‘Disintegrating As It Goes, Testing Our Communication’: 20 Years Of TOOL’s ‘Lateralus’
Was this the band’s last great album or the beginning of their slow slide into the mundane?
I have been known, uncharitably, to characterize the sort of music made by bands like TOOL as ‘school shooter music’.
I know, so insensitive. But consider for a moment the implications of such a jab. For legions of angsty white suburban Americans, especially boys, TOOL is that magical elixir of heft and brains, equal parts intellectually-sniping and cavernously-heavy. ‘Technical metal’ doesn’t even begin to properly define what TOOL does, and it’s perhaps the surest sign of their enduring station in the cultural consciousness that no one has really attempted to fully jack their style (except, um…Chevelle, and they soon moved on to aping Around The Fur-era Deftones instead).
The incredibly precise and serpentine riffing, the fragile wail of Maynard James Keenan’s tortured choirboy vocals, the smart-kid posturing and snarky philosophizing, and of course their game-changing animated music videos…all are inextricable hallmarks of what TOOL does well when they’re doing it well. They defined their own niche from the start.
But a million pasty teenagers in JNCOs scrawling lyrics of pain and rage onto their Chuck Taylors is never enough to ward off the specter of diminishing returns, and TOOL’s proven just as regrettably susceptible to this truism as any other mortal band of sweaty dudes in a million vans and green rooms. Hell, Maynard himself isn’t a culprit in just one such example, but two, the same fate having befallen his other project, A Perfect Circle, after an underrated and compelling debut. These days, Keenan seems more invested in his thriving winery, rallying the troops every so often to churn out another lackluster TOOL full-length, tour to cultists willing to wait out the dross to experience the classics firsthand, and collect their hefty festival paychecks. 10,000 Days found the group adrift on a sea of interstitial bloat and ambient filler; Fear Inocolum was the mandatory late-career ‘return to form’ long-shot that either pushed the band in surprising new directions or went over like stale meatloaf, according to which press outlets you follow.
So where did this all start, then? All of it: the absurd gaps between albums, the endless array of side endeavors and one-off projects, the suspicion that while the band’s fandom has never been more fierce, the salad days themselves may be long diminished? To a few, it started with Lateralus, that flawed but absolutely acceptable follow-up to AEnima. And there’s the issue right there. Can you follow AEnima? Well, Maynard and friends at least dared to try it. They failed, but that failure still yielded precious fruit.
And really and truly, there’s some classic stuff here. Take it from someone who’s played in bands with more than one bassist who warmed up before practice by strumming those haunting opening chords of ‘Schism’. As always, the playing here is incredibly complex and multilayered, especially thanks to the delicate interplay between bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey. And there’s no mistaking that Lateralus is 100% the best sounding TOOL album, gorgeously produced by David Bottrill and the band to lend space and weight to all that distance between each of the four members’ contributions. Regardless, something ephemeral but necessary is lost in the tradeoff, AEnima’s sense of grit, filth, and danger sacrificed for the tasteful and elegant, the articulated and pure.
Where that leaves you as a listener depends largely on personal taste. Lateralus showcases technical pyrotechnics galore, that satisfaction of four brilliant musicians radiating in collaboration, but that glow means little else without any ambitious or compellingly-bitter songwriting to tie it all neatly together. It’s a muscle car with no engine.
‘Schism’ remains the highlight, though other moments surface from the depths to make fleeting impressions. The brief Adam Jones solo interlude “Eon Blue Apocalypse” sends a siren guitar lament heavenward, not too far removed from what many contemporaneous post-rock acts of the early 2000s were exploring, while “Mantra” boasts unsettling processed moans careening around the stereo field like ghosts freshly freed from an attic. Later, the churning and raw “Parabola” approaches something damn near AEnima’s effortless balance between the sacrosanct and the corrupted, while late-album keeper “Triad” sways unpredictably from shrieking feedback and tribal drumming through something like hypnotic grace. Otherwise though, a lot of these songs scan as “fine’. A bit autopilot, a bit TOOL-by-numbers. There’s no mistaking Keenan’s cathartic howl, one of the most achingly moving yet viscerally harrowing voices in metal, a genre populated with many lesser variations of the same, but Lateralus, for better or worse, is deadly serious business. None of the in-jokes and skits that banished the darkness in AEnima’s lighter moments reappear here. This is advanced trigonometry TOOL 101. This is PROG ROCK, y’all, with a capital P. They are Serious Artists, and again, it’s for better or for worse. And this is where TOOL have remained, flying a lonely flag atop a looming mountain few attempt to scale anymore, sighing wistfully.
And look, it’s somewhat a case of playing dirty pool to judge a band for not lifting to the same heights as their iconic masterpiece, and no one’s suggesting (I hope) that TOOL should’ve packed it in and called it a day following their second full-length. Bands in such a position either swing for the fences, with new directions and renewed visions, or they settle down to rehash more of the same, a dwindling sunset of lucrative Coachella reunion slots and documentary talking head retrospectives.
VIDEO: TOOL “Schism”
TOOL didn’t quite choose either path with Lateralus, and it’s to the album’s credit that they landed somewhere in the middle. It’s true that much of this material sounds hopelessly dated, viewed from the wreckage of 2021; all this unchecked fury of bored cul-de-sac kids in Best Buy uniforms slashing at boxes with box-cutters beneath the loading dock halogens likely reads as more than a little silly to any of us over the age of sixteen, but that’s also what makes Lateralus a fascinating and oddly comforting time capsule.
Teenagers and all their Big Feelings never change across generations. There’ll always be bands like TOOL to fuel their incandescence.