Remember the good old days, when rock stars were all torment and self-loathing? Alas, the tortured soul long ago became an endangered species. Kurt Cobain is seven years gone; his peers, from Chris Cornell to Eddie Vedder to Billy Corgan, have lightened up, at least a little, or gone back underground. Although the new generation of rap & rollers has plenty of issues with the world and the humans who inhabit it, their anguish isn’t the same. They’re showmen who genuinely enjoy themselves on stage, and their anger is directed outward, not inward. Besides, why would Kid Rock feel the urge to off himself? He’s apparently too busy shuttling between Pamela Anderson and Sheryl Crow.
It’s into this brave-new-world scenario that monolithic art-metalists Tool return after a six-year layoff. The band burst out of the Hollywood rock scene a decade ago, and the anguished wail and self-flagellating stance of singer and lyricist Maynard James Keenan were very much of their time. But nothing else about the band was: Tool played elongated, musicianly prog-metal, a sharp contrast to the punky roots displayed by their grunge peers. Over the course of two albums, one EP, and a boxed set, they became something of a metal version of the Grateful Dead. Like that band before Jerry left the building, Tool followed their own game plan. They didn’t write songs (or ”singles”) as much as labyrinthine epics. They became anti-stars who worked hard at their mystique, never appearing in their own videos and rarely including photos of themselves on their albums. (On stage, Keenan wore more masks and costumes than Genesis-era Peter Gabriel.) This determined integrity has led to more than 100 websites and a huge fan base willing to follow them anywhere — even to a side project like last year’s A Perfect Circle.
Tool also work at their own pace. Lateralus is only their third album of new material since 1993, and it reflects only the most modest shift in their big, lumbering thud & roll. By now, they have their own formula down cold: Start each song with a creepy rumble, whip it into a frenetic rage, slow it down for a gentler interlude, then rev it back up for the finale. It’s the sound of a giant beast slowly rousing from a slumber, raising havoc, and then settling back in again. Lateralus reasserts Tool’s strengths: the way guitarist Adam Jones plays an ever-shifting array of wormy riffs and avoids guitar-solo cliches; the way Keenan’s voice shifts from full-throttle bellow to subtler singing, with a brief bit of Middle Eastern phrasing along the way; the bludgeoning power that results when Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and bassist Justin Chancellor lock in together. Then there’s the impressive way Keenan stretches out the word ”suck” to 10 full seconds in the bile-filled attack ”Ticks & Leeches.”
Keenan also supplies Lateralus with its occasional new, and welcome, changes. As always, he’s more than happy to pick over every mistake he ever made in life and pummel his brain senseless in the process. (He’s still the overthinking man’s headbanger.) He makes like he was born to suffer in ”The Patient” and castigates his ”narcissism” in ”Reflection.” But in a sign that he too is wearying of the Tortured Young Man shtick, Keenan appears to be reaching out to other people with something other than a baseball bat. It’s hard to state that as fact; Keenan’s lyrics, as always, remain elliptical. But ”Parabol” and ”Parabola” seem to be about lovemaking (”Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing,” he sings in the latter). The entire lyric of ”Mantra” is ”I love you.” And the romantic turmoil alluded to in ”Schism” isn’t all naysaying: ”Doomed to crumble unless we grow, and strengthen our communication,” he consoles, unexpectedly.
For all of Keenan’s explorations, though, Lateralus repeatedly takes one step back. It isn’t simply that formula is formula. The music has a clean, fluid flow but sounds thin-blooded and far less visceral — freeze-dried — next to newer, younger Ozzfest regulars, like Staind, who have followed in Tool’s wake. Also, the band has admitted in interviews that the three musicians worked on the tracks while Keenan was off touring with A Perfect Circle, and the effect is noticeable. At times, his generalized musings seem to have been grafted onto the slithery melodies at random. As much as Keenan wants to break out of his mold, at least to some degree, the band keeps pulling him back in. Lateralus leaves you admiring Tool’s principles while wishing they’d spent the last half decade getting out more. B-