Analysis: Remembering Tool’s Lateralus
May 15 was the 13th anniversary of Tool’s Lateralus, and in a retrospective last week in The AV Club, writer Jason Heller explained that it arrived at a weird time, this number-one album and the purest expression of a formidable hypno-prog metal quartet. In 2001, grunge was bleeding out and nu-metal topped the charts; stalwarts like Fear Factory, Slayer, and Megadeth foundered; Gojira, Mastodon, and Behemoth were embryonic. Meanwhile Tool enjoyed a status similar to Rush’s: arena-packing but invisible to the mainstream. Though the former seemed unlikely (via odd, monochrome metal), the latter makes sense not least of all because of Tool’s incidental opposition to nu metal.
Though not at first. But by Lateralus, singer Maynard James Keenan had peeled back a few layers of ego and was no longer using a microphone to damn and scare people; no more was he playing the thin-skinned victim who wished destruction on phony people whose existence was intruding on his peace (“Hooker With A Penis” “Ænima”), and discontinued was his practice of grossing out listeners with yarns of dark and/or immoral sex (“Prison Sex” “Stinkfist”). In their place were pleas for connection and association with his fellow humans. Positivity. The antithesis to grunge and nu-metal.
But why? Well, by Lateralus, Keenan might’ve realized how easy it had been to be right — yes, Hollywood people are silly; yes, it’s a bummer that lazy people are the loudest; yes, there is a minefield separating each human being — and instead opted to tackle the task of being good. Across Lateralus, Keenan demonstrates his new view that the way to change people is not to shout at them while listing their weaknesses; instead, he endeavors, in union with the powerful instrumental core of Tool, to seduce and engage people, to assure them that something bigger is within reach. Like Heller states, it’s primal and cerebral, an appeal to the intellect and the instinct.
But that only explains the “why” of Lateralus, not the “how.” In 2001, mind- and genre-expanding albums arrived from the Deftones (White Pony), System Of A Down (Toxicity), and Devin Townsend (Terria). Strong was the emphasis on, y’know, transcendence and boundary-pushing; gone for good were videos on MTV so popular music was due a re-prioritization. And finally, a few months away was 9/11 — which Lateralus seems to presage in several places — so white dudes rapping over undercooked riffs and trebly beats would soon be as relatable as a pool of hot barf. (Self-pity, however, never goes out of style.) Taken together, all this constructs a setting for the diamond Lateralus, an order we made unwittingly that was filled by a set of nine profoundly alien songs (of which Heller singles out “The Patient” as quintessential, fuck yeah.)
In a vaccum, Lateralus is an awesome listen and a journey into the hearts of four deeply needy, demanding, and hopeful men; placed in context, it’s a social event. Just see its follow-up 10,000 Days (2006), on which Keenan seemed eager to be viewed less like a prophet and more like a rocker, and so resumed his griping about dummies and haters (“Vicarious” “The Pot”). But even that doesn’t seem regressive in 2014: We know that if nu-metal is to make a comeback, then it shall be Tool who blow it away. Again.