10,000 Days

Undertow (Zoo ‘93) Rating: B+
Tool is a serious, and a seriously heavy, band, one whose pummeling attack and angry lyrics certainly aren’t for the faint of heart. One of the ‘90s and '00s most important and original heavy metal bands, on Undertow Tool delivers a murky (perhaps too much so) sonic assault that takes no prisoners. Adam Jones’ grinding, ultra loud riffage and a terrific rhythm section anchor an intense musical unit, but above all else it’s Maynard James Keenan’s powerful bellow - almost operatic in tone but retaining an everyman toughness - that sets this band apart. This is an extremely talented and together band who know what they’re after, and the unremittingly dark and intense Undertow, the band’s first full length album after their initial Opiate EP, is an at times frightening experience. That said, these long songs occasionally lag at times, especially on its rather nondescript second side, though the album has a collective power that any heavy metal fan should be able to appreciate. Highlights include the shockingly direct “Prison Sex,” whose final four words are utterly chilling, “Sober,” the moody, dramatic hit that broke the band big (great Keenan vocal on this one), the 7+ minute “Bottom,” which indeed does have a big bottom end along with rapid fire riffs and a spoken word guest spot from Henry Rollins, and “Crawl Away,” which won't crawl away once it’s inside your head (ok, it’s not that catchy but it is one of the album’s more memorable songs and I liked that line). Unfortunately, the album goes on for too long and may be tough to trek through in a single sitting. Again, although the overall intensity never really wavers, the songs on side two aren’t especially memorable and start to blend together after awhile. Plus, “Disgustipated” is a spoken word waste of time (with ironic “this is necessary lyrics”) that annoyingly begins with a minute of silence before moving from track 10 to 69 and then starting. Whatever. Elsewhere, “Swamp Song” is eventful for its hateful lyrics (about a “belligerent f***er”) and interesting lines like “you’re dancing in quicksand,” while “Intolerance” immediately sets the blistering pace with big bruising riffs and Danny Carey’s tribal drum assault. Flawed but often fascinating, Undertow is far more straightforward and grungy than its more expansive and progressive-minded successors, but it nevertheless presented a unique new voice in modern heavy metal.

AEnima (Volcano ‘96) Rating: A-
This long awaited follow-up is enormously ambitious, as Tool adds inventive new techniques to their increasingly complex, multi-layered attack, which offers much to occupy the listener. Darker and even more intense than when we last left them, Tool again showcases Jones’ grinding riffs, which have a sharper, serrated edge, Carey’s explosive tribal skin pounding, and some heavy bass playing from standout new member Justin Chancellor, whose versatile musicianship opened up new areas of exploration for the band. Also, AEnima further integrates melody within its fifteen frames, while better crystallizing Keenan’s powerful, deceptively hooky vocals within a stronger, cleaner mix courtesy of producer David Bottril, who had recently worked with obvious forebears King Crimson. This album demonstrates Tool’s rare talent for being both incredibly heavy and moodily atmospheric, and though some of the moody sections meander - I wish there was less buildups and more payoffs - the album rises to some awesome heights. Highlights include the massive 1-2 punch of the first single “Stinkfist” and “Eulogy” (raise your hand if you first heard of comedian Bill Hicks as a result of this song?), which is aided by its electronically manipulated vocals. Elsewhere, the somewhat over-the-top but satisfyingly hard charging “Hooker With A Penis” scathingly answers charges of “selling out,” “Forty Six & 2” creeps along awesomely and is hauntingly moody and bruisingly heavy, while on “Aenema” (superb single #2) Keenan welcomes Armageddon (and disses California) through hurtling rhythms. These guys are flat-out massive in every way when they want to be, plus Jones delivers lots of really cool riffs, Keenan's increasingly spiritual lyrics have improved considerably, and their songs continually shift shapes in interesting, creative ways. Still, there's definitely too much twiddling-my-thumbs down time, "Pushit" (9:55) and "Third Eye" (13:47) in particular perhaps being over-expansive and pretentious , though both have great moments as well (in fact they’re both typically singled out as album highlights, and for good reason), as does "H." (the last minute and half is phenomenal) and "Jimmy" (I love the evocative "coming home" incantations and appreciate its tightly coiled intensity in general). Anyway, this albums nine proper songs are weird enough, but interspersed throughout these songs are six absurdly strange segues, some of which seem pointless ("Useful Idiot," "Cesaro Summability," "(-) Ions"), while others at least add atmosphere ("Message to Harry Manback," "Die Eier Von Satan") or offer a light break in the action (“Intermission”). At a sprawling and at times ponderous 77 minutes AEnima could use some serious editing, as it’s even more difficult than Undertow to transverse in a single sitting. However, AEnima offers a remarkable world to get lost within for awhile, and despite its overall denseness and indulgent tendencies Tool has stayed true to both themselves and their (increasingly rabid, cult-like) fans while growing immeasurably as a band, resulting in a brutally fine album once you get to know it. This is the album where Tool really found their signature style as a trippy, monolithic prog-metal beast, as the band largely abandons verse/chorus/verse song structures in favor of looser arrangements and a further embrace of light and shade that brought the band beyond your typical metal audience. The band's dark, bizarre, artsy Jones-directed videos (in which the band members rarely appeared, at least not recognizably as themselves) and elaborate album artwork only added to their mystique, and it was with AEnima that Tool became an utterly unique entity, though to many they’re a love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition.

