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The Holy Experience: Twenty Years of TOOL's ‘Lateralus’

Dissecting a modern marvel of musical composition twenty years from its inception.

Tool (2001)

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):


At the end of the last millennium, the world of extreme music had slowed to a crawl — the progressive influences of a world searching for the future of music collided with the popular ideology of political correctness to form both the most celebrated love songs of a generation, as well as some of the most cringe-worthy tunes the genre of metal ever put out. Subgenres coalesced into the monster known as nü metal, and before anyone knew it, a world of hardcore, heavy metal with clean production, and hip-hop had fused into a chimera that would divert the genre's direction for years to come. The results were met with mixed reviews. Genre stagnation had hit an all-time high, and with an attrition that comes from maintaining one's anger for so long, the previously embraced heroes of the scene turned their minds towards finding hit singles, and creating soundbites that would attract younger audiences to a scene in its death throes.

Being recorded in North Hollywood, however, was a benchmark affair that would cement TOOL's legacy as the chart-topping legends they were destined to become. Not only was this album the antithesis of the nü metal movement; its presence was a testament to the years spent waiting after Ænima's (1996) wondrous debut. Taking in stride the cerebral and spiritual themes behind their 1996 masterpiece, TOOL sought to change the idea of the group and the music virtually overnight. Featuring extended length songs that would dwarf the majority of their previous release's track times, and a strong push towards making various tracks seamless from one to the next, Lateralus is precisely the kind of creature that is endangered because of both the physical toll, as well as the psychological. This album is seventy-eight minutes of almost entirely inseparable longform coping from one trauma to the next. Whether it's death, injury, the banality of evil, the music industry's unwavering grasp on artists, the insatiable thirst of impatient fans, TOOL made it a point to craft a great American novel in the audible medium, tackling the topics of a modern world of music with the perspective of a cynical philosopher who has heard everything, seen far too much, and been jaded by a flourishing scene of pioneers who had set the bar for new and innovative sounds in extreme music.

One could state the obvious by claiming this album starts with the sound of a mechanical lift engaging, but in reality — this ride starts around the minute marker with a triumphant cadence that sounds the trumpets, and then immediately steals all that energy away to softly kick an ambient melody off from the shore. Somewhere between chamber music and tribal rhythms, The Grudge starts, in reality, much more like its namesake suggests. It's slow and creeping, and sneaks in with all of the subterfuge and venom of a lifelong hatred. The words seep out almost unexpectedly, seemingly a description and a premonition.

‘Clutch it like a cornerstone — otherwise it all comes down.’

Set to the gentle legato fretting of Adam Jones, this song takes a lurching approach to choruses, traversing a staggered terrain from one measure to the next. Its consistency and rhythm are an excellent showcase for the grooves that this album stays on-rails for, for nearly eighty minutes. While it's a prevailing theme, it's not the only one. The theme of struggle is a pattern that repeatedly appears throughout the tracks, albeit in different, and varying levels of intensity. The Grudge takes the group's, and specifically — Keenan's presuppositions leading into previous albums, and matures those ideas into one before the listener's proverbial eyes. The message is clear and it's one of personal growth: LET GO.

alex grey
'Lateralus' (2001) vinyl cover art by Alex Grey

Trudging onward through Eon Blue Apocalypse, its meditative atmosphere makes for an excellent tribute to a beloved pet and an unforgettable segue into The Patient, a third stop earmarked by a barely audible pluck that steadily grows with the sound of chanting in the distance. It's a song that tells a tale of more growth, the recurring motif that may very well be the defining factor for the nearly meteoric rise in fandom the group obtained at the turn of the century. Droning scales climax to the words of, "be patient," and "gonna wait it out," verses that describe with brevity the amount of excruciating time and energy one must expel in order to finally see the returns on a career in music. It's a bleaker look at the glory of living a life of Rock 'n' Roll, a rose-tinted pipe dream that was long gone by the time TOOL took their music to the scene.

Mantra is, with no further elaboration — Maynard gently squeezing his cat. This reviewer wishes there were more to the depth of the soundbite, but as the album boldly suggests, "overthinking, overanalyzing, separates the body from the mind." Sometimes, the endeavor of just enjoying a minute long clip of a cat's disagreement must be embraced for the wholly impractical use of time that it is. After all, it's one more stop before the group decidedly shows up with what Roy Scheider would've called, ‘a bigger boat’.

Schism is such a chemically-necessary part of the formula that made up the lives of so many young metalheads that at this point — even if one could not name a single TOOL song from the catalogue — the signature melody that comprises the bulk of the song is a hook that screams with familiarity at its nostalgia and sheer overplayed redundancy. As with all songs from this album, and this group, a litany of fan theories and interpretations have made their ways into the social community of online metalheads. Whether listeners hear the cold silence of religious sects speaking in hushed tongues amongst their followers for a one true faith, or the wartime musings of countries that once cooperated, grinding the gears of war as they atrophy any sense of compassion, this song has an ironic effect of eliciting a strong emotional response from audiences worldwide, and its position as a staple of the TOOL live set is unchallenged at this point. It's a song that commands tens of thousands of people at a time, and perhaps its greatest strength is the unity between music lovers worldwide who can appreciate and revel in its charms.

