The passage of time can seem like it’s moving so fucking fast that its almost surreal when sorting through candidates for the Yer Metal is Olde feature, and then suddenly realizing a significant album has crept up to a milestone anniversary which cannot be ignored. Such was the case when it dawned on me that Meshuggah’s groundbreaking sophomore classic Destroy Erase Improve celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015. Where did the time go? Long before the ridiculously stupid ‘djent’ term was coined, this innovative troupe of gifted metal musicians from Sweden was tinkering with something special. The seeds were planted early with their underrated debut Contradictions Collapse, a rough around the edges slab of thrashy Master of Puppets-inspired metal which contained just enough twists and curve-balls to hint at Meshuggah’s budding potential. 1994’s None EP had a far more unique and complex rhythmic style which formed a tantalizing prelude to the greatness that would follow. Said greatness was achieved merely a year later when the band dropped Destroy Erase Improve on unsuspecting metalheads and Meshuggah promptly etched their name in the history books.
Although complex arrangements and technical musicianship had well and truly been established in heavy metal, Meshuggah’s fiercely challenging and mind-bending take on extreme metal was something remarkably fresh and inventive. Destroy Erase Improve was ahead of its time and remains a landmark technical metal release that defies easy categorization. Meshuggah’s early thrash and death roots were wound tightly into an off-kilter and initially jarring sound spring-loaded with polyrhythms, odd time signatures, prog and jazz fusion elements and an experimental streak. So while Destroy Erase Improve’s technical mindfuckery was impressive and became their trademark, it would mean sweet nothing if it didn’t result in engaging songwriting. Thankfully Destroy delivered in spades. Propelled by twisty dynamics, aggressive energy and a keen sense of groove and melody, Destroy Erase Improve swiftly detonates stuttering blow after blow like a space-age battering ram with its wires crossed. The strange and fluid songs come off as coherent and memorable despite the intricate oddities contained within, but perhaps the most telling example of Destroy’s lasting legacy is just how intense and cutting edge the album still sounds 20 years later.
Classic opener “Future Breed Machine” sets the tone early and is one of numerous highlights on an album defined nearly as much for its consistency as its innovation. The song’s rapid short-circuiting rhythms and rewired thrash was unlike anything in metal at the time and when combined with the jazzy mid-song melodic break and Fredrik Thordendal’s brain-melting guitar work, Meshuggah boldly ripped down any notion of conventional metal. The syncopated stomp of “Soul Burn” gets downright groovy and the ridiculously tricky drum battery and fusion shredding at the song’s midpoint is to die for. Perfectly positioned instrumental “Acrid Placidity” demonstrated Meshuggah’s restrained and soulful side, before the fractured staccato crunch of the confusingly titled “Inside What’s Within Behind” takes hold and ramps up the intensity again. I could single out virtually every track for praise, but it’s an exercise in futility considering the overall quality of each and every song.
Drumming kingpin Tomas Haake’s signature style and technical ability was the formidable linchpin binding the dense riffage and liquid shredding of Thordendal and powerhouse rhythm playing of Mårten Hagström. The latter made his debut here and no doubt played a critical role in tightening up Meshuggah’s attack with surgical precision and helping fulfill their unique vision. Say what you will about Jens Kidman’s unusual vocals but the dude’s harsh shouts and growls, not to mention his excellent phrasing, fit the Meshuggah sound like a well worn glove, working like an extra rhythmic instrument and lending Meshuggah’s music a harsher edge.
While I concede I’m no fanboy and some of Meshuggah’s later work has been a little patchy, Destroy Erase Improve remains a landmark album of its era and in my own development as a metalhead. I remember being gobsmacked and admittedly a little overwhelmed by the jittery rhythms and technicality of the album. Yet I was compelled to persevere through the challenges and one of the most enjoyable aspects was tracking the maze-like structures and rhythmic patterns which have rubbed off on me with my lasting enjoyment of technical and progressive metal.
There’s fierce debate on what is the best Meshuggah album and while I concede they manipulated their sound in even more ambitious ways on subsequent releases like Chaosphere and Nothing, Destroy Erase Improve will always hold an extra special place in my heart and is arguably one of the most important and influential metal albums of the 90s.