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In the ubiquitous, pop-qua-pop, “Hot in Herre” sense, Meshuggah certainly isn’t popular. Not by a long shot. Yet the 15-year-old dark-metal outfit can’t be called unpopular, either. The technical-as-fuck Swedish outfit blew up in a big way after the release of 1998’s Chaosphere, receiving unprecedented mainstream attention. The Feb. 4, 1999, issue of Rolling Stone deemed Meshuggah one of the “Ten Most Important Hard and Heavy Bands Right Now,” right up there with Metallica and Black Sabbath. And earlier this year, millions of folks heard Ozzy’s son pissing off the neighbors with Meshuggah’s “Future Breed Machine” on MTV’s The Osbournes. Young Jack even talked Dad into adding Meshuggah to this year’s Ozzfest—virtually a pop genre in and of itself.

Meshuggah is a strange phenomenon, indeed. Chaosphere moved units that would make most metal acts green with envy and land any given bunch of indie rockers on a major. But the band that made it continues to be perceived as “experimental” and “extreme”—shorthand for mass-market irrelevance. To the mainstream’s credit, it’s amazing that Meshuggah has gotten as far as it has: The band’s music definitely doesn’t go down easy. Even though they engage in the same kind of thrash that has made James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich millionaires, the members of Meshuggah microscope in on the rhythmic aspects of the music—not its melodic ones. So while Metallica got haircuts, sold out stadiums, and protested Napster, Meshuggah reveled in nerdy hard-rock mathematics and won the muso hearts of everyone from, well, free-jazzer Ken Vandermark to the postpunkers formerly known as Don Caballero.

Though it can be faulted for a Rushlike obsession with odd time signatures, Meshuggah deserves tons of respect for sticking it out with its distinct transmetal sound, which eschews all subgeneric specificity. And the band looks way beyond metal for inspiration, too: Its 1995 masterpiece, Destroy, Erase, Improve, which deserves a place alongside such modern metal classics as Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood, features liner-note props to Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, and Bjork. Shit, even Tori Amos gets a mention.

Basically, these guys are heavy friggin’ mofos, but they aren’t total Cro-Mags. Though their drummer-penned lyrics aren’t gonna end up on anyone’s comp-lit syllabus, they’re not misogynist or Nazi or pure D&D fantasy, either. Nothing, the band’s fourth proper full-length and the follow-up to Chaosphere, is delivered chock-full of hard-boiled, futuristic verses. Its first track, “Stengah,” hits like Minority Report soundtracked by Slayer: “Your past a blurry patch in mind/Your future once, now thin dreams find/Toward the lights of need you strive/To drink into your vein the shine.” And “Perpetual Black Second” shows that Meshuggah has the self-reflective tough-guy thing down pat: “Caught in a moment of unforgiveness,” singer Jens Kidman spews, “in the snapshot of a hate-filled second.”

Of course, even if you don’t dig the sci-fi Hammett thing, the lyrics are easy enough to ignore: Kidman’s gruff, nearly rapped vocals behave almost like percussion. This ain’t no Robert Plant-is-coming vocal-cord apocalypse; Kidman hawks out words as if he can’t stand their taste in his mouth, rarely sustaining his notes at all. And it works just fine, ’cause most of Nothing shows off yet more of the group’s unrelenting rhythmcentricity.

Speedy cog-in-groove rockers like “Stengah” and its follow-up, “Rational Gaze,” are choice examples of everything lovable about Meshuggah’s polyrhythmic jive: Harmonically, the main riffs to both songs are Ramones-simple—just a couple of two-string power chords—but rhythmically they’re complex and devastating, like Steve Reich cranked to 11. As guitar and bass crunch away, mirroring the stuttering kick drums, Kidman and drummer Tomas Haake drop syllables and snares into the open spaces, creating something that sounds more like a factory assembly line than rock ‘n’ roll. Even guitarist Fredrik Thordendal’s Morse-code solos—rendered on eight strings instead of a measly six—are more reminiscent of right-angled Thelonious Monk improvisations than any kind of hubristic rock wankathons.

It’s a great formula, and the band has stuck to it. Indeed, what make Meshuggah albums notable are their minor deviations from such noise-drenched beat-fetishism. The single-minded Chaosphere gave us none, and the result was that every punch hit with equally numbing force. Nothing, by contrast, seeks to soften its blows by replicating the more varied Destroy, Erase, Improve. “Closed Eye Visuals” melts into jangling, unaccompanied guitars after Thordendal’s Allan Holdsworth-esque jazz-fusion solo. “Straws Pulled at Random” contrasts some more easy-listening noodling and squeaky-clean rhythm-guitar lines with macho drum and bass punches. And the instrumental filler track “Obsidian” finishes off the disc with chiming, flanged eight-string drone.

As on Destroy, Erase, Improve, these dynamic shifts are as welcome as an Arctic breeze in August. Elsewhere, though, Meshuggah tries too hard to broaden its sound further, turning in cuts that recall nothing so much as decade-old American postpunk. Many of the band’s finest earlier tracks—”Future Breed Machine,” say, or Chaosphere’s “The Mouth Licking What You’ve Bled”—achieved pure sonic bliss because they shredded through their changes at seemingly impossible velocity. But there’s nothing special goin’ on when Meshuggah slows down: “Nebulous” feels so possible it’s boring; it imitates Liar-era Jesus Lizard and loses both speed and rhythmic complexity in the process. And the murky, midtempo cuts “Organic Shadows” and “Spasm” offer more of the same: Midwestern-style noise rock that’s precise but not nearly fast enough to swing. It might make some of Meshuggah’s newish punk fans feel at home, but it ain’t gonna slay the Ozzfest crowd.

That said, Nothing is hardly the world’s worst Meshuggah disc. And even that wouldn’t be so bad. After all, gettin’ your brain fried with Kidman & Co. has always been at least as fun as gettin’ it started with Nelly. But it’s too bad that this is where the hype has led us. Meshuggah’s past now sounds fresher than its present—and that’s a bad place to be when sitting on the brink of a commercial breakthrough. CP