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Meshuggah and Strapping Young Lad
May 9, 2003
Diamond Ballroom - Oklahoma City, OK

Nate Smith
Contributing Writer

When Meshuggah hit Oklahoma City on May 9, the band entered a city out of its mind. A massive tornado the night before had leveled a large chunk of the town’s residences and businesses; power flickered on and off, telephone poles tilted at insane angles and police cruisers from miles around converged on darkened neighborhoods to prevent looting and rioting. On OKC’s dusty streets, things seemed calm, slowly returning to normal. But inside the Diamond Ballroom, mindless carnage was given one more go at the city. Two of world’s most insane bands were in town, and their only agenda was to destroy.

First to take the ballroom’s stage was Strapping Young Lad, the hyper-thrash murderous oddballs led by the certifiable Devin Townsend. The group is decidedly odd-looking: Townsend himself is thoroughly balding, but sports a majestic blonde skullet on the back of his dome and tiny glasses on the front. Gene Hoglan, the legendary ex-Death drummer who mans the skins for SYL, looks to be as overweight and out of shape as a human being can get. As soon as the lights dimmed, however, the sheer sonic assault blasting from the venue’s PA overwhelmed any thoughts the audience might have given to rock-star vanity. Practically all of SYL’s 30-minute set was culled from their latest release, SYL, and each tune was reproduced with startling perfection. Townsend cut his teeth playing with Steve Vai’s band, and his guitar mastery is obvious in the live setting. Fierce fret board runs and furious double-picking sent mind-jellying riffs coursing through the cavernous country and western bar, leaving concertgoers unsure whether to try moshing to the blistering blast-beats or simply watch the logic-defying spectacle on stage. Hoglan, all 300 pounds or so of him enthroned on his drum stool, effortlessly ripped out double-bass patterns faster than any other drummer in the known universe. The athleticism required for the drum parts he plays must have been inborn, because the enormous man looked calm and dexterous as he wrecked his kit for half an hour. Thrashing punishers from SYL like “Relentless” and “Rape Song” caused the audience to sweat heavily as the intensity of the music filled their lungs and pores, exploding inside their ears with the numbing surreality of 20 September 11ths, but Townsend’s inscrutable stage banter and the band’s sheer physical presence continuously testified to the fact that the whole thing was ACTUALLY HAPPENING. It didn’t seem possible that a band so bizarre looking and tongue-in-cheek could possibly be playing this fast and heavy, but there they were, doing it in real time. It was mind-blowing, but the best was yet to come.

Few metal bands can follow the aural strike of a Strapping Young Lad set without seeming utterly tame by comparison. Meshuggah, however, can simply do whatever they choose. From the first song of the set, Nothing’s opening track “Stengah,” Meshuggah rocked the seasoned metal veterans populating the crowd harder than they’d been rocked in their entire angst-filled lives. The band’s custom 8-string guitars are tuned lower than even Peter Steele ever dreamed possible, and the sound of the tone charging through the axes’ hand-wound pickups is indescribable. The audience, which had been excited but subdued for SYL, exploded in an ecstatic reaction to music louder, more complex and more visceral than anything to hit the Diamond Ballroom before. Meshuggah proceeded to blow the doors off of the venue with the first three tracks from Nothing, their latest album, before digging into older material from the None EP and the Destroy, Erase, Improve and Chaosphere full-lengths. The crazy, odd-timed groove of “Rational Gaze” had every head in the room threatening to fly off its neck, and the voracious blast of the none-too-aptly titled “Sane” ensured that the ears of a few hundred Oklahomans would ring for nearly a week. In Meshuggah’s live spectacle, the Swedes employ nothing that could be considered “stage presence.” The three guitarists and drummer are content to merely flail their long manes in time to rhythms few others in the room could can follow, while frontman Jens Kidman stalks the stage with the wild eyes of a street-dweller looking for his next fix. What makes Meshuggah the greatest underground metal act touring today isn’t any sort of formula, but simply a batch of ingenious music that manages simultaneously to be the most dense and heavy batch of songs thought up on either side of the Atlantic. Newer tunes like “Closed Eye Visuals” melted seamlessly into older joints utilizing a mere seven strings, but the crowd was so thoroughly punished by the time the incredible closer “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” hit that the lack of an encore wasn’t even puzzling. Meshuggah had blown the expectations of everyone in attendance away like so much debris; their point had been made already.

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever see as heavy and extreme a one-two punch as Meshuggah and Strapping provided on this tour ever again. The show was like witnessing a biological weapons strike calculated to surgically obliterate any conception of what “metal” was 5 seconds before SYL’s first note. Fittingly enough, yet another tornado ravaged Oklahoma City as the bands created their own thunder within the rickety walls of the Diamond, seeming for all the world to be an unstoppable force of nature themselves. No fan of truly extreme music should pass up an opportunity to see either of these metallic brain trusts when given the chance, but for the sake of the safety and sanity of Oklahoma City, it may be for the best if Strapping and Meshuggah never join forces again.

Nate Smith is a Contributing Writer. Contact him at nates@rockzone.com.

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