Tool seemed profoundly out of place on the Ozzfest tour three years ago. It was easy to stick out among the growls, rap-rock rhythms and boilerplate pierced-eyebrow image of the baby neo-metal bands that surrounded them. The year before, at Lollapalooza, frontman Maynard James Keenan wore false breasts and a whitened face. At Ozzfest, the band brought the tempo down, used stagecraft that drew upon Noh theater and flashed abstract graphic symbols. Keenan’s voice, pop-trained and emotional, could sound lonely amid the swirl. The band members didn’t advertise that they had come to freak you out; they provided no helpful notes as to how you should react.
Tool knows that objects and images without explanations attached become totems —they sit there and get under your skin. Stick them on your rock & roll record, and you’ve got occultish mystery. They learned this trick from the best of them: Pink Floyd, who used plump, bewildering pigs and cows before they started getting brick-over-head obvious with The Wall; and Led Zeppelin, whose fourth album still raises a paranoid shiver (it has no name, dude!).
The band’s stopgap measure for fans before the release of its next studio album this spring is a two-disc CD-and-DVD package, adorned with wavy, reptilian fingers, called Salival (although the album art makes the title difficult to discern). Its lasting contribution will be the CD, which has nine tracks, some unreleased, some live. The live songs include “Third Eye”; the driving “Part of Me”; and “Pushit,” with a tabla break to increase the oceanic, drony feeling Tool can establish onstage. The studio tracks include Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” with Keenan masking his Robert Plant influences via sonic treatment that makes him sound as if he’s singing into a watering can.
But Salival‘s cool appeal is the DVD, compiling four of the band’s videos and offering an extra scraplike song. The videos — “Sober,” “Prison Sex,” “Stink Fist” and “Aenema” — have a uniform feeling, though only two are directed by Adam Jones, the band’s guitarist and visual thinker. Visually, Tool provide a good translation of what Led Zeppelin would likely be into if they made The Song Remains the Same today — in a culture that’s gulped down and found places in the digestive tract to stow away the multimedia work of Matthew Barney and the films and videos of David Fincher. It’s a medical rather than a bucolic scariness; a less literary, more emergency-room sense of the eerie.
The weird dream images of “Stink Fist” include pain-wracked, tadpolelike men made of sand who eat nails and inhale electric wiring, which gives them instant brain swelling. “Aenema” stars a fat, Babbitt-like creature — the Establishment or the Father, one guesses — with a kind of thin screen of flesh over his eyes and mouth, holding a fetus-size creature; later, a centaurlike skeleton figure is shown with an animated umbilical cord. And the dollhouse-in-hell grimescapes of “Sober” are unnerving mixtures of childhood innocence and where you go after being escorted into your coffin. As a hidden bonus, there’s “Hush,” a track from the 1992 EP Opiate, accompanied by an early, grainy black-and-white film of the guys in the band, nude, with parental-advisory stickers over their crotches and asses. “I can’t say what I want to. . . . Why don’t you go fuck yourself,” sings Keenan. (Subtle.)
The films are surreal and arty — to use kind words for pretentiously undergraduate — and well suited to Tool’s sound. The numbing browns and dirty greens are analogous to Jones’ effects-treated guitar, the slow, repetitive nature of the songs and the dirt-from-the-subconscious feeling of it all. You, the viewer, are led toward the contents of the DVD via symbols —the weird, watery fingers, red parallel lines that could be blood vessels or guitar strings, and disturbing images from the videos.
It almost makes sense that as an interactive package, there’s not a lot of extra meat on the bones here; no special angles, no the-making-of voice-overs, not many extra features to play with. The extra technology of DVDs is geared at the moment toward making the product less mysterious and more fully explicated, and toward giving the consumer more control. But with its serious fetishism and King Crimson affinities, Tool is a band of control freaks, and mystery is the biggest, baddest card in its hand.