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.