You need time to deal with Lateralus — a lot more than the seventy-seven minutes it takes just to play the whole disc. And for much of that time, you will wonder: What the fuck is going on here? Drums, bass and guitars move in jarring cycles of hyperhowl and near-silent death march. The mix is inside out — roiling percussion and grunting bass to the fore; the singer bellowing from the far back of the band’s black roar. And where is the melodic and narrative resolution in this crushing darkness? Do these asymmetrical chunks of distemper — one-minute sound games, jumbo two- and three-part suites — even qualify as songs?
So much of Tool’s third full-length studio album — five years in the waiting, due in part to extended legal turbulence — makes so little sense at first. But that is one of Lateralus‘ most endearing qualities: It rolls out its pleasures and coherence slowly, even stubbornly. Most of the so-called new metal has the dramatic heft of thin air. But the L.A.-based Tool — guitarist Adam Jones, vocalist Maynard James Keenan (back from his other band, A Perfect Circle), drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor — are obsessed with weight, the cumulative force of muscle, imagination and immaculately wrought suspense. Tool have everything it takes to beat you senseless; they proved it on 1993’s Undertow and their 1996 Grammy-winning beast, Aenima. Here, Tool go to extravagant lengths to drown you in sensation.
The prolonged running times of most of Lateralus‘ thirteen tracks are misleading; the entire album rolls and stomps with suitelike purpose. In “The Grudge” (8:34), “Schism” (6:43) and “Lateralus” (9:22), the episodic swerves are compressed under single titles. Other numbers run together like connective tissue. “Parabol” and “Parabola” are basically distorted reflections of each other, twinned images of the same nightmare. In “Parabol,” Keenan’s voice is bathed in wet, gray echo and crawls like a wounded man through the implied devastation of Carey’s hissing cymbals and Chancellor’s gaunt bass lines. “Parabola” is the emotional remix, an explosive rescoring of that agony with the additional payoff of hard-won deliverance. Carey goes into jungle-telegraph overdrive, and Jones’ guitar is a colossus of distortion; his break just past the midway point is so broad and dense with fuzz that it doesn’t seem to have any notes — or air. You could die of suffocation in there.
“Ticks and Leeches” needs every one of its eight minutes to reach its bloody apogee. The song is an opera of nervous tics: the vicious chop of the central hook; a sudden drop into virtual nothing; the cleaving effect of Keenan’s charred screaming; a final triple-time freakout. Some sections stop on a dime, in mid-rage; the quiet bit is a serious test of patience, a long veil of faint strum and smothering peril. But each of those changes is a potent, necessary link in a snowballing indictment of parasitic evil. When Keenan goes into his climactic seizure (“Suuuck! Meee! Dryyy!”), he sounds like he’s truly up to his neck in harpies and lawyers.
In another era, Lateralus — co-produced by Tool and engineer David Bottrill — would have been considered progressive rock, ten tons of impressive pretension. Jones’ hairpin riffing in “The Grudge,” the cool, dreamy intro of “The Patient” and Carey’s frenetic Afro-Zeppelin drumming all over the record suggest a grand mutant blend of vintage Jane’s Addiction and King Crimson circa Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. The only things separating Pink Floyd’s spacewalk “Echoes” — which ate up Side Two of 1971’s Meddle — and the twenty-two-minute sequence of “Disposition,” “Reflection” and “Triad” on Lateralus are thirty years and Tool’s impulse to cram every inch of infinity with hard guitar meat and absolute dread.
But in this heavy-music century, awash in masks, turntables and Ming the Merciless goatees, Lateralus stands for a vanishing common sense in hard rock: that the only extremes that matter are those in the music. Indeed, the most amazing thing about Lateralus is Tool’s extraordinary restraint. One reason why these songs seem to go on forever is that the band never rushes a good idea: the soft, protracted tension of “Disposition”; the Arabic-metal jamming in “Triad.”
But the reason you don’t keep checking your watch is because Tool never play like they’re just killing time. “I know/The pieces fit,” Keenan swears repeatedly against the rolling thunder of “Schism.” Lateralus is a monster of many parts, made to be swallowed whole.