The Anniversary

Lateralus Turns 20

Volcano
2001
Volcano
2001

Seventy-eight minutes and 51 seconds. Tool packed that sucker to the damn brim.

Lateralus, which turns 20 years old this Saturday, uses every bit of real estate a compact disc can offer, both figuratively and quite literally. It’s a wonder the universe didn’t collapse in upon itself from the sheer density. “The manufacturer would only guarantee us up to 79 minutes,” drummer Danny Carey said at the time. “We thought we’d give them two seconds of breathing room.” How generous. It remains one of the longest single albums released on CD.

For both the uninitiated and real Tool-heads alike, Lateralus is a lot. Tool in general can be a lot, depending on your patience for supremely talented art-metal weirdos who love dick jokes and videos starring depressed stop-motion humanoids. By 2001, the band had spent a decade inventing and reinventing themselves, and yet we still weren’t any closer to figuring them out. At the very least, you could never fault Tool for being anything other than themselves. But what exactly were they? And what the hell was Lateralus? Well, that’s even harder to pin down.

It’s funny to think that at the time, Lateralus ended the longest drought between albums for the band. Considering the wait times fans have had to endure since its release, five years is a walk in the park, but a lot was happening during those five years. Since the release of 1996’s chart-topping Ænima, Tool had found themselves headlining Ozzfest and winning Grammys. They were involved in a lengthy legal battle with their own label, Volcano Entertainment (“fret for your lawsuit”). They dismissed their long-time manager, who then sued them for commission (“fret for your contract”). They were accused of being sellouts, becoming the bullshit three-ring circus sideshow of freaks they always detested. For a band as obsessed with their image as Tool, Ænima somehow dragged them further into places they didn’t necessarily want to be.

I can imagine how baffling this must’ve been for the band. It’s not as if Ænima — whose song titles included such gems as “Stinkfist” and “Hooker With A Penis” — was some sort of play to the mainstream. Their songs had become longer, more meticulous, and more complicated. Fan favorites “Forty Six & 2” and “H.” weren’t exactly Green Day singles. They were labyrinths. On stage, the band slunk further back into darkness. Singer Maynard James Keenan developed a bizarro Peter Gabriel routine involving costumes, drag, and elaborate face paint. He would writhe and wriggle like an alien trying to bust out of its own skin. Meanwhile, the band leaned more into extended jams and technical prowess. Yeah, they were playing Ozzfest during that time-period, but they were worlds away from fellow main-stagers Limp Bizkit and Sevendust. Even Ozzy himself must’ve been babbling more incoherently than normal after sitting through “Third Eye” for 20 tour dates.

By the end of the decade, the label disputes put the band in a tough spot. So, Tool took a bit of a break. Keenan went on to form A Perfect Circle with Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, releasing their debut album Mer De Noms and touring the following summer. Guitarist Adam Jones passed the time playing with Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, Carey drummed with the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, and bassist Justin Chancellor… well, I imagine he studied more time-signatures. Another Tool album wasn’t necessarily a given. Fans would have to wait, which was unfortunately something they would have to get used to doing quite often. Luckily, in the grand scheme of the Tool universe, the wait wouldn’t be very long.

In January of 2001, Tool mysteriously reemerged with an announcement of a new album called Systema Encéphale, which included a 12-song tracklist with titles such as “Riverchrist,” “Pain Canal,” “Numbereft,” “Encephatalis,” “Musick,” and “Coeliacus” (these names all suck, but they’re still better than “Disgustipated”). It turned out it was all a hoax, a ruse to throw off those greedy kids using Napster with bogus song files. (I mean, “Pain Canal”? Really?) While Metallica attempted to sue the file sharing service out of existence, Tool simply aimed to trick its users with a flood of fake titles and a constantly shifting tracklist. The band, who didn’t release their catalog on streaming services until the summer of 2019, were similarly skeptical of the MP3 revolution. “I think there are a lot of other industries out there that might deserve being destroyed,” Keenan said in 2000. “The ones who get hurt by MP3s are not so much companies or the business, but the artists, people who are trying to write songs.”

All this was rooted in the band’s admirable belief that an album should be treated as a work of art experienced as a whole, and not something you can cut up into singles. Their shortest single clocks in at 4:56 and is called “Prison Sex,” so yeah, not much of a singles band. Nevertheless, when “Schism” dropped in the spring of 2001, it became Tool’s biggest song to date. It even cracked the Hot 100, a feat the band would not repeat until “Fear Inoculum” in 2019. In both instances, the chart success was a testament to how hotly anticipated a new Tool record was at the time. That intense public hunger would finally be satiated in May, when — without any further pretense or trickery — Tool released the real Lateralus. Twenty years later, it’s still a ton to deal with.

