The Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers

#5: TOMAS HAAKE (MESHUGGAH)

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MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine The Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! The only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) play drums (double-duh), and c) have recorded something in the past five years. Today we continue our countdown with Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake…

I have two drummer-related memories when it comes to Meshuggah. The first is from talking with a drummer friend of mine after he first discovered them (he was a fairly late convert to the band). And him being a drummer, when Tomas Haake came up, I mentioned how I thought he really wasn’t that great due to his what I took to be his very simplistic playing. His face registered shock, like I’d told him that Atreyu were one of the great death metal bands or Al Gore had been president for the last eight years. “Actually, he’s doing a lot of really complicated stuff, especially with his feet,” he replied. And I took him at his word — seeing as he actually plays drums and I just know enough to sound alright when drunk at someone’s house if they have a drumkit in the basement — but continued to think what I thought.

But for about a year after that, every time I threw on some Meshuggah, I paid attention to what Haake was doing, and, good God, was I ever fucking wrong.

What I’d been mistaking for simplicity was actually reining in the arhythmic center of the music; had Haake been playing the sort of flashy stuff most often associated with “good drumming,” Meshuggah would be an unlistenable mess. But being the anchor he is, Meshuggah stay on point, though that certainly doesn’t preclude him from playing well and playing interesting things. By acting as the band’s brain, Tomas Haake controls the vital organs that flesh out the rest, which is what a strong drummer should fundamentally be doing to begin with.

His drumming style is as instantly recognizable as the band’s: stripped-down-yet-complex, relentless, and of course, the constant bashing of a cymbal to create the false sense that Meshuggah is a band you can reliably nod your head to (this of course was ripped off by metalcore for breakdowns, almost every single one of which owe a great debt of gratitude to Meshuggah). By design, the band isn’t easy to swallow, endlessly employing bizarre time signatures and polyrhythms to foster an environment of near-constant change. And yet, they don’t devolve into noise, but create a strange sense of normalcy in their abnormal approach to riff-writing. Keeping all the pieces in place is an important part of that.

When I saw Meshuggah open for Tool back in 2002, one thing I gradually noticed was that neither of the guitarists nor bass player headbanged in unison; at their closest, one was still off. Haake has to internalize this rhythmic disparity while simultaneously keeping it in check. It’s one thing to be able to employ polyrhythms; it’s another to utilize them in a way that’s interesting to anyone outside of the guys playing them. The fact that Meshuggah can make the colliding nature of polyrhythms — essentially programmed to sound like a mess to the Western ear — even somewhat palatable is a feat unto itself. Tomas Haake, like a stern-yet-smart parent, keeps Meshuggah in line, letting the stuttering and uneasy riffs breathe when they need to without letting them wander too far outside the band’s preset boundaries.

But like how a stern-yet-smart parent won’t be as permissive or “cool” as a parent a kid’s friends will be likely to adore, what Haake is doing is more subtle and yet more effective than someone rolling out four-armed Neil Peart fills. My second Meshuggah/drummer memory draws on this: my roommate moved his drumkit down to our Experiencing the Arts classroom (a class that was more than a little redundant for people with arts-related majors like us) and, as part of his final project, played a drums-only version of “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, justifying it by explaining all the different elements at play. I was new to Meshuggah at the time, so I wasn’t all that familiar with the song. But when I would discover it later on, his playing stuck with me. Whereas the visceral focus of Meshuggah is the 7-string (and later 8-string) pummeling of Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström, the base of it is all Tomas Haake, seeing as the band’s music is so thoroughly based in rhythm (remember when the band threw in 5 or 6 notes in a melodic pattern at the end of “Straws Pulled at Random” and it blew your fucking mind, because holy shit, you didn’t know they could do that?). The drums were deliberately constructed with not a note there for any reason other than function; no random rolls or superfluous cymbal splashes. And yet, it wasn’t dry or dull. It was evocative, enthralling, and a composition unto itself.

To this day, during that closing section of “Cyanide Christ”, the only thing I hear is the drums, because they’re tied tightly to that memory: we were all covering our ears in that small classroom as the song’s previously thunderous sections became even more thunderous as it ramped up to a close. And even though I can hear Thordendal’s queasily chiming leads over Hagström’s avalanche rhythm playing, it’s all a reaction to what Haake is doing, not the other way around. A good drummer can shape a good riff; a great one becomes its nucleus, crafting a pattern unique enough that the other music over it becomes gluttonous icing. There aren’t many other metal bands more reliant on rhythm than Meshuggah, which is why no one other than Tomas Haake belongs at the helm.

-SO

THE LIST SO FAR:

#6: Gene Hoglan
#7: Danny Carey (Tool)
#8: Proscriptor McGovern (Absu)
#9: Chris Adler (Lamb of God)
#10: Sean Reinert (Cynic)
#11: Dave Witte
#12: Navene Koperweis (Animals as Leaders, Animosity, Fleshwrought)
#13: Dirk Verbeuren (Soilwork, Scarve)
#14: Kevin Talley
#15: Morgan Rose (Sevendust)
#16: Stef Broks (Textures)
#17: Blake Richardson (Between the Buried and Me)

#18: Aesop Dekker (Agalloch, Ludicra, Worm Ouroboros)
#19: Shannon Lucas (The Black Dahlia Murder)
#20: Ben Koller (Converge, All Pigs Must Die, United Nations, Acid Tiger)
#21: Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantômas, Grip Inc., Philm)
#22: Paul Bostaph
#23: Phil Dubois-Coyne (Revocation)
#24: Jade Simonetto (Hate Eternal)
#25: Mike Portnoy (Adrenaline Mob)

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