Even at their most uneventful and prosaic, no one could ever accuse Meshuggah of just phoning things in.
As far back on their debut they were busy twisting their thrash influences into their own form.
They seemed to reach their logical conclusion via the two complete head trips that were the “I” EP and the “Catch33” LP (released in 2004 and 2005, respectively).
While subsequent records have since reigned the crazy back in somewhat (without compromising their creativity or technicality), truth is guitar whizz Frederick Thordendal had already passed through the event horizon.
He had not only matched but exceeded the brain-frying shenanigans of those two releases as far back with his 1997 release – “Sol Niger Within”.
Billed as “Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects” it is mostly the mind of Thordendal at work here, freed from the set up of his day job.
Despite the band orientated moniker of the project this is very much a solo album, with precious few others involved in any significant way.
The exception to that rule is Morgan Ågren (known for his association with Frank Zappa and his own suitably gonzo projects) who picks up the drumsticks for this release.
Interestingly, Meshuggah sticksman Tomas Haake does feature on the record, but only as the “psychonaut’s voice”.
Thorendaal’s playing in Meshuggah is frequently off-kilter, but is akin to the cold, inhuman technicality of the imagery found on “Destroy Erase Improve” – whereas Ågren’s playing sounds more like free from chaos.
Whilst his playing shares all those odd meters that we’re used to hearing loosely welded to Thordendal’s staccato outpourings, it’s also played with a far more jazzy feel; ghosted snare hits and rolls all over the place, fills that have as much sizzling cymbal-work going on as toms and not a lick of double bass (plenty of triksy foot patterns, mind).
Some of it sounds like freeform jamming but it always seems to converge back with the rest of the soundscapes on its journey to the outer reaches of what Throdendal was aiming for.
And what exactly was being aimed for?
Although this is preaching to the physical-media loving choir, an important facet of this slab’s existence is how it should be consumed.
That’s to say with its gloriously mid 90s, undoubtedly-great-at-the-time-but-now-slightly-naff-looking CG adorned booklet firmly in hand. It’s about the only thing about the album that could be termed “out of date”.
Certainly of its time, but certainly not the worst offender out there), the booklet needs to be used for the lyrics.
A lot of the vocals are articulate and intelligible (courtesy of Haake’s aforementioned “psychonaut”), but like space (from whence this thing must have came), there’s other sections that can’t be seen (okay, heard) and there are lyrics used to flesh out the themes of the various selections on the record.
According to the liner notes, or at least those found those found in the 2010 Metal Mind reissue, the concept behind the album is experiencing a person’s journey through psychosis.
Yet that’s as experienced as an expanding of the mind, rather than a sickness, and it’s told through such themes as death, UFOs and the destruction of the universe.
So it’s probably not one to spin whilst supping on your nightcap.
Hold Tight: Holdsworth
The booklet opens rather appropriately with a quote from Benjamin Rush, and then references such lofty scribes such as Beckett, Dante, Wilde, Burroughs and Plato (amongst others).
The overall concept and use of lyrics is worthy enough to be read by itself independent of listening to the album.
Anything written here really does not portray how far flung it all is when served up in written form – not your typical metal fare, then.
That is of note as the liner notes also reveal that Thordendal’s influences for it all comes mostly films and scifi, plus a friend who experienced a two-month long psychosis and was able to recall the experience with clarity.
It seems fitting then that the most obvious musical influence on Thordendal’s warped melodicism is present and correct; which is to say the playing of fusion/jazz legend Allan Holdsworth.
Thordendal continues his rhythmic endeavours largely as they might be found on a Meshuggah record with mostly short, jabbing, odd-meter riffs, but his love affair for Holdsworth’s melodically complex, legato leadwork gets to do a lot of the talking, albeit filtered through some sort of alien Rosetta Stone.
“Transmigration of Souls” starts out with a chuggy riff that has these days been done to death, but within the space of a few seconds we are treated to what sounds like a malevolent, alien AI spewing forth some sort of doomsday incantation, only for it to morph again another few seconds later into a completely twisted lead that sounds part 16-bit videogame boss fight.
All this is done within the space of a under a minute and a half and shows more creativity in that time than some bands can squeeze into and entire album (perhaps when one is forging towards the event horizon as we seem to be on this record, time really does distort).
The structuring of the album is similar to “Catch 33”, though given the chronology of their releases it is actually the opposite that should be applied. It’ss presented as a complete piece of music (all 43 minutes of it), with some of the divisions between the tracks seemingly arbitrary.
To that end, it’s a very traditional album, meant to be experienced in its entirety. Its constituents are not something you could palatably have (or want) in isolation.
The longest take, the (un)charmingly titled “Cosmic Vagina Dentata Organ” not only stands out for its length, but also for the fact that it is mostly organ-led and sounds like something that should have been on ELP’s “Brain Salad Surgery” (perhaps the “Vagina” in the title is a nod to that particular album’s sleeve art?).
It’s probably the oddest track on here too, which says a lot.
“Sensoruium Dei” immediately follows – (death) metal vocal is famed for what non aficionados would deem “screaming”, but when do you get to hear actual screaming?
After the few minutes of ghosting about on the hi-hat and snare, you can practically feel the sticks being drilled into the drum head during that finishing roll that accompanies the scream.
Given the surrounding chaos, it’s a bizarrely cathartic moment on an album that sounds like the aural equivalent of a sci fi horror movie.
Other titles include “The Executive Furies of the Robot Lord of Death”, which has leadwork that sounds like a sci-fi death ray and a title that practically demands to have Voivod’s Away create an image for it.
Meanwhile “Bouncing in a Bottomless Pit” is that’s exactly what Agren’s drums are doing.
The album, or the original version at least, closes with “Tahtagta”, which is one of the longest tracks (3:03).
It reprises the ethereal and spooky Allan (or should that be Alien?) Holdsworth-esque outro of Meshuggah’s “Sublevels”, except it has Ågren attacking his drumkit in such a manner that it (fittingly) sounds like the death throes of the universe expressed via percussion.
As noted, there’s a different version of this album – called “Sol Niger Within Version 3.33”, which was issued in 1999 by Relapse Records.
It features a different mix and frustratingly removes “Cosmic Vagina Dentata Organ” from the running, and tacks two other tracks onto the end. It must be asked, why remove it?
The rest of the record was never going to be an easy listening experience, with or without it.
So track down an original copy of this and ready your listening space for a journey through both inner and outer space.
– Adrian Kilgallon ::: 03/07/01