Gnarl-metal reviews: Meshuggah, Arsis.


Meshuggah, "Alive" (Nuclear Blast DVD + CD)

Spend some time in Canada and Japan with five glowering Swedes. Share the contrarian impulse of their irregular rhythms. Delight in the sensual barrage of sounds they draw from guitars fitted with too many strings. Savor the fine blend of intelligence and brutality.

Then go to your room and blow your brains out. If you're a sissy, that is. If you're a fan of modern metal, the kind of darkness Meshuggah pour forth constitutes a lively environment. As recorded and mixed by Thomas Hedblom and Daniel Bergstrand, the band's sound gathers in the bones like rank humidity. Though no digitization could duplicate the full physicality of Meshuggah's live attack, a twist of the bass knob delivers a full-body workover of kick-drum thrum and low-end complexity that few bands can match.

Some will find the ride a bit repetitive, but the repetition is essential to the revolution: The consistent displacement of Tomas Haake's snare accents can lead to a whole new way of not just thinking, but breathing. The guitars encourage change, too. When not cranking a lumbering riff, Fredrik Thordendal may occasionally dazzle with a an abstract finger-tapped solo, but mostly he prefers to highlight the murk with grainy buzz-picked sustains -- kind of a mind-scouring device. Listening to Meshuggah builds intellectual muscle from the ground upward. If 12 songs seem too heavy a load, start with three and work up.

Meshuggah show confidence in the ever less traditional direction of their metal by allocating three-quarters of "Alive" to songs from their 2002 and 2008 masterworks, "Nothing" and "Obzen" -- the splatter-driving "Bleed" and the bent thrasher "Combustion," for instance. But one of the most dynamic numbers, the broken-rhythmed "Humiliative," dates to the 1994 "None" EP, a nod to a distinguished band history that stretches back to 1987. (Most of the members have served at least 17 years.)

A laborious journey. The dudes seem to be growing weary of the travel grind, so treasure this first and possibly last Meshuggah DVD. Unlike every other metal doc, "Alive" downplays the fun of touring, with the band grunting stuff like "It's not about partying," "We miss our families" and "I hate this." Between well-shot full-length stage performances with the black-T-shirted soldiers bathed in glossy shadow, director Ian McFarland intersperses Ingmar Bergman-like black-and-white clips of the band stumbling off the tour bus, moping around backstage or reciting a list of upcoming treks. And really, most of this material, like the guitar-tech document, the drum-tech document and the concept-video clips, is superfluous. It was a good idea to include a CD featuring only the music.

And the music is most original -- an electrocution that causes the flesh to twitch and the mind to clear. Rarely will you encounter a band with a less appropriate name.


Arsis, "Starve for the Devil" (Nuclear Blast)

The title alludes to the anorexia that nearly crippled guitarist-vocalist James Malone and temporarily wrecked his quite amazing melodeath-metal band a year ago. It's good to have Arsis back, at whatever weight.

An Arsis album is always an energy infusion, but also an ear overload. How lucky that the Berklee-trained Malone loves to write spinning, soaring bridges, which give the listener a breather from the double-kick fury, the stabbing riffs and the accusatory barks. In line with the spirit of the times, "Starve for the Devil" cuts a thrashier path than 2008's "We Are the Nightmare," emphasizing a stricter tightness with the return of original drummer Mike Van Dyne. But that doesn't mean Malone has abandoned his epic aspirations, as he shows with the progressive narrative and variable textures of "From Soulless to Shattered," or the shuddering breakdowns and ingenious guitar counterpoint of "Escape Artist," whose crazy energy builds layers until Malone can't figure out what to do with the conglomeration except fade it out. Despite their headlong rush, the funny "Forced to Rock" and the galloping "Beyond Forlorn" border on catchy.

It takes a few listens to sort out what Malone is up to; different animals jump out of his jungle every time through. Eat the bear.