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3 on 4 Polyrhythm in Meshuggah's "I" EP

Meshuggah are affectionately considered "math metal" by a lot of their fans and for good reason. Nothing's quite as funny as seeing people try to mosh in time to their chaotic and seemingly random rhythms. In their latest release, the "I" EP, the drummer highlights the 4 on 3 polyrhythm and I would like to highlight some ways that Meshuggah manifests it and makes use of some of its interesting properties.

At (5:40) Meshuggah bursts into an apocalyptic guitar solo supported by palm-muted tremolo-picked pedal tones and by the drums playing a 4 on 3 polyrhythm.

The polyrhythm shown in Figure 1 is successfully arranged around the kit so that it comes across to the listener as very disjunct and jarring.


Figure 1 (Double kick omitted)

Note that the "four" pattern has been giving to the loud and strongly noticable snare drum while the "three" pattern is distributed to the china cymbal. Whenever I play this rhythm on drums with identical timbres, I find that the 'four' is more difficult to focus on that the 'three'. It feels like the 'three' is the anchor that the 'four' rebels against. This polyrhythm within the "I" EP makes use of this phenomenon by lending the "rebel" to the snare and assigning the "anchor" to the cymbal.

As listeners we often hear a cymbal acting as a support for the rhythm section. (If you ever are finding that it's tough to mosh to Meshuggah just listen for the cymbals and you'll be fine.) This cymbal pattern makes us feel as though the passage at (5:40) falls within a steady triple meter. In this context the snare is punching us repeatedly in the face.

Also noteworthy is the way that the slow subdued "chug-a-lug" rhythm prior to (5:40) calms the listener. Metal is often centred around changes of atmosphere and this makes the polyrhythm much more effective when it hits.

The polyrhyhm continues until (7:47) when everything drops out except for a single clean tone guitar that seems to act like a windchime. Once again the contrast is excellent.

(5:40-7:47) is quite a long time for a single drum beat. I believe that this longevitiy and the treatment of the polyrhythm to various surrounding textures within that time period is evidence that it is a key soundmark in the song. Have a listen to it and see if you agree with my observations.


Feel free to contact me if you don't have access to the EP but for $12 Canadian it's definitely worth grabbing.


Meshuggah - Yiddish for "crazy"
Polyrhythm - The simultaneous occurance of two or more mathematically opposing rhythms
Timbre - Tone quality

If any more terms used here should be defined, please let me know.
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