A few nights ago, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan dreamed he was flying like a superhero over rocky terrain. Gradually the mountains turned to sand, and the singer landed on a round pedestal in an ancient Mayan city. An iron cage suddenly sprouted around him, and jagged spikes began descending from a rock above.
"I figured the spikes were close enough together that I couldn't get around them," Keenan says. "I had this overwhelming feeling that the people who put me there wouldn't allow me to leave, and I'd just be alive there with spikes through my arms and legs, so I consciously put my head in the way of one of the spikes to end it all."
Leave it to a psychiatrist to judge whether Keenan is afraid of being metaphorically imprisoned or impaled, but it doesn't take an advanced degree to recognize the singer's nightmarish imagery in Tool's music. Since they released their first EP, Opiate, in 1992, Tool have brooded in some of the darkest corners of alternative metal and have been handsomely rewarded. Their last album, Undertow, went platinum, thanks largely to a morbid stop-action video, and the band's new one, Ænima, debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart.
Dense and looming, Ænima spirals through a bleak landscape of metallic rhythms and industrial textures, mutating at will like a sadistic demon from an H.R. Giger sketchbook. Full-fisted riffs dissolve in a poisonous sonic fog, only to be replaced by more potent and convoluted musical passages. Through it all, Keenan pleads like an incarcerated sociopath, moaning for acceptance one minute, hurling bloodcurdling threats the next. But as harsh and unsettling as Ænima is, Keenan says it revolves around themes that are nearly as cleansing and life-affirming as a New Age crystal convention.
"It's about unity, evolution and alternative perspectives," Keenan insists from the safety of his home, in Los Angeles. "Evolution didn't stop with us getting thumbs. There are a lot of metaphysical, spiritual and emotional changes going on right now, and we're just trying to reflect that. We're not that different from Tori Amos in that sense."
Maybe not, but Tori Amos doesn't sing about genetic mutation ("Forty-Six and 2"), and she certainly doesn't advocate sinking California into the sea ("Ænima"). "People in L.A. have lost touch with what really matters," complains Keenan. "Sometimes it seems like a big fucking enema would be the best thing for everybody. It would be the most violent and terrifying way to start over, but I wonder if it wouldn't be for the best."
Keenan is only half-joking. Tool believe in the betterment of humanity, but they feel that transformation comes at a price and that when people resist change, the cost goes up. "I really believe that we're living in an age where it's as if we've just discovered that the earth is round again," the singer says. "Just look at the birth of quantum physics, and alternative medicines and power sources. There's a lot of resistance to that stuff, so things are going to be really chaotic and violent for a while."
"Chaos is the undercurrent of everything that happens in life," adds drummer Danny Carey. "You can equate our music to childbirth. It's brutal and harsh, but there's still a beautiful thing occurring."
For Keenan, chaos has long been a fact of life. The 32-year-old singer was born an only child to a Baptist family in Akron, Ohio, and spent much of his youth bouncing from place to place. By the time he entered the army, in 1982, he had lived in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
When Keenan was 11, his mother died, and although he won't be specific, he says his childhood was scarred by other "huge traumatic things," which he later confronted in Tool's 1994 single "Prison Sex," a song about child abuse.
Keenan eventually moved to L.A., where he met Adam Jones, who was working as a sculptor and special-effects designer. In addition to playing guitar with Tool, Jones would later design all of the band's scintillating videos and artwork, including the Ænima inner-sleeve hologram of a man who appears to be fellating himself. Tool's lineup was completed in 1991 by Carey, whose exband mates in Green Jello shared a loft with Keenan, and bassist Paul D'Amour, who was a friend of Jones'. Last year, D'Amour left because of creative differences, and he was replaced by Englishman Justin Chancellor, whose band Peach had played in Europe with Tool, in 1994.
In Jungian psychology, the "anima" refers to the feminine inner self. But in the school of Tool – which combines the theories of Carl Jung and noted mythologist Joseph Campbell with the dark vision of occultist Aleister Crowley and the sci-fi cyber rattlings of writer William Gibson – the term is bastardized into a naughty double-entendre. The band finds such contrasts titillating, which sheds light on such tracks as "Die Eier Von Satan," featuring an angry German voice spouting a recipe for Mexican wedding cookies.
"A lot of the songs are pretty serious and introspective, and we thought some of them should have a comical quality," explains Keenan. "It's kind of like those odd moments in a David Lynch movie that come between the really intense parts."
Ever since heavy metal was spawned, devotees of the genre have explored a wide range of apocalyptic themes. Tool feed off the same nihilistic energy as some of their heavy-metal kin, yet they're convinced that the human race will continue to adapt and survive. "If you believe that we are connected to the earth and that the earth does have a consciousness, you would think that she would make us understand that connection so we wouldn't destroy ourselves," says Keenan.
The singer pauses, then lets fly with a far stranger idea: "What nature should do next is figure out some way to plug the computer chip into our DNA so we could become re-aware that we are connected, and that we have a compassion and a love for ourselves and what's around us. Perhaps that's been the message of all those people throughout history who stood up and spoke out, and were nailed to sticks and burned to death."
This story is from the November 26th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.