new songs, which they rehearsed for two months before recording them live in the studio. Haake estimates Meshuggah played the labyrinthine, seven-minute lead track “Clockworks” at least 50 times in rehearsal and 20 more straight through in the studio. That tune is about rearranging the clocklike “pins, needles, barrels, wheels and cogs” in your brain and “putting them back in a fashion to make you function differently” – which is also an unintentional metaphor for the way Meshuggah write and deconstruct their songs.
“Clockworks,” he says, is written from a drummer’s point of view. The first two or three sections of the tune began with Haake playing around on his kit.
Earlier this year, Rolling Stone elected Haake one of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, praising his unique approach to complex rhythms, which is an interest he picked up from listening to records by Rush. (Incidentally, while he cites Metallica and other thrash groups as an influences, Haake rarely listens to metal anymore, opting instead for Sixties and Seventies “softer music, like Terry Reid or Lynyrd Skynyrd, but also Röyksopp, Imogen Heap and Fever Ray and electronic music.”) The inclusion on the list is an honor he calls flattering and humbling but he’s not willing to outright embrace. “I know what I’m capable of and there are a lot of limitations,” he says. “There are so many tremendous musicians out there so that I don’t necessarily feel like I belong, but I’ll still take it.” Haake laughs.
After he came up with a few rhythms, he imported them into his computer, rearranged them some more. “For 15, almost 20 years, the computer has been an intrinsic part of our songwriting, but it has nothing to do with recording,” he says. “As we’ve refined our programming technique, we’ve learned how to do ghost notes and make it sound very much like an actual drummer. It’s part of the creative process.” Eventually, he brought in bassist Dick Lövgren to write the song’s riffs. Then after dozens of rehearsals – a first for the band, whose budget in the past has forced them into the studio before they could refine the songs as a group – they were ready to play them as a unit, live in the studio. Then, when a song is recorded, they blend the different takes together to make a perfect-sounding song. “It’s like a puzzle,” Haake says.
Somewhere in the creative process, the drummer begins writing a good chunk of Meshuggah’s lyrics, a task he’s embraced since he joined the group in 1990. This time, he wrote the words for nine out of 10 of the tracks. “When I was 12 or 13, I realized that [drummer] Neil Peart was the lyricist for Rush, and that was a real eye-opener for me,” he says. “I always loved his lyrics; they’re very poetic and insightful. After the first album, I decided to get a better grip on English and began reading English literature instead of Swedish books. I feel like I’ve gotten a little better over the years.”
The inspiration for the LP’s album title, however, came from art, specifically a Francisco Goya etching titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The meaning behind the song, “Violent Sleep of Reason,” however, is more modern. “It’s about being asleep in the sense that you’re not reacting or responding to what’s going on in the world right now, and that has very violent implications,” Haake says. “The lyrics are my reaction to seeing the humanitarian crisis going on in the Middle East and Syria and how there are millions of people fleeing, and Europe is closing its borders to them.
“It’s absolutely horrible,” he continues, “and 10s of thousands have died on the Mediterranean in the last year because they’ve squeezed 200 people onto a boat that’s made for 20. And then how do you deal with the constant stream of people, when there is a terrorist threat that’s always there; it’s something really hard to deal with. There are a couple of songs on the album that tie into current events.”
So does this heightened awareness of the world mean Haake will get more involved in activism? “Kind of,” he says, likening his thought process to the one he described in the lyrics to “Clockworks.” “The way I see it, I’m writing about it and maybe a few listeners will pick up on that aspect of things too and give it some more thought. We can’t all be, like, super activists and go bat out of hell and try to help people. That doesn’t work either. But I do reflect on things like that and sometimes it feels bad that you’re not doing more than you are.”
The band will be spreading its message – even if it is through inscrutable polyrhythms – on the road across North America this fall. That’s where he says Meshuggah songs have always come into their own. “They don’t feel more perfect live,” he says. “They feel more honest.”