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Tool Dissectional / Volcano Entertainment

Tool is back, and as frighteningly good as ever. Delayed by years of difficulties with their former label, Zoo Entertainment, and deferred somewhat by lead singer and lyricist Maynard James Keenan's other amazing project, A Perfect Circle, Lateralus was well worth the wait. Lateralus is unmistakably and gloriously a product of the unique and original collaboration among the four talented musicians who constitute Tool, the inimitable saviors of heavy metal. Though it may remind the listener of many other artists -the growling jams of the Melvins, the progressive compositions of King Crimson, the metallic-yet-meditative improvisations of The God Machine - Lateralus could only be a Tool record.

Many reviewers have faulted Lateralus for demonstrating a lack of progress and for treading much of the same ground as the 1996 masterpiece, Aenima. This reviewer, however, finds Tool to have developed even more than one might have expected in the intervening five years. It is a rare band that retains a common artistic vision and passion across so many years (we must remember that it has been nearly 10 years since Tool first wowed us with the Opiate EP) and through so many difficulties (the label problems, the side project, living in Los Angeles). Tool has not only persevered and survived, but they have also grown in similar musical directions and become a better band with each new record. Their first full-length, Undertow, was somewhat overshadowed by the grunge feeding frenzy of the early- and mid-90s, but outshone with musical ambition many of the lesser records that were dumped into bins in that post-Nevermind boom. The 1996 follow-up, Aenima, received critical acclaim and limited airplay, but took the complexity of Undertow to a whole new level, single-handedly giving birth to the prog-metal genre, occupied by few brave souls. A new millennium once again finds Tool pushing the envelope and pushing themselves to new heights of musical sophistication and brutality. Though likely to be consigned to a similar commercial fate as their previous albums, Lateralus demonstrates that Tool is committed to artistic development and musical quality above all else.

The record is filled with Tool's signature polyrhythmic grooves, unpredictably dynamic compositions, and Keenan's mystical lyrics and distinctive vocals. Most of the songs on Lateralus were written by the instrumental 75% of Tool -drummer Danny Carey, bassist Justin Chancellor, and guitarist and video visionary Adam Jones- while Keenan was touring with A Perfect Circle. Keenan recorded his vocals later, adding further structure and depth to the band's compositions, and bringing some of what he calls the feminine edge of APC back to Tool. Keenan's lyrical ambition and vocal histrionics add a new dimension to Tool's already-complex sonic landscape.

Since most of the compositions on Lateralus are in the eight- to nine-minute range, there is plenty of time and space for the band to explore vast musical and emotional territory. Many of the compositions seem to grow and metamorphose organically. Expansive tracks such as "The Patient" (which begins much like an APC song) and the two-movement "Parabol/Parabola" begin in one location and end in quite another. Quiet breaks in the action (most notably on the bone-crushingly beautiful "Ticks & Leeches") allow the listener time to lie on the floor, panting, before the perfect musical ass-kicking resumes. Mantra-like vocals over raga-like musical figures give way to full frontal assaults of ear-popping bass and crunchy guitar. Prepare to spend most of your first listen to this record shaking your head in disbelief and grinning with delight at the band's virtuosity.

While Jones's guitar work and Keenan's vocals are the most distinctive aspects of Tool's sound, this record does plenty to give the drummer some. Carey's understated-but-driving style on all manner of percussion instruments is integral to the development of most of the songs on Lateralus. In contrast to the in-yr-face guitars of "Schism", for example, or in concert with Chancellor's amazing bass work on "Reflection", Carey's drums guide Tool's compositions through their life-cycle of build-release-rest-build-release, providing backbone, structure, and drive.

The most staggering and laudable achievement of this new album is Tool's ability to present incredibly lengthy, complicated, and gothic compositions without allowing them to seem pretentious or overly mathematical. Tool's compositions may seem jam-like, but they are so carefully constructed and orchestrated that any comparison to Phish would be unseemly. Tool's craft on Lateralus has more in common with their prog rock brethren, such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and the aforementioned King Crimson. On the other hand, the aggressive edge of their music allows Tool to carve new paths untraveled by any of their influences. With Lateralus, Tool proves that heavy metal doesn't have to be dumb, and that intellectual heavy metal doesn't have to be boring.

Tool remains a band that few even dare to imitate because few are capable. In this age of anti-intellectual nu-metal and ersatz hip-hop hybrids, Tool manages to stay -if not a step ahead- at least a step to the side of the current trends. Lateralus confirms Tool's position as heirs to the heavy music throne previously occupied by the iconoclastic likes of pre-"black album" Metallica and Badmotorfinger-era Soundgarden. This latest entry in the Tool catalog is sure to hit many top ten lists this year, including yours.

Eryc Eyl

Track Listing

1. The Grudge
2. Eon Blue Apocalypse
3. The Patient
4. Mantra
5. Schism
6. Parabol
7. Parabola
8. Ticks & Leeches
9. Lateralis
10. Disposition
11. Reflection
12. Triad
13. Faaip De Oiad

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