A Token of My Extreme: Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects- Sol Niger Within Version 3.33 (1999)
Ultimate Audio Entertainment & Relapse Records; February 22, 1999
Meshuggah are a pretty outre band to meet mainstream acceptance in the music world. I use that parameter loosely, of course--you'll never find "Future Breed Machine" in the Top 40, or "Concatenation" on the American Idol playlist. But their avant-garde approach to extreme metal has been surprisingly well regarded by both critics and devout metalheads alike, and there has been a bumper crop of bands inspired by the wild polyrhythms and atonal, brutal 8-string heaviness of this unique Swedish five-piece.
It's not too hard to see why. Meshuggah are one of those rare genre-breaking bands that have revised everything right down to the musical language. They represent a fresh break from most present-day metal--you will find no plagiarized Iron Maiden/At The Gates guitar harmonies, no Sabbath/Slayer/Metallica worship, no horrible clean vocals from some androgynous fuckhead in runny mascara and girl pants, and absolutely no teenage diary passages and roses 'n' razorblades imagery. They retain the core elements of pulverizing riffs and a foreboding nihilistic worldview, and then turn everything else upside down in a frighteningly technical, monolithic display of slowly fluctuating machine-like riffing behind Jens Kidman's inhuman roars; Tomas Haake's utterly baffling drumming; and Toki Wartooth lookalike Fredrik Thordendal's guitar solos, which are a mind-frying fusion of obscure virtuoso and jazz legend Allan Holdsworth and a supercomputer with epilepsy.
Let's linger a bit on that last point. Thordendal's work with a guitar has to rank as some of the most utterly creative I've heard on record, and if I had to stretch my mind hard enough to offer a weakness for Meshuggah, it's that there's never enough of Fredrik cutting loose.
Sol Niger Within is the remedy for that. Fuck yes it is.
Now, most solo careers from established acts (metal and otherwise) don't typically have a very good track record. While you'll occasionally stumble on some great solo albums (think Bruce Dickinson's The Chemical Wedding), most are forays into supreme self-indulgence, or are uninspired, rehashed affairs full of weak outside collaborators that only prove that the star's band of origin was greater than the sum of its parts.
Is Sol Niger Within self-indulgent? Well, let's see--in its original 1997 form pre-Version 3.33, Sol Niger Within was one huge 43-minute song titled "Antanca- The End (The Uncompounded Reality)" indexed into 29 tracks with bitchin' titles (to wit: "The Executive Furies Of The Robot Lord Of Death"). The Version 3.33 release axes a couple of those tracks and adds an 11-minute jam "Missing Time" and a rather pointless (both in length and title) bonus track "Ooh Baby Baby." Lyrically "Antanca" is basically a huge potpourri of every sci-fi theme Thordendal enjoys talking about (probably while smoking some most excellent reefer)--from alien abduction to the afterlife to evil Marvel demigod Galactus to the finite nature of the universe. This is mostly delivered through Thordendal's sinister and heavily distorted slithering vocal that is simultaneously less abrasive and far more disturbingly evil than Kidman's robotic growl. There are some spoken word passages as well.
So, self-indulgent? Sure, a little. But really, this album exists primarily as a showcase of ideas. Oh, and lots of blazing Fredrik performances. The man is all over his guitar neck here--one minute he'll be pounding out some excellent palm muted odd-time riffery (he overdubs his own rhythm guitar and bass), and then he'll spiral off into no-man's land with a staggering, alien solo that takes the ghost of free jazz and turns it into digital code, then a passage of faintly pretty but still discomforting minor-key guitar synth, and follow that up with a verse of sick existential musings while he plays an inexplicable imitation of a drill crossed with an air raid siren behind it. Suffice it to say, most contemporary guitarists will feel stingingly inadequate while listening to Sol Niger Within.
So will most drummers. Meshuggah skinsman Haake sits this one out, in favor of Morgen Agren of the Swedish duo Mats/Morgan. Lest you think Agren is some session hack chosen to make Thordendal simply look good, consider this--the man played with Zappa. Agren's performance is stupefyingly awesome. He combines Haake's internal metronome with a loose-limbed jazz/fusion delivery that makes short work of any complex odd-metered passage, layered fill, or elevator shaft-like time change. Agren functions as a supremely deft foil, trading off control and complementing Thordendal's wandering muse with rhythmic perfection. To add some flavor throw in some John Zorn-esque sax courtesy of Jonas Knutsson and discreet organ and synth touches by Mats Oberg on a few tracks, and you have an album for the ages.
This one-off (sorry guys, no Version 6.66 yet) wasn't just a springboard for Thordendal's apparent insanity either. A lot of ideas ended up being cannibalized for future Meshuggah albums--2005's Catch 33 revisited the 40+ minute song concept, and starting with 2002's Nothing the band opens up a bit more space for Fredrik's solos and a more organic feel to Haake's drumming. You can also hear ties to Meshuggah's prior work in selections like the conclusion "Tathagata," which revisits Thordendal's otherworldly guitar tonalities from Destroy Erase Improve's "Sublevels." In this light Sol Niger Within is best viewed not just as a standalone work, but as a lost Meshuggah album, and one that considerably advanced their evolution as a band.
... seriously though, were these guys separated at birth? Goddamn.
Sadly this album's been out of print for quite some time, though should you acquire the means *cough*internet*cough*, Sol Niger Within comes highly recommended to Meshuggah fans, along with listeners of other progressive rock and metal bands--Cynic, Gordian Knot, Atheist, King Crimson, Behold... The Arctopus, etc. etc. etc.
If any of the bands I just mentioned are Greek to you, start with Meshuggah's Destroy Erase Improve and spend some time rewiring that pathetic organic brain of yours. Then you might be ready to give this album a go.