[Two and a half stars]
Directed by Ian McFarland
In the two decades that experimental prog metallers Meshuggah have been around, they’ve built themselves an image of inscrutability, largely like their music. In this time, the band have released six studio albums and five EPs but their rabid fanbase had to look to dubious quality bootlegs if they wanted to access to any of the band’s live material. Meshuggah gave fans a reason to rejoice when they announced Alive, their first full-length live DVD but unlike the lush 20-year retrospective offered by bands like Cannibal Corpse (Centuries of Torment), or the stunningly detailed live performance of Porcupine Tree (Arriving Somewhere), Alive offers little beyond well-shot but fragmented concert footage.
The DVD follows the band on their promo tour for their most commercially successful album, 2008’s ObZen, with footage cobbled together from shows in Tokyo, New York, Montreal and Toronto. Starting with the monolithic ‘Perpetual Black Second’ in Tokyo, the band dives headfirst into the DVD with little small talk, as they unleash their eight-string fury on the placid audience. The documentary is well-shot, with plenty of up-close shots of the band and every band member getting a goodish bit of airtime. The fairly long songs are broken with little vignettes featuring each band member that tell you frustratingly little about them or their journey to this point here, as one of the most acclaimed metal bands on the scene.
Most songs open the same way. Vocalist Jens Kidman assumes his distinct pose in the centre – arms outstretched, head thrown back with eyes rolled way back and lips stretched in a tight grimace – while the guitarists mill about restlessly. Non-Meshuggah fans will have a tough time telling one song from the other but for fans this is an aural treat. The band’s reproduction of the songs live is almost note-perfect to their studio recordings. The quality of the sound, though, dips when the camera moves into the backstage vignettes. Because the sound source here is the camera microphone and not the mixer output, it cracks and distorts when drummer Tomas Haake runs through a demonstrative drumroll or when Fredrick Thorendal tests his eight-string guitar during soundcheck. Another major flaw is that most of the DVD is shot in near-complete darkness with only the stage lights providing illumination, so when the stage lights go off for effect – which works in a concert setting – the viewer is left staring at a black screen. The crowd shots, though few, are interesting as the throngs try to mosh and headbang to the impossible polyrhythms of Haake or the off-time signatures of Hagstörm. The vignettes are shot in black and white which does well to preserve the mystique of the band, including some fantastic slow-motion shots of the band in action, but overuse and needless repetition wears down the wow factor in it.
If the performances on the DVD are anything to go by, Meshuggah shows are intense affairs. ‘Electric Red’ shot in Tokyo is an intensely immersive performance, drawing in the listener with its taut tension which find release when Kidman draws out his resounding bark into a goosebump-inducing tortured howl. The madly popular ‘Breed’ gets a similar response at the Club Soda in Montreal where the static but headbanging audience turns into a writhing moshpit as bodysurfers ride the downtuned waves of sound to the beat of Haake’s staccato polyrhythms. It’s an eclectic mix of songs here. Popular numbers like ‘New Millennium Cyanide Christ,’ ‘Rational Gaze’ and ‘Pravus’ find representation though curiously some of their most popular songs, like the much loved ‘Future Breed Machine,’ is conspicuous by its absence. Some of the more underrated songs, though, like the massive, percussive ‘The Mouth Licking What You’ve Bled’ and the ambient but heavy ‘Humiliative’ are a pleasantly surprising addition. The band remains humourless through most of the film, and the only bit of colour lent to the proceedings is when Kidman tries to get Tokyo’s famously placid crowd to drum up some enthusiasm. “It’s like a church in here,” he says, “isn’t there supposed to be some difference between a metal concert and a church?” to some scattered applause and muted cheers.
The most engrossing part of this incomplete concert film though is the making of Meshuggah’s famed video, the dark and very disturbing ‘Bleed.’ Director Ian McFarland, who is also the director of the DVD, takes us behind the scenes into the extensive prep for the shoot, the costuming and a look at the motley crew that make up the ensemble. (Incidentally, the man who plays the blood-spattered Zen monk is McFarland’s uncle.) The documentary concludes with a quick guitar tour by the band’s guitar and bass tech and a lowdown on Haake’s drum setup which comes across as an afterthought and does little for the flow of events. For die-hard fans, this might slake some of the thirst for a live experience from the band but for most other people, the wait for a definitive Meshuggah DVD, if not a career retrospective, continues.