By Adrien Begrand
It’s hard to believe, but prior to this year the closest thing we’d ever gotten to a proper Meshuggah DVD was the bonus disc that was tacked on to the 2006 reissue of the Nothing album. For one of the most powerful metal bands on the planet with one of the most rabid and demanding fanbases around, the fact that they’d gone more than 20 years without either a) a proper live video/DVD release, or even b) a measly live album is not only startling, it’s was just plain wrong. After all, we’re talking about an exceptional live act here, a quintet that replicates their taut, extremely complex recorded music to a stunning degree in a live setting. Well, after a very well-received album in 2008’s excellent obZen and a pair of successful North American tours, there was no better time than the present to give the fans what they’ve always wanted.
However, trust Meshuggah to throw everyone one hell of an efus pitch with Alive. Where many popular metal bands will often go the extra mile in giving their fans a feast for the eyes and ears (Cannibal Corpse and Amon Amarth, for instance), that’s not Meshuggah’s style at all. In a day and age where artists and their fans interact more and more closely, whether Twitter or studio “webisodes”, Meshuggah still likes to retain somewhat of a mystique, and that couldn’t be more apparent on the new release, which goes through the motions of giving us an “insider’s” perspective, but always keeps its cards very close to the vest.
In less talented hands, the 90 minute concert film that constitutes the centerpiece of Alive would come off as a sloppily arranged mess, but director/editor Ian McFarland’s footage is so well-shot and so tastefully edited that we can’t help but forgive him for making the whole experience a touch disjointed. A mish-mash of a dozen concert clips filmed in Tokyo, New York, Montreal, and Toronto, with cutaways to backstage footage in between songs, there’s nevertheless a remarkable consistency to the look and sound of all performances, so much so that it does actually flow naturally. That’s part McFarland’s doing, as his camera angles are all very similar from venue to venue, offering viewers excellent, unfettered views of every band member, but it’s also a testament to the band’s onstage prowess as well. Typically, they tear through each song with near-clinical efficiency, guitarists Mårten Hagström and Frederik Thordendal and bassist Dick Lövgren hammering out devastating rhythm riffs, Tomas Haake providing his inimitable percussion, and vocalist Jens Kidman barking out the often surreal lyrics authoritatively. The real strength of the band remains the lead soloing by Thordendal, gently droning melodies and atonal excursions that are more jazz fusion than extreme metal, an astounding, delicate contrast to the sheer physicality of the rest of the band.
With an audio CD of all the songs performed on the DVD as well as a few scant extra features, there’s not much in the way of band profiles, as Haake and Hagström are basically the only band members we hear from. In addition, and what is sure to rankle some audiophiles, no surround mix has been provided. The stereo mix by Daniel Bergstrand is outstanding, but the fuller sound of a great surround mix could have evoked the visceral power of a Meshuggah show even more. Still, considering just how wonderfully Alive is put together, from its facetious Alien parody on the embossed slipcase and the snazzy, tour book-style booklet inside, there’s not much call for complaint. The fans asked, and Meshuggah has responded in typically enigmatic, but always fascinating fashion.