Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meshuggah owns all

It could be years before the NYC area gets another month as exciting for metal as February 2009. Metallica, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Soilwork and Meshuggah all headlined bills that exemplified the range capacity of modern metal. Deciding the best of all shows was a matter of taste, but band-for-band, there was no better bill than the Faceless and Cynic opening for the mighty Meshuggah at Irving Plaza.

Relative newcomers the Faceless luckily won a spot before two of the most worshiped bands in technical/death metal history, and even more amazingly, the California-based band nearly showed up the legends. Playing to an already-packed club that confirmed the band's much-warranted buzz, the Faceless compacted much of music theorist-favorite Planetary Duality into their 30-minute set, including "The Ancient Covenant" and "Coldly Calculated Design," after opening with their debut Alkadama's instrumetal (sic) centerpiece. Now minus a keyboardist, the band's new arrangement benefited guitarist Michael Keene, who riffed and shredded through a garishly neon green Washburn. By their last song, it was clear that the Faceless deserve some headlining sets in the near future.

Cynic, performing their first US shows in 15 years, also spent most of the set on their newest album, Traced in Air. Although the band owes its legacy to Focus, the seemingly one-off prog-metal watershed that's been bewildering headbangers since 1993, Traced in Air is arguably just as strong, and it was as much fun to experience new songs like "Integral Birth" and "Evolutionary Sleeper" as it was to hear heavier, more distorted Focus tracks, including "Veil of Maya" and "Celestial Voyage."

For all the thrills Cynic warranted in musical and historical contexts, their performance was mostly listless. Drummer Sean Reinart controlled every song with powerhouse drumming, but guitarist/processed singer Paul Masvidal competently performed every technically-exhausting song without any extra flavor, as did the studio hand rhythm guitarist and bassist. Had Cynic just stood in place and played recordings, their music would still be exciting enough to hold interest. But for a band that put so much effort into recording, seeing them go through the motions onstage was a little disheartening.

Still, there was no questioning Meshuggah's ability to provide the live show that their songs deserve. As with the two openers, Meshuggah's most recent album is one of their best, and wallop-packing new songs like "Pravus," "Combustion" and especially "Bleed" were as memorable as anything played that evening. Relatively less mathy and avant-garde than their previous albums, obZen's songs are fast and heavy even for Meshuggah, and it was hard to keep up with the band more for their pace than their experiments. Despite Meshuggah's inarguable talents and versatility, there was no change in pace during their set. Guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström's riffs and solos steamrolled out of songs like "New Millennium Cyanide Christ" and "Suffer in Truth," while singer Jens Kidman, whose face might be frozen in "angry samurai" mode, barked out a guttural yell that never hinted that clean vocals even existed in him.

Meshuggah's main selling point might still be polyrhythmic monster Thomas Haake, whose varied, brutal drumming may trounce any other metal percussionist. Injuries have sidelined him over the past few years, but seeing him nail Meshuggah tracks that had been completed with samples and drum machines testified for the power of man over machine, albeit in a way that contrasted with some of Haake's sci-fi inspired lyrics. Meshuggah closed with "Future Breed Machine," probably their best-known song, and prompted a floor-encompassing mosh pit to break out for the show's last few minutes. There was no encore, so we never found out if Irving Plaza would be able to survive one.

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