There is a yin and yang running through the heart of Lateralus; a push and pull, restraint and release. Keenan seems obsessed with symmetry and the idea of two contrasts working together as one. On Lateralus, he ditches the gross innuendos and reaches for something more universal and profound. The album begins with “The Grudge,” a juggernaut of an opener that references Roman mythology, Saturn’s return, and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. “Let go” is the repeated refrain in the outro, a mantra that Keenan revisits throughout the album. He isn’t praying for tidal waves to drown out the fools. Instead, he’s searching for answers on the human experience, on what divides and unites us, on what we can control and what we can’t. He knows the pieces fit ’cause he watched them fall away. We are “not alone in this body,” “pain is an illusion,” etc. The album peaks with its title track, on which the band uses the Fibonacci sequence to illustrate the symmetry of life while Keenan implores the listener to “embrace the random.” You could spend days, even years, trying to figure out what the fuck Keenan is trying to convey throughout Lateralus, and there are certainly many more people smarter than me who can probably find the answers to the Da Vinci code within “Lateralus.” I frankly don’t have the brainpower.

What I do know is that this album rules. It is Tool at their absolute best — a challenging, career-defining album. I love it when a band goes all in and comes out on the other side with something so bombastic and weird that it just clicks, leaving the listener helpless to marvel. And certainly, Tool threw everything they had at Lateralus. Fibonacci sequence aside, there are layers and layers of weird shit at every turn: Tibetan monk sounds, slowed down droning interludes that may or may not be Maynard’s cat, digeridoo samples, Middle Eastern chimes, an eerie radio transmission about aliens, and thanks mostly to Carey, more time changes than a Swatch warehouse. The musicianship here is above and beyond anything that came before it. In the opening minute of “Ticks And Leeches,” the band sounds totally locked in. It’s also perhaps the most aggressive vocal Keenan has ever put to record. Upon revisiting the song after spending time more recently with Fear Inoculum, in which Keenan’s vocals almost feel like an afterthought, it’s astounding to hear what he can be capable of vocally. The man hasn’t sung like that since.

Everything on Lateralus sounds huge. The bass and the drums are mixed a little bit higher, adding more to the rumble of impending doom. The guitars growl, drone, and swirl, sometimes in deafening layers, and the riffs are endless. Seriously, I don’t think it’s appreciated enough how catchy the riffs are on here, both from Jones and Chancellor. The aforementioned “Schism” contains some of the most memorable bass and guitar parts in modern rock outside of “Seven Nation Army.” On “Parabol/Parabola,” which cuts the album in half (remember: symmetry), the guitars sound outright frightening. “Parabola” emerges like a bright light from the muddy depths of its predecessor, and after what is the more straight-ahead rockers in Tool’s catalogue, the sound that comes out of Jones’ guitar is so massive it could pulverize a whole city.

But for all its bloat, the brilliance of Lateralus ironically lies within the band’s restraint and their ability to build suspense. Not a refrain is rushed, nor a moment wasted. They’re careful not to let any payoff arrive until it’s good and ready. Much of the album’s biggest moments come after prolonged stretches of mediation, like in the aforementioned “Ticks And Leeches” where the explosive payoff comes after the song reels you in for a few minutes of gentle strumming. The closing trinity of “Disposition/Reflection/Triad” is defined by patience, one that rewards as long as you’re willing to sit through 20-plus minutes of music beyond “Lateralus.” The album is a marathon, not a sprint.

In the years since, Tool have seemingly adopted this mantra of patience as a business model. The ’90s are long gone, and the band is not releasing music at the pace that they used to (which, even back then, wasn’t exactly Guided By Voices prolific). It’s been two decades since Lateralus, and the band has only released two albums during that time. It seems that they’re fine with waiting until the music is fully marinated. It’s what makes Lateralus so unique in the band’s discography, this balance between restraint and payoff, one that they haven’t found since. 10,000 Days had perhaps too much unearned payoff, Fear Inoculum a little too much restraint. It makes sense that since Lateralus, Maynard has found a passion for wine, because what else do you need to make wine other than patience, time, and a whole lot of grapes, right? But whether it’s wine, music, or anything else in the human experience, there must be a balance; a symmetry, if you will. And much like a carefully crafted bottle of wine, Lateralus remains deeply complicated but fully rewarding. You just gotta give it a little time.

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