However, this album had become the focus of a discussion among progressive metal fans whose opinions I highly respected. I was hearing some interesting adjectives applied to them: "intricate," "original," "intelligent," "progressive." I was interested, but still skeptical. These guys were popular, after all, and I assumed that they were appealing to the lowest common denominator like so many""nu-metal" bands.
My curiosity was compounded when I saw the phenomenal music video for "Schism" on MTV. It was a delightfully surreal pictorial essay with a theme of renewal and emotional interaction (I think). Although the video is excellent, the music also captured my ear. I was unable to get that final menacing line, "I know the pieces fit," out of my head. The song possessed interesting progressions, complex syncopations, and good deal of musical muscle. I could tell these guys were more than a "let's scream and bang on guitars and drums and sound angry" band. (Also known as a "nu-metal" band...if that stuff is your cup of tea, you are at this point invited to hit "Not Helpful.")
So I bought Lateralus. Initially, it appealed to me because of the mystery of the compositions, and the understated imagination of their music. I found it self-consciously alienating, for it is very dark and eschews melodic hooks. I suspected the album was a challenge, so I persevered. The excellent production lends to that mystery...it is very bass-heavy and Keenan's distinctive voice is sometimes barely audible, like a forlorn spectre. At other times, he's incredibly visceral and venemous, with a telling, indignant quality that perfectly fits with music so oppressively bleak. With each listen, I found something new, and as I began to follow the lyrics (note: get them from the Tool's site), things began to click. I started understanding the deliberate austerity of the music and appreciating it from an artistic perspective. It's experimental, somewhat unsettling, and tense.
And this is not the kind of stuff that beats you over the head with a loud, raucous song in four minutes. The average song length here is 8 minutes or so (not including the segues and track 13). This allows the band to express more lush ideas with their music, and be more experimental. Many songs contain hard, crushing moments balanced by slower, quieter moments. It only rarely "rocks"...Tool likes to draw you in with hypnotizing rhythms, sweeping textures, and crafty orchestrations instead of "rocking out."
And I am tremendously impressed by their work. This isn't progressive metal in the same vein as Dream Theater or Symphony X. In fact, I hesitate to call it metal. It IS heavy, but it's very subtle and insinuating. However, it is _progressive_ in that it does new things, pushes boundaries of categorization, and challenges the listener. This is the kind of music that requires some effort to "get" (as in understand), but it's a satisfying achievement to experience it.
One of the best albums out in 2001 so far, I'd say. (It would get extra stars just for the cool packaging, but I can't give it 6/5.)
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Lateralus and the corresponding tours would take Tool a step further toward art-rock and progressive rock territory. Rolling Stone wrote in an attempt to summarize the album that "Drums, bass and guitars move in jarring cycles of hyperhowl and ...