In an era where the disposability of pop culture becomes more and more apparent, building strata of has-beens and never-was, like the islands of trash around Japan, following one’s artistic bliss within the context of deep time and attaining financial security while doing so may seem not only an oxymoronic enterprise, but a Quixotic one as well. But the lesson that Tool impart to us, as well as many other bands (including a few contemporaries of the early 90s, like Pearl Jam and Type O Negative) is that it’s okay to be a cult band. It takes financial savvy, hard work, and a push-me-pull-you dynamic in equally engaging a fanbase while keeping it at arms’ length for sanity’s sake (not to mention that nothing attracts so much as distance); but there’s a fine line between perceived “self-indulgence” and presented “self-preservation.”
Tool has always cultivated – whether purposely or not – an impenetrable mystique, akin to an obelisk. Its’ most celebrated form is from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey: a solid black tall rectangular form. It absorbs both the gaze and atmosphere and presents us with something we cannot fully explain. Its’ existence is verifiable, but its’ epistemology is unknown. Much like the object (later reprised in a smaller, somewhat tongue-in-cheek version in the artwork for Led Zeppelin’s album Presence), Tool has sought to revive a more traditional philosophy of presentation that is virtually non-existent in an age of ultimate interconnectedness: awe, grandeur, mystery.
This is the reason I have referred to them as The Monolith. Until recently, publicity photos have revealed nothing of the inner lives: four people placed in positions and photographed for the purpose of promotion, but nothing is shown of their personalities. But with the advent of a work that is most likely the most personal of their collective existence, a more playful element has entered the sessions: hijinks at a backyard barbeque, costumed tableaus, mirthful in someone’s living room. And this is the crux of the critical debate regarding not only this release, but of the band’s evolution: Do we decode the monolith, or do we stubbornly cling to the awe inspired by that mysterious edifice?
This too, shall pass.
Interpersonal relations, and notions of repairing dissolution, were one of the thematic concerns of Tool’s previous release, 2001’s Lateralus. In the timespace between that release and this one the world at large has seen an enormous amount of dissolution, and therefore this notion remains an undercurrent of concern. However, rather than attempt (much as one of the touchstones of interpretation in understanding Lateralus, Frater Achad’s The Anatomy of the Body of God) to encourage and propagate harmony, our narrator is heartsick and clinging to a liferaft of those few comforts and sureties available in an ridiculous existence.
The catch is, even the negative things are reassuring, because they endure. Time is not a constant unless the ability to perceive its’ passing is also present.
Social commentary has always been present in Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics, although generally from a very constricted viewpoint. As I see the world, so it is. Of late, however, perhaps his broadened experiences in the worldview have also served to expand his artistic concerns. The narrative voice of 10,000 Days is no longer strictly me, my shadow selves and I, but a host of perspectives on greater questions of humanity, most notably: If we are reasonable, then why are we also violent?
And right out of the gate we are faced with that question in the song “Vicarious.” It is the lead single, and thus a statement of purpose for the band both lyrically and musically. Its’ polyrhythms and crisp mix, drums up front, recall their collective history, while the lyrics and the vocal presentation are fresh and in the moment. Addressing, as reviewer Don Kaye notes, “our society’s obsession with reality TV, televised mayhem and the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ form of journalism,” the subtext is that our reptilian brains need to experience schadenfreude on a regular basis in order to survive in an entirely uncaring universe, though it is treated as one of humanity’s dirty little secrets. So is our obsession with tragedy merely an extension of our instincts? This question is addressed in later songs, but perhaps is an overall meditation rather than an actual inquiry. Keenan’s vocal is interesting, veering from a conspiratorial whisper to a strained confessional sotto voce.
With “Jambi,” as Adam Jones indicated in a recent interview with Kerrang!, the structure of this song is “a Meshuggah moment,” referring to the Swedish tech metal band who served as the opening act during their Outside The Inside tour in 2002 (another such moment occurs in “Vicarious” when drummer Danny Carey takes a page out of Tomas Haake’s playbook and plays two distinct signatures, one with his hands and one with his feet, concurrently in the bridge). One of Jones’ favorite bands, they served as an inspiration to the members of Tool to push themselves to a specific musical destination, and the result is loud and brutal, but the melody that floats atop the bombast is anything but, making the song a compelling mix: both powerful and euphoric. One of the ways in which the load is lightened is Jones’ Talk Box solo – it is an emotive instrument and suits his style perfectly – given his penchant for color and mood over sheer technicality. The lyrics seem to run counter to the music’s aggressive gallop as Keenan recounts a relationship he would be willing to give up all measures of success and security in order to preserve, which makes me wonder if this is actually a meditation on fatherhood, as it shares one characteristic with the following suite: a testimony to the kind of unconditional love that can exist between a parent and a child.
