Retro Rewind – Tool’s Mindbending Prog Metal Masterpiece

Anytime you discuss progressive metal, the bands that usually come to mind are the more extravagant and elegant ones like Dream Theater or Queensryche or the more complex and rhythmic ones like Messhugah or Between the Buried and Me. While these bands were dominating the world of elaborate polyrhythms and bizarre time signatures in their days, Tool was always an essential cornerstone in the genre. However, you always need to set Tool aside in the long run because at the time, no one sounded like them. Danny Carey’s Rush-inspired drumming patterns mixed brilliantly with the thick and weighted bass tones of Justin Chancellor and Adam Jones’ crunchy guitars, with singer Maynard James Keenan pioneering a blend of soothing melodic singing with a furious scream. Despite having been around for more than ten years, Tool had only released two studio albums during their career at that point, 1993’s Undertow and 1996’s Ænima, with both reaching widespread critical acclaim and classic status. 2001 marked the long-awaited release of the third studio album for Tool and expectations were reaching shockingly immense highs. But Tool remain as a group of very private and humble guys, which makes their third studio album Lateralus even more impressive in the sheer effortlessness of the way these guys perform such superhuman feats of musicianship and songwriting.

Lateralus demonstrates Tool’s official embrace of complexity. While the band’s dark and brooding tone was crystal clear on Ænima, Lateralus is all about intricately arranged rhythms and some of the most unreal musical performances ever documented on disc. The title track alone offers a rhythmic form taking cues from the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical “spiral” pattern displayed in nature and implemented into a heavy and unquestionably sophisticated recording. The time signatures and tempos change very frequently, but in an act of timing that would make Albert Einstein dizzy, the band keeps the pacing and the entire recording sounds natural. As stated earlier, these men are beyond simple musicians. No better example of their genius in rhythm and pacing is “Ticks and Leeches”, regarded by some as the greatest drum performance in the history of music. No disrespect to John Bonham or Neil Peart, but Danny Carey’s opening drum fill alone is no mere fill. He’s keeping a beat, one of the most complex you’ll find. He may be working to the bone, but Carey’s drumming remains a natural feel. The sheer organic nature of the band’s complexity is stunning. No band has come close to the intricacy on Lateralus.

But even if the songs weren’t as polyrhythmic or musically unorthodox, the band still has a careful hand in making their songs dark, textured and toned. Adam Jones’ guitar revs in the single “Schism” walk the line of grinding heavy metal and melodic rock. Opener “The Grudge” offers a belt-out scream from Maynard James Keenan lasting for more than 30 seconds, with the rest of the band offering an ethereal and otherworldly metal sound that lasts from start to finish. Even the more radio-friendly “Parabola” takes perfect control of the melodic/rhythmic merging that the band has made. Keenan’s voice has proven to be a major influence on bands across the board from Chevelle to 30 Seconds to Mars, from Deftones to Karnivool, and for good reason. Whether he’s screaming in “Ticks and Leeches” or echoing a psalm-like sound in “Parabol”, Keenan is a fantastic vocalist, one who can bring beauty and ascendance out at one point and fury and intensity out at another.

Lateralus is quite possibly the most well thought-out progressive metal album ever to hit the top of the Billboard 200. Its tone is accessible and heavy enough to get on rock radio, but the in-depth elaborateness of the songs is clearly what makes the album such an instant classic. If you listen to it for the first time, you’ll be headbanging along to the thunderous drum crashes in “Parabola” or singing along to Keenan’s guttural cry in “Lateralus.” But repeated listens prove amazingly rewarding, as the mind-bending melodic, rhythmic and vocal patterns show the skill of the band and the genre itself. There’s nothing really majestic about how Lateralus sounds; it remains a haunting and almost supernatural album. But the men in this band bring out a sense of promise and optimism toward the art of progressive metal. Their alternative take on what prog metal can be hasn’t just been recognized; it’s been deified. Whether they agree with it or not, Tool set the standard with their third studio album. Musicianship in progressive music is one thing, but songwriting is just as important. In Lateralus, Tool do both near flawlessly.

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Retro Rewind: Deftones Signify the Death of Nu-Metal with White Pony

Deftones jumped off the nu-metal train right before it crashed. Limp Bizkit was just starting to get obnoxiously popular, while Korn was continuing their run through grindy, drop-D tuned metal. Deftones, unsatisfied by relying on the growingly stale nu-metal conventions, wowed everyone with their third LP, White Pony, which had all the heaviness of their previous two albums combined with spacey and textured compositions sounding more like The Smiths or The Cure. White Pony is a finely crafted mix of rhythmic heaviness and dreamy synth experimentation that shows what Deftones would become later in their lifecycle. It’s a fantastic album that defines the band’s unorthodox influences and puts the waning nu-metal fad in its place.

The brief traces of melodic creativity seen on the band’s second album Around the Fur in songs like “Be  Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” and “MX” are no longer just traces. White Pony is a very multi-layered journey in surreal metal/alternative bliss. Singer Chino Moreno flaunts his love for My Bloody Valentine and The Cure with serene and breathy vocals in the gorgeously atmospheric “Digital Bath.” The less aggressive songs like “Teenager” also let newly inaugurated DJ/keyboardist Frank Delgado show his chops in creating beautiful and airy soundscapes, something that felt limited during his guest performances on the past Deftones albums. On the album’s crowning achievement, the Maynard James Keenan-guested “Passenger”, the chorus restlessly bursts from a subconscious steadiness, one that stands as one of the best songs ever composed by the band. These lengthy moments of sensory fluidity are ambitious moves that turn out to not only make a great album, but also define the band’s sound entirely going forward.

But don’t think that the focus on dreamy trip hop influences means that Deftones have gone soft. These Sacramento metalheads are still masters of the rhythmic grind. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter still has a very distinctive playing style compared to the metal guitarists of thrash metal and when combined with bassist Chi Cheng’s thick and weighted beats and drummer Abe Cunningham’s steady drum pacing, White Pony is a monster of gravitational heaviness. “Elite” is a thunderous and ravenous metal track, where Chino Moreno belts out with “when you’re ripe, you’ll bleed out of control.” The band never goes overly intricate with their sound; there still aren’t any expansive solos, no polyrhythmic drum fills, nothing impossible to speak of. It just fits together so incredibly cohesively. The songwriting of White Pony demonstrates not minimalism, but fundamentalism, where the ideas of both nu-metal and alternative trip hop are stripped down and mixed together perfectly.

By stepping away from the genre they helped create, Deftones signified the looming death of nu-metal with White Pony. The fundamentals of rhythmic metal are still there, but Deftones defy the other musicians in the genre by never keeping themselves in one position. Alongside the dreaminess of “Digital Bath” and “Teenager” stand ferocious metal tracks like “Elite” and “Feiticeira.” This contrast is a bit sudden throughout the album, but you can see brilliant traces of cohesion in “Knife Prty” and “Change (In the House of Flies).” Though nu-metal may have been continuing further in bands like Linkin Park for years onward, Deftones showed that the fad had been drained of creativity and that more needed to be brought to the table. Deftones signified the beginning of the end of nu-metal, but with White Pony, they opened a brand new side of the brain for metal to explore.

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Retro Rewind is a retrospective column by Pittsburgh Music Magazine contributor Alex Carlson.