With such inspired depth, and cathartic ideation, the two part epoch that is Parabol and Parabola, should never be left to its audio record alone. In much the same manner as Schism, the music video for the two tracks combined provides an utterly surreal, if not absolutely uncomfortable, experience for those looking to find the outer edges of TOOL's atmospheric and imagery-driven madness.

Entering into the frame of a classic television is a grey-toned set of fractal-esque figure-8's, the majority of which appear as atoms in a blackened void. As the song sets in and the shapes disappear, they're replaced in-turn by an equally unsettling clip of swollen, bulbous men in black suits converging over a table in the same grey tones as the start of the video. Opening his doctor bag, the lead man takes a strikingly purple cloth and unfurls it, revealing a remarkably dull dual-bladed knife. Cutting into a desiccated apple, the seeds outline the sigil of the group, cutting away to a clip of the man across the table raising an open left hand, a single finger burning like a candle on a cake. At once, the three figures ascend into a hovering circle, a black sludge pouring from their open mouths. As they surround the table, they begin to move counter-clockwise, crafting a perfect circle from their oil-resembling vomit. Cut to black, the circle complete, as a set of martian grey arms pull at the ring until it reforms the sigil and the ritual is complete. I won't spoil the rest for fans who may just be beginning their journey with TOOL, but suffice it to say, it's one of the few music videos worth remembering.

Parabola is an animal of songwriting and emotional burden that provides a showstopping climax to an album that comes in waves. Between an intricately sliced drum cut that should put Danny Carey at the top of anyone's kit leaderboard, and a low chugging cadence that takes up the lion's share of the rhythm, all while guiding the guitars to their eventual high-octave second chorus, Justin Chancellor's work on this song is a sweaty dance that proves bass work can provide both a platform and a foreground to a soundstruck landscape.

While this author would never dare to sway the opinions of other die-hard metalheads, one claim worth making is that TOOL's impact and overarching theme of high-performance extreme music lives and dies by tunes like Parabola, a track that provokes a reaction out of their audience. People openly weep at these shows when this, and other songs like it, are played, and their ties to significant periods of change and development in the lives and libraries of young metalheads cannot be overstated.

'Lateralus' (2001) artwork by Alex Grey

Without even tackling the rest of this album in a line-item format, there's still so much left to take apart, but it's a journey of self-discovery and to continue to strip it for its essentials violates the very spirit of the work as it was intended. Everyone lives to see the endless memes of people feeling enlightened and cultured by their knowledge that the title-track is constructed entirely on the backbone of the Fibonacci sequence. That creepy, oddly-placed closing sample from Art Bell's radio program makes an almost perfect album feel comical and novel in nature after nearly an hour and a half of truly exceptional music. That's not to say that it doesn't achieve its goal. Faaip De Oiad is an effectively unsettling footnote that begs listeners to ask themselves if what they've heard is real or not, and to question the nature of their surroundings, regardless of the absurdity behind such a notion.

There's plenty of variety left to be heard. There's the tribal repetition and opium-den soporific charm of Disposition's seamless studio transition from tuning down into a real-time, fourteen minute drum showcase from here through Reflection is a cool, and difficult concept to work into an album, but once again — Danny sailed through that out of the box thinking with psychedelic repose. It's another highlight of such a tremendous body of work; the Middle-Eastern influence, more than just a gimmick for the sound, provides a vessel of ambiance that carries the song from one end to the other. Not only does it feel like a fever dream on mescaline, vocals come puffing out like wisps of smoke that bleed into the score almost as if they've been carried on the wind. It's a track that's never in a rush to get anywhere, and it pays off in a huge way. This song's build is second to none in the genre, and to this day, one can't escape the creeping line of goosebumps that crawl up the arm as it approaches its aphelion.

Contrary to the notions recently held by the public metal scene and despite the noise of those who embrace scandal in lieu of taking a work at anything but its surface value, with two decades of historical reference on music in the same social sphere, and those who followed immediately in this group's footsteps — one thing is clear: Lateralus is hands down, one of the finest pieces of erudite songwriting and technical, lyrical, and atmospheric mastery the genre could ask for. It's a sole reason for wanting to dedicate a life to the pursuit of such perfection and its influence on the modern scene cross-genre is a nuclear explosion that can seldom be replicated or even touched. This album exists on a separate plane of existence, shoulder to shoulder with benchmark works that spring to mind at the mere mention of noteworthy art from virtually every medium. It's an all-encompassing, multimedia presentation of audio-visual supremacy that pulls audiences by the ears and eyes and strangles them with a level of depth and intrigue that reminds critics that it takes real fucking work to even try to approach a project of this scale and sensory appeal. Lateralus has survived for twenty years, but its mysterious and exciting legacy will endure for decades to come. We, the fans, celebrate by embracing the random of it all, finding our third eye, and chasing a dream of enlightenment that this album dangles in front of all who dare to follow the flaming eye.


tool alex grey
Cover art by Alex Grey


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