Tool’s Lateralus and Willful Withdrawal in a New Summer of Love

It is, of course, a brilliant time to be alive. Sure, there’s another idiotic president raising international tensions in hamhanded ways, but this one lacks ol’ Ron’s gift of the gab and is currently finding new ways to screw up and be compromised and attacked by both left and right, so I’m not too worried quite yet. And while part of me is convinced that somewhere somehow right now the past products of American foreign policy are about to result in something horrific, that’s something most people who have put their mind to it have expected for years anyway. So relax and enjoy the music.

Which is what I’ve been doing and a lot of other people as well. If the arc of teenpop is hurtling towards the ground or at least cruising rather than soaring, the arc of pop continues up and out, happily free and unconstrained as it tracks into the skyey void. Greedy, nobly devouring, the world is as always subsumed within its maw of an appetite, a capitalist/consumption metaphor that’s the best one to celebrate, since colonization of our aural memories is precisely the buzz we addicts need. Check out the blogs, search the boards, only the most cloth-eared deny the reality. Daft Punk and Air may already be canonized to the point of caricature, “Get Ur Freak On” now absolutely transcending cliche to achieve sheer stuttering omnipresence, and r’n’b’s snap-tight compression, refraction and live-wire nervous surge renders 1995 more bizarrely distant than 1981. And those are just some of the more well known examples, of course, while the pool of obscurities and revivals keeps sprawling out, a slow flow of ever more wonderfully strange past successes and spectacular failures now ready to be sampled, digested and reinterpreted by people who can’t care for 1974 or 1966 or 1933 any other way. Why not? The past deserves little more than shredding and recontextualization anyway, and 2001 will one day be mere plundered fodder for future mixes and doctoral degrees. The happy noises are already digital graves, but they’re great fun now and still will be later.

And I’ve been listening to an art-metal record the whole damn time.

Tool’s Lateralus smashed its way to the top in the week of US release. All eight million emo bands stopped puking in their milk long enough to pick up the new Weezer (only to all be betrayed by Rivers Cuomo himself, cheerfully pissing all over his flock by admitting the album was done only to sell records anyway and then wondering why people were annoyed with him), Missy’s fans sought more perverted bhangra beats and found other fun things instead, while REM’s and Depeche Mode’s following desperately crossed their fingers and hoped the sales would show it was 1990 again (and as the Depeche Mode following included me, I sent up a prayer). But all the people everyone hated — all the long haired old-metal types, all the lingering goth underculture, all the people so easy to make fun of for wearing shirts with the word ‘Tool’ on them that supposedly described what they were, all the ones who apparently do not/cannot/will not fit in the world of nu/bounce dichotomies unless they of course did, since ultimately the idea of a separate tribe from the Pop Metamind is a bit silly, the Venn diagrams show plenty of overlap as needed — were, if not buying the new Megadeth, buying Tool. Then most of them came back the following week along with all the Fred Durst disciples and bought the Staind record as well, but that’s an article I’ll let someone else write — like, say, someone who actually thinks Staind are anything more than a version of Metallica where the lyrics were written by a young Roland Orzabal and sung with all the grunting passion of a flatulent George Thorogood who hated blues. But I kid bald Connecticut-based rock band leaders whose mouths should be sewn up.

Tool, then. “Huh, they live up to their name,” etc., but I’m not here for an exegesis of defense. Accept that I like them or move on — and the thing is, I always liked them but didn’t really love them. Sometimes, though, it takes a little bit of anticipation and reflection to understand why something connects, it’s not always on the first take. Not every possible masterpiece suddenly slithers from the speakers to strangle your reflex against the unfamiliar and immediately burrow deep into your brain, careening inside your soul, and if you think that only applies to Dark Evil Music and not Happy Light Music, then you have a good mechanism at not recognizing the demanding, invasive nature of both, not to mention all the various descendants, hybrids and combinations. First saw Tool at an acoustic (!) benefit in 1992, then briefly the following year at Lollapalooza, then that was it. Found myself with each release without really planning on it — found them used, got a promo tape, they lingered. Seems like everyone else saw the videos, but then again I was without cable from 1992 to 1997 or so, and MTV’s all-encompassing grip was forever broken, videos mirroring commercials mirroring programs in a landscape of slick dread and hyperactive son et lumiere at once thrilling and fainting nauseous. A Perfect Circle reminded me that goth can still mean something, as laughed at in 2000 by most as it was in 1989 when I first really let myself take an indirect plunge into shades of black and self-conscious posing, perfectly hid in my own ‘I’ll wear my hair the way I want, thanks’ persona.