Lateralus (Volcano ‘01) Rating: A-
Whether you like Tool or not, you have to admire them for having a hit record as uncompromising as AEnima (the album hit #2 on the U.S. charts and went platinum three times over), which asked a lot of its listeners, who were up for the task. Anyway, after another long absence, caused in part by legal problems and Keenan’s time away with his very successful side project A Perfect Circle, Tool returned with this epic 79-minute monstrosity, which was easily the most highly anticipated heavy metal release of the year (it debuted at #1 on the U.S. charts). And if you liked Undertow and especially AEnima then you should also like Lateralus, which sees Tool as challenging and intense as ever. This album is more inscrutable and harder to assimilate than even AEnima; if ever an album required repeat listens it’s Lateralus, though the rewards are well worth it for you more patient listeners out there. Maybe the album could use a radio friendly chorus or two (even “Schism,” the standout first single here, isn't exactly an obvious choice), but this album really isn’t about individual songs, as the focus should instead be on the band's abundance of creative ideas and explosive ensemble playing. More than anything, Tool is a great group of players who have one of rock’s most compelling lead singers. This makes them well worth indulging, and they lack only a hookier songwriting touch and a producer who's willing to rein in their excesses. Fortunately, I was fully prepared for their excesses this time around, unlike with AEnima, which took me by surprise and had to grow on me over time, and though I still wish the band would tighten up certain sections and do away with some of their sillier segues, the band at their best are almost overwhelmingly powerful, particularly drummer Danny Carey, who astounds throughout. Again the band expertly mixes in moody mellower respites amid many explosive interjections, but even during their quiet, trippier moments the mood is always ominously foreboding; easy listening this ‘aint. Still, though the absence of truly memorable individual songs is a problem, Lateralus has more than its fair share of standout moments and lingering images: Keenan’s astounding 24-second scream on “The Grudge,” his moody, memorably hooky vocals on “The Patient” (I wish there were more such concessions to commerciality), the explosive, perfectly timed transition from the mood setting “Parabol” to its stellar sibling, “Parabola,” Carey’s eye-popping percussive flourishes and the angry overall tone of “Ticks & Leeches,” whose mellow-to-mighty eruption at around the 6-minute mark (after an extended period of down time) likewise hits the spot, the creeping, sneaky rhythms and combustible chemistry exhibited on the terrific title track, the ominous, eerie buildup of "Reflection" and its "before I/we pine away" vocal hook on the chorus (which again comes and goes all too quickly)...there are others I’m sure, but this is a really long album and I’m starting to run out of gas. Long story short, Lateralus was another seriously flawed and self-indulgent album that nevertheless falls only slightly short of the extremely high standard set on AEnima, and fans of the band already on board will certainly find much to digest and enjoy here during what figures to be a long wait for album #4.

10,000 Days (Volcano ‘06) Rating: B
Maybe I've listened to too much Tool lately, or maybe I'm simply getting too old to put in the sheer amount of work necessary to fully appreciate this album, but I don't hear anything here that the band hasn't done better before. Maybe Maynard is spending too much time with A Perfect Circle, but even more than usual this album (so named because his mother was paralyzed for 10,000 days) has too many boring mellower "mood enhancing" soundscapes and not nearly enough getting down to heavy business. Don't get me wrong, tracks such as "Vicarious," "Jambi" (which brings back the long-lost talking fuzzbox), and "The Pot" certainly rock hard, and this is definitely a Tool record through and through: Chancellor's bass creeps along, Jones' riffs churn, Carey's all over the place, and the overall musicianship is impressive. Also, Keenan is often compelling, and he even varies his vocals more than usual. This isn't always a good thing, though; he too often mumbles and he even delivers an odd high-pitched incantation. On the plus side, the lyrics on this album are Keenan's most personal to date, as songs such as "Wings For Marie (Part 1)" and "10,000 Days (Wings Part 2) are his most sensitive and vulnerable since the days of "Prison Sex" and "Sober." But as usual with Tool the album's biggest problem is that I'd be hard pressed to remember many of its individual songs, most of which are way too long, as is (predictably) the album itself. In short, most of Tool's fanatical hardcore fans (I've received quite a few "Maynard's too deep for you, man" or "you just don't get Maynard's brilliance, dude" e-mails) will be glad to get this long overdue fourth installment, while to everyone else it will seem like more of the same only not quite as good (or as heavy; there's much less "wow, these guys are immense" moments). Me, I wish that they would make songwriting a priority again and learn to edit themselves at long last, though in their defense these songs (all the band's songs, actually) sound much better live, where the band remains a fierce, exciting proposition, helped in large part by their spectacular light show. One final note: as per usual Tool spared no expense in the packaging; buy, don't download, but not before buying AEnima or Lateralus first.

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