Metal, Prog / Tool Dissectional, Volcano, RCA / August 30, 2019 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
Tool was one of the key groups in what I increasingly have come to think of as metal’s equivalent to post-punk: the alt-metal era of the early and mid-90s, when bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Mr. Bungle, Sleep, Neurosis, Nine Inch Nails, Primus, Electric Wizard, Opeth, Godflesh, Earth and others infused the heaviness of metal with sounds from a wide variety of genres – such as hip-hop, industrial, stoner rock, funk and drone (and that enjoyed a brief revival in the mid-00s through bands like Isis, Sunn O))) and Om). Tool is arguably the most successful band from that era – and, in my opinion, also the best – and whose sound is firmly rooted in the synthesis of metal and prog-rock (e.g. Yes, Pink Floyd and, in particular, King Crimson), which has become increasingly evident throughout their journey from relatively straightforward song structures to lengthier tracks of considerable structural and rhythmic complexity. But on top of the sheer sonic complexity of their work, what also has made them particularly important is its intellectual dimension and their uncompromising attitude towards popular culture. Indeed, all of this has been extremely crucial to this particular writer – since it was to a large extent through music such as theirs that I first came to cultural consciousness in the mid-00s and understood that culture can – and should – be about more than simply entertainment, but about everything from personal exploration and discovery to collective emancipation.
More specifically, the critical core of Tool’s music consists of the struggle against closed systems of thought – cultural, religious and political in particular – that are utilised in order to control people on a mass scale by manipulating them into conformity, as well as the speculative dimension of human transformation that these power structures threaten to cancel out. Emerging from L.A., Tool were initially close to the nexus of what the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer referred to as ‘the culture industry’ in the 1940s – and there is indeed something distinctively Adornian in Tool’s critical attitude towards the blandness and shallowness of a popular culture, which they – like Adorno – deplore because of how it lulls people into zombie states of consumerism and conformism. And just like the rise of Hitler and Nazism deeply affected Adorno’s writing, the members of Tool – while not a political band per se – have often spoken out against the horrors imposed by the Bush-administration and the way its War on Terror was propagated through the mass-media. However, contra Adorno, Tool does not view popular culture as a lost cause to give up on, but as territory to reclaim and reformat. In other words, the struggle against popular culture has to take place within popular culture itself, because – as they have put it – there are only a limited number of spaces available and someone has to lay claim on those and show people that there are other options to choose from and higher ideals to explore. And it is indeed encouraging to see that a band with this kind of critical and sonic weight actually can reach the level of popularity that they have – also in our current cultural landscape of streaming and social media, when their whole back catalogue just recently became available digitally for the first time, in conjunction with the release of their new album, and entered into a lot of top positions on various charts.
Hopefully, this and the release of Fear Inoculum will allow a new and younger generation to discover Tool – and for those of us who already were fans the last time around, the latter marks the end of a 13-year long wait for new music since back when 10,000 Days was released in 2006. It almost feels strange to finally have the new album available after all this time – of course also taking into account everything that has happened in-between (from social media and ubiquitous computing to climate change and political polarisation) – but it is certainly a record that is delivering, even though it does not mark the same formal mutations as the earlier ones. Rather, like 10,000 Days, it is a record that sees the group expanding on their by now signature synthesis of metal and prog. In particular, their already lengthy track durations have now been extended further – to the point where all six ‘main tracks’ on the album are at least ten minutes long. Interspersed between these is an additional group of shorter tracks (approx. 2-4 mins each, although some are only available on the digital version of the album) that, like those on their earlier albums, work as welcome ‘breaks’ between the sonic onslaught of the main tracks. Altogether, the digital version of the album is almost 90 minutes long – and it is indeed an album in the best possible sense, given that it really should be listened through from start to finish.
The main tracks are, of course, characterised by a remarkable structural and rhythmic complexity. Like Autechre, Tool seem to have reached a point in their career when they feel comfortable to simply take their time to fully explore the possibility spaces of their formal commitments – and the results are certainly stunning. Particularly on tracks like the 13-minute long ‘Invincible’ (my personal favourite so far), which moves through a dizzying amount of sections and rhythmic twists, as well as the 14-minute long ‘Descending’ and the stunning 16-minute closer ‘7empest’. Indeed, whereas the previous records include one or two tracks of this magnitude, on this one there is nothing else – which feels like the logical next step for a band who always has been firmly committed to pushing previous boundaries. Another thing to note is that the record is not in fact that heavy – which I am guessing might annoy some of the hardcore metal fans, but not this particular listener who puts formal complexity above metal heaviness.
In terms of the individual performances, there is, however, a slight imbalance. The long and very jam-based songs have meant that (singer) Maynard James Keenan has taken a less prominent role compared to on the older albums – although that is not necessarily all bad, since it also showcases the band’s understanding of restraint when appropriate. Yet, on the other hand, (bass player) Justin Chancellor also feels somewhat absent from time to time – particularly in contrast to his great contributions to 10,000 Days, which include some truly stunning moments. Instead, both (drummer) Danny Carey and (guitarist) Adam Jones are very much in the driver’s seat(s) throughout the record – with Carey even having his own track, the four-and-a-half minute long ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’, which is a synth-and-drum-improv based on a similar routine that he has done during the band’s recent live shows. Although, for me, it is undoubtedly Adam Jones who steals the show on basically all the main tracks. His guitar playing has always taken considerable leaps forward on every new record, and on this one it is simply stunning – with the rhythmic section in the second half of ‘Invincible’ and the amazing guitar solo (that lasts for over three-and-a-half minute) in the middle of ‘7empest’ as the absolute highlights (and there is plenty to choose from).
At the same time, it is of course difficult to review a record of this density after having listened to it for no more than about a week, and there are certainly aspects of it that I still have not processed entirely (the lyrics in particular) simply because of the time it takes to absorb it all properly. But it is at least certain that the band does not fail to deliver even against the backdrop of our current cultural landscape of multitasking and constant distraction, which seems to be very much incompatible with the amount of attention that a record of this magnitude demands. And while some indeed may feel that the idea of concentrated listening to a long and demanding album is out of joint with the cognitive frenzy of our oversaturated cultural landscape, there are certainly virtues with it that should not be forgotten.