But there was enough going on with the usual major-label planted spin that caught my interest this time around, a sense of possible true anticipation. Buffed and polished by said major label, of course, release dates moved, video debuts held up, who knows, maybe the stock was set to split the following day from the final fixed appearance. I waited and heard the various reports with interest, and then I bought the record (the online community screams in bitter reproof, but nobody could find the mp3s until the album came out — unlike Radiohead’s ever so convenient ‘security breach’ with Kid A, Lateralus held its silence just about up to the very point of appearance, after which the matter was irrelevant). I am still in thrall two months on and will likely be for some time to come.

I am not hear to specifically talk about every song, certainly not much about the lyrics in and of themselves (Maynard James Keenan’s singing is another matter, wounded and raw while still perfectly conscious of how it is delivering at every point, of course Keenan is in control but like we like to imagine, the voice sounds like it controls the person, at its most tense suddenly bursting out from a startled body, at its most sorrowful and atmospheric a deep keening from some place were beauty is imagined as only being so when crucified, rained upon, drowned in dark waves), nor about guitar solos or the like (though it is interesting to hear how Adam Jones does not play, how he avoids the signifiers, how he wrenches blunt slabs of sound and sudden, surprising calm melancholy from what he plays, how there is nothing close to finger-shredding solos, how such flash and flair and individual shudder comes from drummer Danny Carey, who pays attention to people like Bill Bruford, who I know exist but who might as well be nothing more than glitch-techno rhythms slowed down, spun around and given acoustic warmth in order to seem more human). I talk about being lost in sound, about wearing an album as a carapace, drawing limits, disappearing within them, denial in order to increase the solitary pleasure.

None of which is to imply that I haven’t listened to other music, far from it (come on, there’s a new Beta Band album, a sort of new Pulp single and the Aaliyah album just came out too, among about oh eight million other things, and they’ll all be heard somehow, in some fashion, careening through time commitments I thought I couldn’t make initially but that’s life). But Lateralus is an album that here, now, for this listener, demands time and commitment when listening to it. Not necessarily repeated playing every day, not even playing more than once a day — impractical approach, really, you need space to detox and vary, or so it seems, others will likely disagree but they’d have to write something and not I. Put it on, however, hear the sudden doom and energy of “The Grudge” and its opening notes, and immediately the late 20th century model of beginning-to-end do-not-interrupt do-not-single-out do-not-reorder narrative vinyl-into-CD approach revives, grabs hold, sinks in deep. It reifies a dead model, it implicitly spits at radio’s current celebration of monopolistic variety, there’s a single, sure, but it’s long and won’t make its point and the video is too weird and will piss people off anyway but it got the airplay going just enough before everyone said “That’s nice” or “That’s not” and wondered why Christina Aguilera was not cast a robot in A.I. playing herself. Theoretically Lateralus shouldn’t be alive, especially since anything close to prog was already dead as an approach when the Jackson 5 took over the late sixties and then Marc Bolan smiled his way through sparkles, sure various hordes of shambling corpses occasionally peppered with people who hated most of said other fans still bought the records and went to the shows but the end result most of the time was the lazy uncle of the odious snot-rag kid that became Dream Theater — again and again. Lateralus has just enough of that stuff, though, which is where the problems begin — and it’s overtly goth as well! Never mind, go home.