It is certainly a controversial move to sequence the heart of this record, the suite consisting of “Wings For Marie” and “10,000 Days,” so close to the top of the running order, but this is an element of the evolution of Tool as an artistic entity that is audacious without being overly indulgent, in my opinion. Nick Snelling, in his review for the Australian publication The Beat, notes that the title song is “an ode to the beatification of his mother,” which is an entirely appropriate observation. From what we know of lyrical revelations, Keenan has had a conflicted yet also entirely devoted relationship with his mother. If this line in “jimmy” (eleven and she was gone) is any interpretive indication, she was the center of his world until cataclysmic events transpired to change his life forever (and inspire some of the darker confessional songs on previous works).
As an adult, it is necessary to acknowledge one’s own mortality when a parent passes away. To add to this trauma, when the parent is especially beloved, especially revered, then it leaves a void that can never be filled, but a monument can be erected at the precipice, in memoriam to one shining example of the positive qualities of human nature. Perhaps it would be too disrespectful, too clichÃ?Â©d, to say that Keenan believes his mother was a saint, but that is the message he means for someone to hear, and it seems to me that person, or entity, is beyond the realm of our comprehension.
Comparisons with “Parabol/Parabola” from Lateralus are inevitable, yet, while the latter was sequenced so that the first part was an inversion of the second part, in this particular suite “Wings” seems to be more of a formal introduction to the title song.
Perhaps the word “ode” is not appropriate, and neither is “eulogy.” This is, rather, an elegy to the most influential and enduring figure of his life. The narrator, which we can assume to be Keenan himself, emotionally exposed as he has never been before, speaks from a situational perspective, moving through a landscape which continually frustrates him, the tension between himself and those he believed were unworthy of knowing his mother (possibly even members of his own family) palpable:
Ignorant fibbers in the congregation,
gather around spewing sympathy,
None of them can even hold a candle up to you.
Blinded by choices, hypocrites won’t seek.
Though the grief is strong, so also is the celebration of her life. His acceptance of her passing, his fervent wish that she receives not only the reward she believed in, but the one he believes she deserves, is one of the most touching sentiments I’ve ever heard, much less heard in a song of any kind. His singing often sounds like plainsong chanting, echoing the theme of true agape, which transcends any particular sect or philosophy. Christian archetypes are employed in a purely respectful way, even as he envisions something that Judith Marie would never do, in her pure piety: demand her ascendancy into Heaven itself.
Musically the suite seems to encompass every mood, from passionate to placid, as the band plays not only with a combined lyrical professionalism, but also with a sense of community: Carey’s fills are muscular, yet respectful of the space they all occupy, Jones’ leads soar with absolute fervor, and Chancellor’s bass is a true anchor in the tempest of the emotional landscape.
In the tradition of such songs as “Jerk-Off,” “Swamp Song,” “Hooker With A Penis,” and “Ticks and Leeches,” we have here another one of Keenan’s patented vindictive rants in “The Pot,” (the title refers to the phrase the pot calling the kettle black) but this one is different in that it is more satirical than scathing.
The lyrics have nothing to do with drugs (as some reviewers have posited due to misinterpreting the source of the title) and everything to do with the principal of you cannot criticize unless you empathize, despite the refrain you must have been high, which is merely an obvious pun on the title (or vice versa).
Musically, the tone is set with the segue, as Keenan croons in a high head voice against a backdrop of rubber-band bass and sampled percussion, taking a swipe at contemporary Pop in the process. The rest of the band drops in and the song becomes concurrently melodic and metallic, hard-edged riffs coupled with a rhythmic groove, as Carey plays 4/4 right in the pocket, only a few virtuoso fills remind the listener that this is no ordinary drummer. Throughout, with the use of a different timbre, colloquialisms, and lazy enunciation (he even manages a Motown-style scream before the bridge), Keenan is mocking not only the target of his scorn, but the surrounding culture that spawned this person as well. Keenan’s disdain for lawyers is already well-established, it appears that this one has made the fatal error of judging and now he will also be judged accordingly. For those that wonder what the word “kangaroo” is doing in the song, I would gently remind them that the term “kangaroo court” refers to a legal proceeding which is adjudged to have a predetermined outcome. In other words, a judicial sham.
We have arrived midstream and the next segue, “Lipan Conjuring,” created by Danny Carey and Tom Brown, is a recreation of an Apache exorcism ritual, though it’s been “enhanced” in a few spots, and is meant to pull the listener out of their previous mindset into the next adventure; because it’s going to require all of one’s focus to even remotely comprehend what the hell is going on.
What follows is the aural psychodrama of “Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann)/Rosetta Stoned,” a veritable tragicomedy involving an impressionable young man, extraterrestrials, and destiny deferred due to the incomprehension of everything, but mostly the aliens’ optimism at their chosen’s one worthiness (or…maybe not).
Isn’t that always the way?
Beginning with an atmospheric, bordering on paranoid at times, soundscape of guitar and gradually introduced sound effects, the segue presents the narrator in the third person who then becomes at least two people: the fragmented, addled nobody who has experienced a life-altering event and cannot process its’ importance, and his internal sense of wonder, given a voice if not a body, recounting the emotions behind the actual events.
The humor in the lyrics is definitely absurdist, even black at times (the title is a rather smartass pun, after all):
Me, the chosen one.
