TOOL — Lateralus (review)

TOOL — Lateralus album cover Album · 2001 · Progressive Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
3.5/5 ·
The Apex of Tool's Musical Achievement... With Asterisks

I was a Tool fan long before I became a prog nut, before even AENIMA hit the shelves. My band banged along to two-chord "Sober" for hours on end, and I learn a lot about jamming based simply on rhythm and your own muse. AENIMA was exactly what we young metalheads expected: a twisted, strange ball of angst with some of the most simultaneously literate and nasty lyrics in existence. Then the band was apparently gone (contract disputes) and one day I stumbled upon the first Perfect Circle album. I thought I'd found heaven. Textural goth metal, but without the minimalism (especially on guitar) that was my biggest beef with Tool. MER DE NOMS filled my eardrums over and over. So it was that when I heard that Tool was coming back with another album, I had extremely high expectations. I expected that Maynard's vocals would take a huge step forward due to the increased melodicism of APC, that we'd get more texture in the guitars, more fullness in the sound.

I heard the first single "Schism" played on the radio before I got the album. It was not what I expected. The riff was prototypical Tool but more intricate. Maynard's voice was no longer buried in the mix, but still within his Tool style. The lyrics displayed emotion and intelligence without simply being intentionally deviant. I was encouraged and I bought the album. I was almost entirely disappointed. The disc sat in my car CD player for a long time, but nothing on it grabbed me by the seat of my pants and threw me against the wall as AENIMA and MER DE NOMS had. Tool were no longer dangerous. Worse, they were starting to get boring. Though "Ticks and Leeches" drew on some of the anger that was the Maynard and Tool trademark, the band just didn't have the emotional impact without the depravity of "Stinkfist" or "Magdalena." Personally, after hearing Maynard sing against Billy Howerdel's guitar textures on APC, Adam Jones' playing (though better than previous albums) just seemed bland. I actually lost the album during a move, or maybe I sold it. I can't even remember. Some years later, 10,000 DAYS came out and I loved it. But that's another review.

When I started reviewing music online, I was shocked to find LATERALUS at the top of the list of all time prog metal albums. This made me think maybe I'd missed something, that I needed to give the album another chance. I borrowed my brother's copy (who knows, maybe it was actually mine) and after a few listens liked it quite a bit better than I had initially. At the same time, there was so much new music to explore that I really didn't immerse myself in the album until now.

LATERALUS, after multiple listens, is drummer Danny Carey's album. That is decidedly a good thing. He is the most talented player of his instrument in the band, and his interest in numerology and sacred geometry permeates the group's music. The progressiveness that Tool displays is almost all derived from the complex time signatures and polyrhythms Carey loves. Bassist Justin Chancellor has developed a genre-defining style to accompany this style, first seen on AENIMA but reaching its zenith on LATERALUS. Early in the 21st century, prowess as a bass player was often displayed by playing Chancellor's riffs, most frequently "Schism." While Tool has often been placed in the grunge camp, this rhythmic style (the entire basis for their sound) really has very little to do with grunge. The precision and complexity of the rhythm section is completely at odds with the garage ethos of the Seattle crew. The mathematical nature of this sound is at least half of the key to whether a listener likes Tool or not. If the strange counting of "Schism" makes your spine start to twist in a helical sway, you're likely a fan. If you find the repetitive figures boring, it's unlikely that Tool is going to be your band.

There is a middle ground, however, and I find it common among musicians. Most everyone agrees that Tool's rhythm section is superb, at minimum Carey. But it is with the founding leaders of the band that opinions begin to diverge. Maynard James Keenan is one of the pre-eminent frontmen in the last 20 years. When one thinks of a lead singer as a theatric performer rather than just a sound-maker, it is easy to understand Maynard and the band's popularity. His costumes, cagey demeanor, simultaneous inward and exhibitionist artistic style, are all classic characteristics of rock's greatest dating back to at least Jim Morrison. But like Morrison, Keenan's actual vocal abilities are limited. While he carries a tune without problem, he draws repeatedly on the same melodic ideas. Further, those ideas are often not that evocative. He is able to find interesting rhythmic places to sing above Carey's foundation, and his emotive capacity is good. But as a pure vocalist, he's simply limited. LATERALUS shows him more in the forefront without the annoying mix problems of the previous albums, but there are no great hooks here besides perhaps the "I know the pieces fit, cause I watched them fall away."

This brings me to guitarist Adam Jones. Perhaps no prominent metal band has had a less intersting guitarist than Jones. His role early in the band's career seemed limited to mild embellishments of the grooves set up by Carey and Chancellor. While most bands are criticized because the bass player simply follows the guitars, in Tool, it's the other way around. Jones does add sustained notes of various tonalities (wah, feedback, slide) that serve the function of pads (ambient sounds) but there are essentially no leads. To say it a little more clearly, his guitars serve no melodic or rhythmic purpose, and their harmonic role is only limited. To be fair, his role has improved with every album and I think it's actually best on 10,000 DAYS (probably why I like it most, being a guitarist.) On LATERALUS, he finally takes an independent role in some places, vastly improving from AENIMA. Again, the contrast between his minimalism and the experimental textures of Billy Howerdel (previously his guitar tech) of MER DE NOMS is like comparing a black and white sketch to a color painting. While black and white can be powerful in certain artistic situations, it limits the artist severely. In Jones and Tool's case, some color would have helped.

My favorite parts of LATERALUS are rhythmic: Carey's drum break in "Ticks and Leeches," the tribalistic toms of "Reflection," and the intertwining pieces of "Schism." The album is more complete and consistent by far than any of the previous albums. Unlike AENIMA, I can listen to it straight through and turn around and do it again. The members seem to be drawing on their own artistic creativity rather than shock value, which is certainly something to be admired. In addition, the band is pushing their personal ideals (regarding mathematical concepts) on this album more than any other. I appreciate the album much more after the additional listens I've given it for this review.

But there is still something a little cold about the album. Too much brain, not enough heart. An admirable effort and an important piece of metal history, but in my opinion Lateralus is not the masterpiece it gets credit for.
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