Any introduction I could give for TOOL wouldn’t make much difference as to whether or not you waste your valuable internet time reading this piece. If you’re intimately familiar with their music (two Eps, five LPs), they’re the greatest thing in the world and anything I say shy of erudition will have you ctrl+w’ing the fuck out of here. If you hate them, I’m guessing prog rock isn’t your bag and no amount of emphatic typing about psilocybin or lachrymology will change your mind (Q: should it?, A: Sure). Regardless, you aren’t likely to mistake the muscular histrionics of Tool for any other band, a feat which though insufferable for some, has the stamp of genuine, if not gangly, auteurism.
Though TOOL is often celebrated for their complexity, the intrigue of the band is not itself in the tonal riffing of Justin Chancellor and Adan Jones. Their songs often seem limited to the harmonic diversity of variations on Smoke on the Water, varying between pentatonic scale staples in hits like Stinkfist and Hooker With a Penis. Instead the band’s winding complexity comes from the polyrhythms on Eulogy and Forty Six & 2 and the compound time signatures of Jimmy. Drummer Danny Carey, Jones, and Chancellor layer elliptical tempos behind relatively simple notes that seem to endless spiral out and mutate through hemiola and legato. Together with frontman Maynard James Keenan’s impressive ability to pull melodies out of thin air with his voice, TOOL create an oddly smooth and rolling soundscape welcoming enough for several Grammy nods (but seriously, who reading up to here gives a shit about this?).
These essential elements feed into the progressive aspects of the album where suite-like construction is paired with moody density. Most songs break the five minute mark while Pushit and Third Eye nearly hit ten, traversing over song ambient stretches and digressions while the track sequencing itself is interspersed with interludes that range from 38 second noise bursts (Useful Idiot) to gags (Interlude) to industrial paranoia (Die Eier von Satan).
For those not dedicated to a descending study in TOOL-isms via online forums (consider yourself lucky), the ultimate listening experience will be disoriented, but that’s the point. Keenan’s lyrics are constantly working through this confusion. On Stinkfist he’s exhausted from overstimulation and wallowing in his insecure delusion on hit record Forty Six & 2. Even on Eulogy a song ostensibly about sending up a dead comrade, the narrator can’t decide if the deceased have “a lot to say” or “a lot of nothing to say.”
This is the central dilemma of Ænima and TOOL writ-large. Amidst the sonic multiplex, we are confronted with what could either be the veil-piercing sublime or high-concept toilet humor. In support of the former, we have Fibonacci sequenced song structures, numerological codes built into time signatures, and references to scholarly psychology. As to the latter, the album opens with a track about first-timers fisting their way to a revelation and peaks with a track called Hooker With a Penis where they compare themselves to a transgender sex worker (problematically, one might add). And though Forty Six & 2 and Ænema name check Jungian philosophy, it often seems like they’re more obsessed with Freudian anal expulsiveness than the cycle of abuse in Undertow. This is almost to the point where when “H.” rolls around you’re likely to think it’s about the titular preparation rather than a tender rumination on newfound fatherhood. But you could really just forego this analysis if you wanted to because it’s right there in the title: Ænima, a portmanteau of anima, the archetypal inner self and enima, a colonic endeavour which I need not explain.
TOOL have always been accosted by critics willfully blind to their smug self-awareness. They had good company among similarly edgy ironic acts like Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Primus, and Type O-Negative. Moronic critiques even went so far as to attack their fanbase, a low-blow against what were often times shy, nerdy youngsters finding solace and study in their favorite band. And for the Tool fans that really were insufferable, the band already beat the critics to it on “Hooker..” where they deliver one of the most penetrating cuts against hipster stans (not to mention Keenan’s tendency to berate hit own audience).
Ænima marked the beginning of TOOL’s signature architectonic where the dark, grungy alt-metal was reproduced in hi-fi and Keenan fully leaned into his critique of the rockstar-as-messiah cliche. And though their sound remains singular, artifacts from what most people consider “the ‘90s” are easy to find. The guitars grooved in mid-tempo with catchy, bluesy riffs while the band dynamics essentially consist of the Pixies-pioneered loud-quite-loud. Lyrically, angst with the Self and the System abound. The only things the narrator hates more than himself are “Sheeple” and “The Man”. A lot of these things can sound dated now as listeners are more likely to see Keenan as preachy and the instrumentation a little too tough-guy. You can’t really blame them; the band talked a big game of “third eyes” and mind-altering esoterica and it didn’t really pay off – I’ve been listening to Tool attentively for years and have yet to achieve karmic unity. So the legacy is up in the air.
When the long awaited fifth album Fear Innoculum came out this Summer there was love and hate, words like “genius” get thrown around while the other side just laughs. It’s a fitting duality for an album like Ænima that prominently featured the cynical countenance of Bill Hicks on special editions of the artwork and quotations from the revolutionary standup in the album’s liner notes. TOOL make themselves and their audience the butt of the joke while also stretching the limits of patience to only those who must be taking them seriously. Somehow they’ve managed to have it both ways, hitting number one on the charts and immediately selling out two nights at ScotiaBank arena for what will surely be nights of musical virtuosity and poop jokes.
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