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Meshuggah live in London

Meshuggah The Haunted poster

As the old saying goes, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is probably how Meshuggah have built such a fearsome reputation as a live band, and why tickets to the London date of their tour in support of last year’s album The Violent Sleep of Reason were all snapped up very, very quickly after going on sale. This may well have been somewhat compounded by their return to the Kentish Town Forum, a venue they last played in 2012. They’ve rolled into town twice since then, playing at the Brixton Academy with Devin Townsend, and hosting their 25th anniversary show at the Roundhouse – and both of those venues hold substantially more punters, so tonight’s show is set to be a cosy one, right from the off.

This is underscored by the fact that as I arrive around half an hour after doors open, the queue to get in still snakes down the side street beside the venue, but a familiar face in the queue allows me to jump in without having to walk all the way to the back. It was a good thing too, as I just have enough time to decide I really don’t want to spend £25 on a tour t-shirt, and find a vantage point for openers The Haunted.

The Haunted have been around for almost as long their fellow countrymen, but I admit that tonight is the first time I’ve listened to this much of their music in one go. The set doesn’t get off to an especially auspicious start, as the sound quality for the opening songs is muddy in the extreme, and the moment drummer Adrian Erlandsson lets fly some double-kick, it completely engulfs the guitars. As the set progressives, the sound becomes crisper and better balanced – but by this point I have come to the conclusion that they are not really holding my attention. I find that if I zone out a bit – or if I am preoccupying myself with taking notes – my head starts nodding along, especially to the more mid-paced, groovy sections of the songs on a practically subconscious level. However, it’s not really enough to fully hold my attention. Naturally, the band’s performance was very tight and professional, but as they’ve been active for so long it would have raised very serious questions if it wasn’t.

There is a small but vigorous looking moshpit, and a large bald chap who looks quite a lot like a doppelganger of vocalist Marco Aro from this perspective spends the entire set front and centre of the crowd, with either his arms aloft or headbanging furiously. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself a great deal, but I find that the songs all blur together and don’t do anything I haven’t heard before, or noticeably better. Perhaps if I had picked up The Haunted Made Me Do It when it was released now some seventeen years ago, I’d have a different attitude, but now I can only really view them as just another metal band. There seem to be a higher concentration of pleasingly noddy riffs clustered towards the end of the set, and it doesn’t feel like they outstayed their welcome, but I just can’t see myself going to watch them again.

With an intro tape of ominous noises rolling, the house lights dim and Meshuggah file out onto a stage dominated by huge scrims with an absolute minimum of fuss. It has been pretty much standard practice for the band that the first song of the set is the first song of the latest album, and they launch into “Clockworks” right on cue. Although a healthy roar from the crowd greets the band, its also clear that the assembled fans aren’t quite familiar enough with it to really commit to the headbanging just yet. With barely a pause “Born In Dissonance” follows, and we’re away.

Meshuggah are known to be a well oiled live machine, and its clear that they take great pains to maintain that reputation. The sound is absolutely pin sharp from the get-go, the set is well-balanced, obviously drawing most from The Violent Sleep of Reason, with a great mix of older favourites, including some that haven’t been played the last couple of times they’ve been in town, like “Stengah”.

As we all know, the actual members of Meshuggah don’t create much of a visual spectacle. They remain largely motionless silhouettes throughout, with vocalist Jens striking his trademark ‘holding an invisible sheep under each arm’ pose regularly. This would be a problem were it not for the absolutely stellar lighting rig they have brought with them. With the lighting engineer effectively now a sixth member of the band, the constantly shifting lights, absolutely locked to the music, create an utterly compelling evolving visual. As the set progresses, more and more elements are added into the lighting mix. It’s a remarkable thing to witness, especially with the knowledge that so many of the lights are manually triggered. It’s definitely the best lightshow I’ve seen in a club since Tool played at Brixton Academy a decade ago.

But even with the lighting extravaganza, the sound and the rizla-tight performance of the tracks, the relentless buffeting – both from the songs themselves and the constant traffic of punters moving through the venue past my vantage point – I do find myself starting to tire. Whilst Meshuggah do what they do exceptionally well, it’s very narrowly defined. However, any creeping sense of deja vu is banished by a quick mid-set smoke break, which resets me enough to really enjoy the end of the set.

I take up a new vantage point when I return, further back in the sold out crowd, as the lighting engineer unveils his final layer of trickery – a lattice work of lasers criss-crossing out across the crowd, sending hands upwards to try and touch them. No, I’m not sure why either.

The last few songs are the strongest. After watching some valiant but ultimately doomed attempts by many to headbang in time time to “Dancers to a Discordant System“, the main set ends with a thoroughly crushing rendition of “Bleed“. The band dutifully file off stage and back on again, but there was never any doubt that the ‘encore’ would happen. So with that rather superfluous quirk out of the way, Meshuggah round off the night in punishing style, with the two-hit combo of “Demiurge” and old favourite “Future Breed Machine“.

It’s this final song that reminds us just how unique Meshuggah are. Few bands still operating today can play a track more than twenty years old with the same – if not greater – levels of intensity and precision as when it was freshly written. They’ve honed themselves into an incredibly potent sonic juggernaut, and the explosion of colour provided by the lights helps to mask the fact there really isn’t anything happening on stage. The flip side of this is that they have effectively future-proofed themselves, so that as long as Haake can pound out those head-bending rhythms, Meshuggah can continue to deliver the goods.

It’s fair to say that what they deliver is not for everyone, and for casual fans a full set might just be too much all at once. But, for those who get it, Meshuggah in full flight is a frankly unmissable experience.