Sound — 7
In my review of their previous album "Koloss," I made it no secret that I felt like Meshuggah's creativity was starting to run out. I admonished the album for its poorly-executed guitar solos, its sterile feel, and its relative sameness compared to the band's past few albums. Meshuggah had always been known for pushing the envelope, being one of the first bands to adopt seven-string guitars (right around the same time as Korn and Dream Theater), performing jazz-influenced polyrhythmic metal decades before it would become one of the most popular styles in metal, and constantly updating their sound from album to album. But, by "Koloss," they had become a band that was just pumping out the same album over and over again.
"The Violent Sleep of Reason," the band's eighth full-length album overall, sees the band trying a new tactic for them: going back in time towards the beginning a bit. The album was tracked live-off-the-floor (though probably with ample overdubs for Fredrik Thordendal's and Mårten Hagström's ample layering of atmospheric guitar parts and solos), and marks the first appearance of proper live drumming on a Meshuggah album since possibly as far back as the original version of the "Nothing" album (the band had been either using Tomas Haake's "Drumkit From Hell" samples exclusively, or augmenting Haake's actual performances with these samples since then). This method of recording has given a fairly organic result to the songs, and this is the most alive the band has sounded in ages. The band's music itself has also become a little faster, and maybe a little less technical. In terms of the polyrhythms and the riffs, this is probably Meshuggah's most straightforward album in a long time.
The first three tracks, "Clockworks," "Born in Dissonance" and "MonstroCity," comprise some very similar-sounding material, and basically come off as subtle variations on a theme. The speed and heaviness of the three tracks harks back a bit to the sound of the band on the "Chaosphere" album, with very little breathing room in softer parts, and full of Fredrik's wacky tapping solos. "MonstroCity" has a weird atmospheric part in the middle that almost comes off as "pretty" sounding, which is a bit odd for Meshuggah these days. "By the Ton" has a slower groove and probably sounds the most overtly "Nothing-esque" on the album. The title track sounds like the band tuning down their eight-strings even further (or perhaps using Ibanez's recently-released 9-string RGs that Fredrik has been photographed with), and adds a guitar solo that immediately recalls tracks like "Elastic" or "Concatenation." "Ivory Tower" is mostly a slow groove that sounds a lot like their last couple albums, but the guitar solo on this track is one of my favourites on the entire record, and really saves the song from sounding a bit rehashed.
"Stifled" also has a bit of that kind of rehashed "Nothing-thru-Koloss" style groove that I'm liking less and less as they keep coming, but saves itself with another great solo from Fredrik. In fact, that's one of my favourite things about this record so far. While Fredrik's solos on "Koloss" sounded almost as if they were lazily thrown in (save for the solo from "Do Not Look Down") and just sloppily executed, Fredrik seems to have taken greater care on this album to produce better guitar solos. This can be seen in "Nostrum" as the song is basically the same kind of riff that's getting regurgitated endlessly throughout this record, but the solo is pretty masterful. "Our Rage Won't Die" actually opens with a thrash-inspired riff that sounds almost like it could have come straight off of "Contradictions Collapse," and it's great when the band doesn't do as much riding the eighth string on their guitars, and leaves the low end mostly to bassist Dick Lövgren, who typically performs the same part as the guitarists. This straightforward track is probably my favourite on the album as far as riffs and beats go. It's only a shame that the song doesn't have a great solo like many of the other tracks on the record. Ending the album is another slow groover, "Into Decay." It's just kind of more of the same in terms of groove and tonality.
The production, being that the album was largely tracked live, is probably the most organic this band has sounded in a long time, and while there are still snaky layers of ambient melodic guitars that pop in and out of the mix, this album doesn't quite feel as sterile and mired down as their last two records. The mix is a touch louder than "Koloss," and I have to admit that it's one of the few areas where I prefer their previous album, the production and the mixing on "Koloss" was incredibly done and made it one of the band's cleanest-sounding records ever. But this over-the-top wall of sound production style is definitely something that will remind listeners of "Chaosphere," and the album does live up to that one as far as being a brutal assault on the senses goes.
Lyrics — 7
As mentioned by the band, the album's lyrical themes play off of many of the same kind of esoteric subjects the band has been known for over the years, but also includes a bit of a deeper theme of "religious dogma," extremist views, and even a commentary on terrorism. The title itself is compelling and gives an idea of the lyrical themes: "The Violent Sleep of Reason"... the violence that comes from when we cease to think rationally and give ourselves to our religious beliefs. In actually reading the lyrics, you're not going to come across anything that's blatantly political, and the band avoids any kind of real pandering on the record, perhaps only getting close on the title track ("A systematically applied veil to heedless eyes/Focus deflected, ignore/This is not our war/Bury the abject shame in the same bile as our ideals/The potent lubricant to deceits grinding wheels"), but for the most part, the lyrics on this album read as the same kind of lyrics they've been known for. They're actually fairly deep lyrics, overall, though this is possibly the angriest album the band has done in a while. As is the case with all of their albums since "Chaosphere," Tomas Haake writes the majority of the lyrics, with only "Ivory Tower" being written by another, in this case, Mårten Hagström.
Vocally, Jens Kidman continues in the same vein as on previous albums, and it's about the only part where I feel this section of the review suffers a little bit. While I'm certainly not yearning for a return to the time where Jens' vocals actually had notes in them, his monotone bark has only gotten more and more one-dimensional with the past few albums, and while I actually enjoyed his performances on "Koloss," here, he kind of falls a little flat. And one of my favourite things this band does vocally, Tomas Haake's spooky "spoken word" sections, are not present at all on this album (though they weren't on "Koloss" as well). Jens' vocals are indeed quite powerful, but there's absolutely no variety to them at all, and they make this album a really exhausting listen.
Overall Impression — 7
While I have outlined many traits I did not enjoy about this album in the paragraphs above, let it be known that I think this is the best album Meshuggah has done since at least "Catch Thirtythree." The organic playing, the return of Fredrik Thordendal's more creative-sounding solos, the more potent lyrical themes, and the brutal production all serve to make this a better album than "obZen" and "Koloss" in my opinion, and for a band that I've seen as wallowing in a lack of evolution and creativity, I find this album to be a victory. It's not perfect, and there are definitely points where this album fails to keep my interest, but I still feel like this album is a huge step in the right direction for them. The return of properly recorded organic drumming is certainly one of the top factors in this album's increased quality, and I hope this is a trend they keep up on future releases (though it might be hard to keep up with, considering the band is getting up there in age).
While this album is probably not going to be "album of the year" material for me, this is certainly a step up for them, and to me, at least proves that this band's creative juices are still flowing and that they are still capable of making a fresh-sounding record, while at the same time, highlighting some of the more positive traits of their past records. I definitely feel that the best tracks on this record are "Clockworks" for its hard-hitting, speedy sound that brilliantly opens the album, "Ivory Tower" for one of the best solos Thordendal has committed to tape in ages, and "Our Rage Won't Die" for a more straightforward return to some of the band's earliest thrash riffs.