Live: Meshuggah + Animals As Leaders + We Are Knuckle Dragger @ HMV Forum in London, 20/04/12

To what extent are Meshuggah “a metal band”? On record, it’s sometimes easy to forget; the band’s pursuit of polymetric rhythm in the evocation of something mechanical and alien has been at the expense of many of their metal ties, and it’s only with the occasional wail of thrash metal guitar solo – or the faster, chuggier tracks – that the association becomes visible. It’s a completely different matter in the live setting: synchronised headbangs in the midst of grand, rhythmically triggered light shows, feet resting on monitors, and even the occasional appearance of the claw, which is obviously reciprocated enthusiastically by the thousands in attendance.

With this is mind, it’s refreshing to kick off with something so loose and liberated (though not without its moments of sharp, punchy riff precision). We Are Knuckledragger fling themselves around the stage with greater concern for performance enjoyment than clarity of execution. A few low-end grooves and teased time signatures keep the Meshuggah faithful happy, while the band bring a physical energy for those open to the contrast.

The static stage demeanour of Animals As Leaders is more difficult to appreciate. Their music – an intricately arranged fusion of 8-string sweeps and drums locked into flashy, eternal solo – is treated like a trophy for admiration rather than a vehicle of musical energy, and while the swirl of fists and limbs in the pit suggested that this was ample for many, AAL barely looked up from their instruments to notice. Personally I found their repetitive and stiff performance a bit too cold and smug to love.

That’s not to say that Meshuggah are a particularly energetic outfit themselves, but this is undoubtedly compensated for by the imposition of their stage presence and the sheer weight of their sound. ObZen and Koloss take responsibility for a vast majority of the set – featuring “Bleed”, “Combustion” and “Pravus” from the former and “Demiurge”, “I Am Colossus” and “Do Not Look Down” from the latter, amongst others – and while many of these choices feel like safe bets, the set dynamic is smooth and somewhat effortless, carried constantly through various dips and arcs of intensity.

The most powerful demonstration of this arrives around the halfway mark. The blistering tempo of “The Hurt That Finds You First” comes off the boil and gradually eases itself into quiet, before the band leave the stage to allow the cyborg vocoder of “Mind’s Mirrors” to play out into the darkness. After such a relentless bombast of groove and low end, there’s an immense sense of relief accompanying the sudden contrast; it’s a chance for the crowd to breathe and recuperate before the inevitable 10 minutes of “In Death Is Life”/”In Death Is Death” shatters the respite. The band have certainly accumulated a fair amount of wisdom during their 25 years of playing live shows together, and they know the exact moment at which to momentarily withdraw the fist to avoid their fans becoming numb to the punch.

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