They chose me, and I didn’t even graduate from fucking high school.
Overwhelmed as one would be, placed in my position.
Such a heavy burden now to be, the one.
Born to bear and read you all the details of our ending.
To write it down for all the world to see.
But I forgot my pen.
. . .as the music pummels the listener into submission, appropriately dramatic, featuring a hallmark of Tool’s oeuvre: constantly shifting time signatures, an arrangement rife with epic transitional passages, along with quotations of previous songs, most notably “Third Eye.” Bassist Justin Chancellor, the record’s secret weapon, is especially strong on this track as he and Danny Carey appear to mind-meld at times, becoming one giant percussive being.
Much like the title track of Lateralus, “Intension” (yet another of Keenan’s puns) addresses the development of human consciousness, though this time from a decidedly darker perspective. The duality of enlightenment and violence are inherent from the very birth of consciousness, and as Julian Jaynes has posited, self-awareness was not initially conceived as an internal experience. Our impulses appear to spring simultaneously, good and bad, from the same “pure” source of existence. But value judgments seem situational, yet also eternal. Musically, the track is moody and subdued, opening with ambience which then transitions to Keenan’s backward-masked whispers of societal conditioning. Tonally this recalls “Disposition” and “Reflection” in its’ dependence on percussive elements and phased vocals. In addition, electronic elements (a sort of glitch-y beat) that would not be out of place on a downtempo track are incorporated, to overall ethereal effect.
A bittersweet melody introduces “Right In Two,” with a memorable bended note and chiming accents. The tempo continues to build over the course of the song, adding to the frustration of the narrative, which employs Judeo-Christian mythology once again as the Host is presumed to observe mankind and their propensity for dissatisfaction, which runs counter to agape, the Deity’s ultimate gift. The interesting element is that while Christian archetypes are evoked, so are those of science, as the angels acknowledge that humans are actually “talking monkeys.”
More importantly for drum fetishists, it features the first recorded tabla solo from Danny Carey (the first recorded appearance of full tabla accompaniment was “Matchless Man” on Adrian Belew’s record Side One). . .and I believe Aloke Dutta can experience the satisfaction of a (teaching) job well done. Carey’s playing is perhaps the strongest focus here (in terms of mixing), with “Vicarious” a close second.
As a closing ambient experience, “Viginti Tres” (created by Danny Carey with some probable assistance from Blair Blake) does not have the creepy novelty of his earlier compositions like “Die Eier Von Satan” or “Faaip De Oiad” or even the humor of “Disgustipated” or “L.A.M.C.,” but his experiments with electronica, especially of a dark industrial nature, continue with enthusiasm unabated. If anything, besides a certain occultist subtext, the piece is interesting in its’ use of headspace. At times, the sounds feel as though they are amplified in specific parts of the skull. The high frequencies at the end seemed to hover right over my brainstem. And it’s fitting that we should 23 skiddo this work, but given its’ creator, a banishing ritual is more likely the final act.
As Aleister Crowley writes in The Book of Lies (Falsely Called) (chapter 23 is a poem titled “Skiddo”):
But thou canst not get out by the way thou camest
in. The Way out is THE WAY.
For OUT is Love and Wisdom and Power.
If thou hast T already, first get UT.
Then get O.
And so at last get OUT.
Any in-depth analysis of a work(ing) by Tool would not be complete without commentary on the packaging. Given that this band is partially comprised of a graphic artist and a former Feng Shui designer, and completely populated with sacred geometry enthusiasts, the visual aspects get as much attention to detail as the aural ones and what is outside is a reflection of what lies within.
As above, so below.
Constructed as a true multimedia experience, the booklet contains stereoscopic and three-dimensional images that can be viewed with the aid of accompanying lenses, built into the flap of the CD package. In the halcyon days of vinyl such playful inventiveness was not unheard of, but in these days of attention to the bottom line, which means less money for packaging and more for promotion, this type of presentation is a true revelation.
The centerpiece is, of course, another hallucinogenic wonderscape, courtesy of ethnogenic artist Alex Grey, entitled “Net Of Being.” Its’ Mesoamerican overtones seem to suit the more earthbound qualities of the work contained within. The portraits of each band member, something only previously seen in the booklets for Undertow and Salival, hold a wealth of interpretive detail which not only reveal elements of their distinct personalities, but also how they all relate and connect with one another.
Despite numerous reservations of reviewers and fans in regards to the direction and cohesion of this release, for better or worse, this is Tool at this moment. Singing the blues, in memoriam for the past and their past selves, but still singing nonetheless. And much like the passage of time I feel this work will only continue to evolve and change for the listener with repeated play. The sheer density of the arrangements, the expansiveness of the sound and the entirely new perspective on the strengths of the players, courtesy of Joe Barresi’s engineering and mixing, will reveal secrets and surprises anew.
The only constant is change, they seem to say, and it’s up to every listener to decide if they choose to follow the path they’ve forged with their singular vision. It’s a journey that never fails to amaze and amuse, but it’s not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.