Before the 2001 release of Tool's near-masterpiece Lateralus, the more progressive form of heavy metal seemed dormant for the better part of a decade (aside from the earnest, yet dull Dream Theater), with the genre's last great hurrah led by French Canadian stalwarts Voivod and their superb albums Dimension Hatross and Nothingface. However, unbeknownst to people like yours truly who lost track of the genre in the early 1990s, amid the churning, speed metal-influenced, doomsters of the metal subgenre called grindcore, a Swedish band with a Yiddish name was working on a sound that, in 2002, is now set to put the entire metal world on its ear. That band, called Meshuggah, have emerged this summer, four years after their last album, with a growling, monstrous, psychotic epic entitled Nothing. While bands like System of a Down, Tool, Soulfly, and Slipknot continue to try to stretch the limits where nu-metal can go (with varying degrees of success), Meshuggah have managed to do what by now was unthinkable: create metal music that is completely new, musically far beyond what anyone else has attempted in the past 10 years.
Nothing is an extremely difficult album to review, simply because it's an extremely difficult album to listen to. What does it sound like? Nothing you've ever heard before, believe me. If avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor had grown up as a Scandinavian headbanger, he be in a band like Meshuggah. Yes, there are the requisite power chord guitars, relentless, pounding drums, and growled vocals, but like the inimitable Mr. Taylor, Meshuggah, as far as musicianship goes, are in a world all their own. Hearing Nothing for the first time is like hearing Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Ornette Coleman's Dancing in Your Head for the first time: it all registers as nothing but noise. But like those classic albums, this one, too, benefits from some close, careful, and open-minded listening.
It's the combination of the off-kilter guitars of Marten Hagstrom and Fredrik Thordendal, the stuttering, jazz-like cadence of Thomas Haake's drumming, and moments of ultra-low, subwoofer-rattling, golgothan notes that get your attention immediately, but then those wacky Neil Peart-on-acid polyrhythms kick in, and you're completely thrown for a loop. The guitars and drums sound like they're playing different songs (very much like Coleman's "harmolodics" experiments in the early 1970s), but oddly enough, they still sound in synch. It sounds utterly cacophonous, but essentially, it's very simple. Now I'm not the biggest musical technician, but the method Meshuggah uses is something called "rotating time signatures". The guitars and bass plow along in ungodly-sounding time signatures, but if you listen to the first thirty seconds of a song like "Rational Gaze", and carefully count out drummer Thomas Haake's beats, you'll hear he's playing a surprisingly simple 4/4 time, hitting the snare on each third beat, for 16 bars. At the same time, the guitars and bass are counting the same quarter notes, albeit in a different time signature, and eventually, both sides meet up again at the 64th beat. It's simultaneously dizzying and mesmerizing, and it's so precisely performed, it never veers out of control.
Nothing is a 53-minute exercise in technical proficiency, with nary a hit single to be found, but still, there are plenty of awe-inspiring moments. Aided by their custom-made eight-string guitars, the low, grinding, bent-string notes hit during the opening of "Stengah" provide as menacing a sound as I've ever heard on a metal record. The rhythmic syncopation by the band during the verses of "Perpetual Black Second" is astonishing, as is the sudden, mellow interlude five and a half minutes through the relentless "Closed Eye Visuals" that goes for close to a minute before exploding into a chaotic, intense final verse. Haake's polyrhythmic drum intro in "Glints Collide" is as much a feat of athleticism as it is an example of great musicianship. The very downtempo, Sabbath-meets-Tool slogfest "Nebulous" is brutally heavy, as is the aptly titled album closing instrumental "Obsidian", whose massive, repeating riff serves as a bit of a cool-down period (albeit creepy) after close to an hour of exhausting technical gymnastics.
But what the heck do these guys sing about, you may wonder? If you have the CD, and really want to know, Meshuggah don't make it easy to find out. In an inspired act of cruelty to listeners, the CD booklet has no liner notes, lyrics, or credits whatsoever, just the faintest hint of one word: ingenting, which is Swedish for "nothing". Instead, if you want all the album details and lyrics, you have to read them via CD-ROM, and even worse, you can't play the CD while reading the lyrics. So, if you really want to know what Jens Kidman is screaming about (or if you have to review the CD), you have to go to some rather extreme measures (in an act of desperation, I copied them all down).
When you do manage to read the lyrics as the songs play, you discover another dimension to Meshuggah's music. Written mostly by Haake, the lyrics are far more thoughtful, and far less whiny than most nu-metal bands today (including Tool). These lyrics, while centering around the tried-and-true theme of doom that befits the genre, show great depth and creativity. This verse from "Rational Gaze" is surprisingly perceptive, and is such a relief from hearing people like Korn's Jonathan Davis moan on and on about how miserable he is: "Our light-induced image of truth -- filtered blank of its substance/As our eyes won't adhere to intuitive lines / Everything examined. Separated, one thing at a time / The harder we stare the more complete the disintegration." "Perpetual Black Second" has Haake musing about a split second of blinding rage, yet instead of taking this theme and going on a Slipknot-styled antisocial rant, Haake writes something more simple, and much more jarring: "Please forgive the evil in me."
All the ingredients come together most perfectly on "Spasm", during which Meshuggah blow away Tool at their own game. Over an intricate, pounding riff that's underscored by chiming guitar harmonies, Kidman tones down his typical yell, coming in with a vicious, Maynard James Keenan-like multitracked snarl, singing lyrics that are as graphic as anything William S. Burroughs has written, and like the late Burroughs' own speaking voice, there is a scary sense of clinical detachment in the delivery, as Kidman sneers, "Vertebras and spinal columns unaligned/Joints shattered and torn apart. Spasm-rendered distortion/Organic spiral. Stretched and torn into a new creation."
Although Kidman does a great vocal job on "Spasm", his by-the-numbers, gutteral, nu-metal yell remains the bands weakest part, and Kidman's relevance in the band can be further questioned by the fact that the drummer writes most of the lyrics. Still, with the lyrical subject matter being as it is, at times it seems to mesh well with Kidman's robotic voice. Besides, the music provided by the other four members of the band is the key, and a more adept singer trying to provide a vocal harmony to this music would probably not work as well.
Meshuggah's efforts on Nothing should thrill any fan of metal music who has been craving something new and original. The key is not to be intimidated by the music; with repeated listens, the album becomes more and more fascinating, and after a few weeks, it will hold you in its thrall. Nothing is, like Haake writes in "Rational Gaze", "Where engines of the sane and insanity merge / The clarity. The unity."