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Perfect circles
Tool connect on Lateralus


It’s been five years since the last Tool album, but fans of the seminal alterna-metal band probably won’t need to hear much more than the first track off the new Lateralus (Volcano; out this Tuesday) to declare it worth the wait. Clocking in at over eight minutes, “The Grudge” has all the elements of classic Tool: a recurring tribal drum groove, some devilish guitar/bass interplay, and spellbinding whisper-to-a-wail vocal gymnastics from singer Maynard James Keenan. It’s cleverly bombastic, with no discernible chorus and a cagy Zep riff to counter each meditative comedown. Keenan sounds bitter but not vengeful: “Wear your grudge like a crown,” he leers at his fellow transgressors, then urges them to forgive those who trespass against them with a shout of “Let go!” A tom-tom barrage brings the song crashing to an end, and there’s no doubt Tool are back — and sounding better than ever.

Five years between albums is a long time, even in this day and age. To their credit, though, Tool have hardly been sitting on their thumbs since the release of Aenima (Zoo), in ’96. They went on tour with the last Lollapalooza in ’97 and one of the first Ozzfests in ’98; while they were on the road, the none-too-commercial Aenima steadily grew into a rock-radio mainstay. Around the same time, they started entertaining offers from other record labels because, they claimed, Zoo had forgotten to pick up their option. Zoo (now Volcano) countered with a lawsuit, and the two parties engaged in a protracted round of legal battles that dragged on until late last year, when they released Salival, a DVD/CD box set of videos, live recordings, and other rarities. Meanwhile, Keenan joined forces with former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel in A Perfect Circle, whose Tool-like debut, Mer de Noms (Virgin), came out last spring and quickly went platinum.

All of which helped whet the rock world’s appetite for Lateralus, an almost 80-minute disc that’s both heavy and spacious, complicated and oblique. The first 45 minutes follow the somber, art-rocking precedent set by “The Grudge” — and, thus, pretty much every Tool hit since their early-’90s MTV breakthrough, “Sober.” The band drift further into abstraction on the disc’s second half, shifting their prog stance from jumpy to comfortably numb and often relegating Keenan to the background. It’s a subtle switch that amplifies the jarring intensity of the rock stuff and brings the album to an unsettling close.

Perhaps inspired by the lighter, more pop-influenced tunes he’s been singing with A Perfect Circle, Keenan doesn’t cross the line from darkness to ugliness in his lyrics as often as he has in the past. The first single from Lateralus, “Schism,” is a troubled love song where things don’t really work out, yet its most memorable line is a hopeful bit about “finding beauty in the dissonance.” The APC analogy is tougher to extend to the rest of the band, who are still toeing the prog-Sabbath line. But alongside the vintage Tool monster riffs in “Schism” lie tender, intertwining melodies from guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor. Still, you could fit about two of APC’s “3 Libras” (six libras?) into “Schism,” and that’s one of the shorter songs on the album.

Tool push their keen sense of dynamics to the extreme here. The disc’s sprawling arrangements never sound forced: guitar, bass, and drums weave casually in and out of the mix in various combinations while drummer Danny Carey’s mid-tempo tribal beats provide a solid rhythmic anchor. Halfway through, the band pull off a gorgeous two-song suite (“Parabol,” “Parabola”) built on some surprisingly romantic lyrics from Keenan. “This body holding me/Reminding me that I am not alone/This body makes me feel eternal/All this pain is an illusion,” he cries at the end of “Parabol,” with only a quiet strummed melody from Jones backing him up. He repeats those lines at the beginning of “Parabola,” only this time the whole band kick in with that postmodern Zeppelin bash they and Rage Against the Machine nailed so well at the dawn of the ’90s. “This holy reality/This holy experience,” sings Keenan, harmonizing with himself on what’s the closest thing to a pop chorus on the album. He doesn’t quite sound joyous, but “Parabola” is certainly more uplifting than what we’ve come to expect from Tool.

