Tool is a tremendously polarizing band, enjoying the support of some of the most driven fans in the world and having to deal with some of the most determined detractors out there. They are also an atypical outfit, creating music inspired by a number of sources which are very scarcely explored by the majority of mainstream rock musicians. For example, they toured with King Crimson and people at the concerts could hear Maynard James Keenan saying things like “we’ve been ripping these guys off for years”, referring to the progressive rock influence to be found at the backbone of all Tool albums after and including Aenima. I have to admit I’m biased about them, since their polarizing effect has not spared me – I am definitely a fan of their work, and of that work, the most satisfying for me has been and continues to be their third album, Lateralus.
There are so many elements to this music, so much thought put into it, it’s hard to know where to begin. Trivia would be one option – some of the drumming patterns on the album are based on the architecture of the temple of Solomon, at least according to Danny Carey, the stellar drummer providing the rhythmic Moebius strip to the band’s sinew and sonority. But merely referencing trivia is far from enough when talking about this album. I could speak about the powerful visual element which accompanies the music, due in no small part to guitarist Adam Jones’ background in visual arts. The title track has a ten minute long video, chock full of esoteric symbolism and truly mesmerizing imagery, as do most of their songs, with remarkable consistency, regardless of album. But then, the visual part, although a very good reflection of the band’s aesthetic and organic approach to music, is just a complement. I’ve listened to this album countless times while never seeing the extensive visual material they project at their concerts, since there are no official DVDs of any of their live shows – to film a concert would go against their concept of musician/audience communication. In the end, I’m left with the music itself, its winding, spiral patterns the only support I can truly rely on when trying to muster some words together.
Lateralus is probably one of the tightest, most succinct albums in rock history, which is quite a feat, considering it clocks in at around 79 minutes, and only stops there because of the limitations of the CD recording medium. You’d think such a long album would definitely allow for some padding, some demonstrative fluff, some sort of prosthetic appendage which would feel out of place after a few careful listens. In fact, it is my impression that even the silence between the tracks is carefully considered. The unrelenting, impeccably timed flow this album brings to the table is just staggering. It’s one of the few albums in contemporary rock which feels like it’s been conceived as a complete, spherical entity, straight from the minds of the musicians and onto the physical record. Save for The Mars Volta, I can think of no other still active outfit capable of such coherence and focus. Every note, every single scream of Adam’s guitar, every breath Maynard takes seem to be perfectly integrated, perfectly measured and placed for maximum effect, in a spectacular Ziggurat of sound so mighty it’s almost overwhelming. Never a dull moment on Lateralus, trust me. There’s so much raw creativity, so much coagulated idea poured into this record that it just ends up vibrating with a dark, fierce shimmer of energy, an almost ominous hum which doesn’t leave your mind once the record ends, but stays there, an opaque, obsidian sphere, a grain of pollen left in your mind after a proper instance of communication between artist and listener.
I say ominous because of the intimidating feeling of superhuman focus the album emanates – backed by Maynard’s superhuman feats of vocal prowess – but that doesn’t mean the album as a whole is in any way a dark, gloomy affair. In fact, surprising to many people, the message Tool is trying to send out is one of balance, full of positive imagery and uplifting correlations. The lyrics to Parabol and Parabola are some of the most refreshing I’ve ever heard, brimming with an almost liquid shimmer of hope and wisdom, in the deceptively jagged shell of sound the band encase them in. In a way, listening to this album feels a bit like watching extreme deep sea fish in documentaries. Every track seems like a skeletal, unspeakable creature of alien beauty, scary and ferocious. And then, with a slight change of viewpoint, one can perceive the bioluminescence slicing through the dark, the overwhelming efficiency of each joint and each movement of such an organism, the inspiring adaptability and unfathomable strength it possesses. From my perspective, Tool have provided the musical equivalent of a deep sea exploration vessel with Lateralus, a means to perceive yourself and your reality in a manner which, via tremendous pressure, shows that “the limits of your comfort and not your limits”, as a dear friend of mine once said. That isn’t to say that this music is difficult to listen to, nothing so crude as testing your comfort by simple shock-and-awe tactics. Tool bring the listener to these thresholds by focus alone, by exerting such intensity that their music can actually feel like a spiritual experience.
Like I said, big fan, right? I feel very lucky to know a few people in this world that share this same enthusiasm for this music, even though I’m not sure they’d put it in the same words I found for it. Tool has been, many times, the soundtrack to our unspoken, understood closeness and trust in each-other, so I guess this band has a bit more personal baggage for me than some of the others I’ve been talking about here. That being said, I hope you enjoy the samples of Lateralus I chose, and I’ll see you soon!