Changing time tempos! Lyrics referring to alchemy and stuff Crowley did! Songs about ten minutes long! You gotta me shitting me! Get the fuck out. Do you still listen to Rush records as well? Grunge died, they were grunge right? And thus the usual from the always entertaining zeitgeist, which of course I’ll participate in whenever something which doesn’t catch my own fancy decides to intrude itself in popular consciousness, so like all of us I get to switch between embattled partisan and merry member of the mob at a moment’s notice, which is a great feeling, remarkably freeing. Of course, down with the partisans things aren’t always perfect. So what the fuck if it debuted at number one, they’re all a bunch of sheep because they didn’t appreciate was the new Cradle of Filth project was all about, or so you claimed if you were somewhere in the depths of Not Popular Metal and you had no self esteem and were about to jump ship anyway when said band or any other one like it started selling big time if they ever do. Oh well, guess I’ll have to like them pretty much on my own, well no I’ve got friends in real life and on-line who like them so I’m not alone. But it’s fun to pretend you’re alone.

And that’s the joy and conceit of Lateralus, that you listen to it alone. You can, of course, listen to it with a bunch of other folks, and it’s no surprise that the shows have been sold out for weeks in advance when they’re put on sale or get snapped up quick, because the pleasant frisson of being at once the only person in the audience and part of a community that knows, worships and believes is what makes the anti-mass Holy Mass of a show like a Tool show or a Sisters of Mercy show or a Windy and Carl show or a Mogwai show or a Cure show or a Depeche show or a Morrissey show or a Radiohead show so damn appealing. I’m alone! I’m lost in a crowd and alone and everything is just solely and perfectly for me even while everyone is singing along! Perfect balance, they should distill the essence and bottle it for general use if they haven’t done it already, it’s a great teen accoutrement, of course, but all ages can use it because the aura is just addictive enough and there’s just a hope that it’ll keep you younger somewhere along the line even while your body says, “What the fuck, do you mind if you can finally stop scarfing down the pasta and fancy cheese for once in your life, the heart here wants to keep you alive just long enough before it can retire?”

But when you’re at home or in some place private enough, it’s just you and Lateralus, maybe like it was with you and Disintegration, but maybe it’s all new, maybe you’re just that age, maybe you’re just finding out what you might or might not really like, the new thoughts are suggesting themselves, and who knows what’s around the corner. Maybe you don’t read anything hip, maybe you know nothing about rock history, maybe you just want some way out of the godforsaken family situation you’re in, maybe you’re tired of your dad shouting at you, but maybe you’ve got no problems there and perhaps you just want something a little new. Maybe that, maybe not. For some people the behavior of listening to Lateralus is learned because there are calluses on your ears from all the times you’ve clamped headphones to them when another sacred text needed in depth deciphering on the day of release. I’m with that bunch, but even I had to learn a first time.

And all eighty minutes of Lateralus consumes you and draws you in. The tone is dark, the tone is deep, the tone is loud. There’s sheer anger and sheer angst, there’s bile and hatred, there is loathing. There is confession and there is explosion. There is invention and remodification of the past, there are multiple ways around a song, there is prog and progression in equal amounts. Something like “Triad” sounds like a ritual set to electricity, not a new move but not to be sneered at when done if the connection can be felt, if the sudden scrape of the feedback and the constantly pursuing and pursued fear in the rhythms decides to hit and dominate and not so much suggest as demand some way to interpret something without a single word in it at all. You lose yourself in it so much you find yourself creating scenarios to fit the songs from your own experiences, you alter the past and indulge in power fantasies of abnegation and collapse. And just maybe, when Keenan cries as much as sings as much as breathes in hope and possibility of personal connection if such a thing was ever even a possible reality in the chip-and-plastic-and-kevlar-and-vinyl-and-magnetic tape irreality of recorded music at the end of “Reflection” and offers up the album’s final vocal before everything suddenly stops and only the softest, darkest chime to end the song, there’s a moment of pure release and flight, a skybound sweep into the darkest, bluest vacuum ever. Just maybe.

The final track, “Faaip de Oaid,” lets white noise and crackling static and rumbling drums slowly envelope, present and subsume an edit of a man on the edge of self-implosion letting us know about the aliens before it’s too late. Naturally. What fun is a theatrical presentation if one can’t leave the audience something to talk about right at the end?