So Lateralus is a subtle departure for the band — there’s more beauty in its dissonance and less overt diabolical shock value. But it’s still creepy and puzzling enough to placate fans who revel in the group’s dark, mysterious haze. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tool in ’01 is how — a good decade into their career — they’re still winning fans among the suburban adolescent hordes that keep hard rock on the charts. Tool were definitely at the metal end of the alternative-rock spectrum, but that was where they made their name, and their ’93 debut, Undertow (Zoo), will probably always be remembered as an alternative-nation classic more than anything else. Check out the rest of the bill from the band’s Lollapalooza ’93 coming-out party (Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr., Primus — all, like Tool, working their first or second major-label discs at the time, and all since drifted into nostalgia) and their continued relevance seems even more shocking. Even the mighty Rage are history now.

But metal has become the ultimate legacy of grunge (as much as he dreaded it, fragile indie snob Kurt Cobain pretty much figured it would turn out that way), and today Tool are the well-respected pre-Korn godfathers of rock radio. In a dubious attempt to legitimize this claim, the rock press has accorded a soapbox to one of its fiercest enemies, Fred Durst. “Tool’s probably the best band on the planet. They’re too good. They know something that the rest of the world doesn’t know,” goes the oft-repeated (most recently in the current Spin cover story about the band) quote from an MTV News interview with the Limp Bizkit frontman. Given the source, that’s a decidedly half-ass compliment; listen to the detuned, Undertow-style rantings of Deftones, System of a Down, or Korn themselves to get a better grasp of Tool’s towering influence on new metal.

Unlike their Lollapalooza peers, Tool are not yet ready to leave all the heaviness to the kids. There are no outright concessions to new-metal radio on Lateralus, but “Ticks and Leeches” will surely be a favorite among the Korn kiddies. It’s the fastest, angriest, and most literal song on the album. “Suck and suck/Suckin’ up all you can/Suckin’ up all you can suck,” Keenan spits out at the beginning, sounding not unlike Korn’s Jonathan Davis at his most feral. It’s hard not to take the song as a dig at the band’s record company, à la the similarly themed Nine Inch Nails oldie “Suck,” from Trent Reznor’s infamous anti-label screed Broken (Interscope). “Is this what you had in mind?/’Cause this is what you’re getting,” rages Keenan during the chorus. As the band thrash things up at the end of the song, he has one last thing to say to his unidentified nemesis: “I hope you choke.”

That line, you might notice, is a direct quote from the most celebrated of all contemporary prog masterpieces, Radiohead’s OK Computer (Capitol) — and it couldn’t be more fitting. American metal is filled with bands trying to make a heavier version of OK Computer these days, but Tool are the only one with enough nerve to emulate Radiohead’s business strategy as well. Security around Lateralus has been even tighter than what surrounded Kid A (Capitol), and Tool’s reverse-promotion tactics seem to have generated just as much rapturous expectation as the similar campaign for Radiohead’s blips and bleeps did last fall. The band have lightened up on their usual interview embargo (along with Spin, you’ll also find them on the cover of the current Guitar World), but image control remains very much a part of the Tool agenda.

Of course, Keenan sings “I hope you choke” with a hell of a lot more bile than Thom Yorke could ever muster, and Tool certainly don’t equate staying out of the spotlight with giving up the rock, as Radiohead have. But they do employ a similar bevy of prog parlor tricks on the new disc, including at least one static between-song segue (“Mantra”) that floats by inconsequentially enough to have fit in on Kid A. And the excitement does slow down once the nine-minute-plus title track kicks in: Keenan’s voice is suddenly obscured beneath a layer of effects, and the band start grooving on each riff about twice as long as they had been before. That’s followed by the hippie-ish “Disposition,” a pretty little ditty about watching the weather change with congas and everything.

But Tool are no strangers to excess, and your average dope-smoking teen will probably dig the trippy stuff at the end of Lateralus as much as the mind-bending math rock that begins the disc. Fans will no doubt love the obligatory disturbing sound collage that ends the disc too. That’s because Tool, like Radiohead, are that special kind of giant cult band who thrill fans by maintaining a secret code of weirdness even as they continue to forge ahead with their art. They may not trust the mainstream, but the mainstream is lucky to have them around.

Issue Date: May 10 - 17, 2001

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