20 August 2005

Tool vs. Tool: An Introduction

Since mid-may 2001, the debate has raged on: which album by rock band Tool is best – 1996’s Ænima, or the band’s last album, Lateralus, from 2001. If you ask me, they’re both classic albums from the best major label band of the past decade or so, and that’s fine with me. Interrogate me, and I will admit a preference for Ænima. But why is that, and what is there to recommend these two albums anyway? Among the blather in this set of posts, I’ll be taking a look at each album, what makes them work, and comparing them directly.

I suppose I should do this chronologically, and get with the Ænima action. But before I do, a bit of history...

The band formed pretty much at the start of the 1990’s, in Los Angeles. They released an E.P., Opiate, in 1992, which was definitely a good start. However, it gave little indication of how good the band would become, and rock peers such as Kyuss, Faith No More and Soundgarden pretty definitively outshined it. Still, it was good stuff, and more than merely a curio.

The following year, their debut full-length emerged, named Undertow – it was a positive evolutionary step in pretty much every way. The guitar sound replaced the clean, clinical aesthetic with a slightly sludgier one, albeit still of that very thin, early-90s timbre. Interestingly, they would develop that ostensible shortcoming to their advantage on later albums. The songs themselves stretched out to around six or seven minutes apiece, from which they really benefited.

The ideas were able to breathe more easily within less strict structures, leading to songs like the Melvins-inspired ‘Flood’, which was sludge build for most of its duration. ‘Disgustipation’ was stranger still, as vocalist Maynard James Keenan took on the role of surrealist preacher, and also felt the need to proclaim that ‘this… is… necessary’.

This is not to say the album was devoid of ‘normal’ songs. ‘Prison Sex’ was a key development in the sound of Tool. Some very unsettling lyrics (‘I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this shit, blood and cum on my hands’) reside over a surprisingly jaunty rhythm. Much like Faith No More were successfully doing, this seems to be an attempt to bring the subversive into mainstream rock. Artistically, it was a resounding success, if not so much on a commercial level.

‘Sober’ was another strikingly affective song, and very stark in its instrumentation. It was a bleak account of low self-esteem/depression, and while this sort of thing can often sound formulaic and contrived, ‘Sober’ avoids this through utter honesty of emotion. It’s a seeming sonic precursor to Soundgarden’s classic ‘Fell On Black Days’, from the following year, in terms of lyrical themes and the nagging, insistent riff. It differs in the fact that, while their Seattle peers imbued their song with warmth of production, ‘Sober’ was utterly desolate. Instead of Cornell’s bittersweet ‘I’m only faking when I get it right’, Keenan had offered ‘I am just a worthless liar / I am just an imbecile. There was seemingly no payoff in the song, and pretty much in the entire album.

However, it seemed to work. Here was a band which, avoiding the journalistic pitfalls that befell Seattle bands, and with a more overtly intellectual (for better or worse) angle than the likes of Porno For Pyros or Rage Against The Machine, found a niche of its own. It was a niche they would be free to develop over the coming years, through peer acceptance (Henry Rollins was an ally, appearing on their song ‘Bottom’, as well as taking them on tour), and the greater world opening its eyes to them. Profile was low, but all was soon to change.

And change it did, in 1996, upon the release of Ænima. In the next post, I shall be looking at the first of the brace of albums that will go head-to-head.

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