The Outward Spiral: How Lateralus galvanised Tool’s cutting edge

After a half-decade away, Tool returned to a rock scene consumed by nu-metal and pop-punk. Lateralus found them surging in the opposite direction…

The Outward Spiral: How Lateralus galvanised Tool’s cutting edge
Sam Law

Five years felt like an absurdly long wait for Tool fans at the turn of the Millennium.

Opiate, Undertow and Ænima had arrived, quick-fire, within the space of four and a half years. Held up by legal wrangling with record label Volcano Entertainment – a suit was filed against the band for entertaining offers from other imprints – we had to suffer and wait longer than ever for the Los Angeles quartet’s third LP. Although the elasticity of time (and having travelled 13-times-around-the-sun between 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum) makes such delay seem quaint now, those months and years away precipitated real change.

The white-hot hype had cooled, somewhat. As fascinating as the live, outtake and video collection Salival was, it felt like Tool's first stopgap release. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan going AWOL to drop stunning debut LP Mer De Noms with his comparatively accessible ‘side-project’ A Perfect Circle led many to fear that his main concern had been put on ice.

In the broader rock community, the shadow of grunge had fully subsided and even the subsequent wave of gritty alt.rockers seemed to be in retreat. In their place had risen a far gaudier breed of superstar. Even looking past the joyously bone-headed puerility of scene leaders like Limp Bizkit and blink-182, the likes of Linkin Park had helped revive rock’s cult of personality.

Lateralus’ May 15, 2001 release would see Tool re-plant their banner on the frontlines.

So, what’s the difference between your average Limp Bizkit fan and a Tool fan, we asked shortly after the record’s release? “The Tool fan can read,” Maynard quipped. “Tool fans tend to be an audience who are clued-up about life.”

Acid tongues aside, though, these were not the angry young(ish) men we had previously come to know. Across Lateralus’ mammoth run-time, Maynard no longer played the curmudgeonly victim. There was little of the wrath for poseurs and ignoramuses intruding on their high-brow existence. Gone were the near-subliminal gross-out references of yore.

Righteous indignation was no longer enough. It was time to step up. This was the point at which fans – and, crucially, the band themselves – began to understand that Tool weren’t just great, they could be the best. But breathing that rarefied air – being the smartest guys in the room – can be a lonely occupation. There’s something to be said for not alienating those around you, or putting them down. The path to enlightenment means lifting your contemporaries up.

“We’re definitely products of that [punk rock] frame of mind,” Maynard continued. “It’s about going against the grain – not necessarily for the sake of going against the grain, but because something needs to be done to redirect this broken situation in the music industry. Do we inspire devotion? I hope we don’t inspire too much. For people to sit in the lotus position is not the goal. The goal for us is to inspire people to go and do something for themselves…”

That didn’t equate to any new levels of openness, of course. Originally announcing the album title as Systema Encéphale – and a different tracklisting – they eventually unveiled the title Lateralus. As on their last release, it was an invented word, amalgamating the leg-muscle ‘vastus lateralis’ and the term ‘lateral thinking’ – going outside the box.

Crucially, intellectual toying aside, it is an album about reconciliation.

On a face-level, one could relate this to the resolution of their label lawsuit and Maynard’s return to the fold. But Tool’s music is anything but skin-deep. The album cover – designed by renowned artist Alex Gray – is a layered translucent insert that flips back to display the different layers of the human body. Hidden in the brain matter on the final layer is the word ‘God’. The songs within are concerned with the deeper human disposition. Thematically, it’s about the pseudo-spiritual philosophy urging people to let go of grudges, hate and limiting beliefs. Its tangled gospel: mankind must embrace its full potential.

In terms of sheer listenability, many (perhaps correctly) believe that Lateralus isn’t quite the match of the two albums that preceded it, but it is a deeper record than Undertow, and boasts a far more expansive intelligence than Ænima.

Its redemptive arc begins with The Grudge. All foreboding basslines and Maynard’s spat rebukes ('Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity / Calculate what we will or will not tolerate'), it highlights the ageless perils of close-mindedness and embitterment. Crowing 'Unable to forgive your Scarlet Lettermen' there’s even a playful reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel – and perhaps a wry nod to U.S. TV host David Letterman.

The Patient ponders the value of human life, while unlikely lead single Schism – its unmistakable bass hook still lodged in listeners’ heads two decades later – grapples with the dangers of communication breakdown: whether in the fragmentation and corruption of religious factions, the falling out between lovers or even the misunderstanding between a band at the height of their powers and their inexplicably wayward frontman…

'Bring the pieces back together,' Maynard begs. 'Rediscover communication!'

It wasn’t only philosophical outlooks flipped on their heads. An apparently inverted mix carried now-peerless drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor to the fore. Adam Jones’ guitar rises and falls in near-cosmic crescendos. Maynard roams, wailing in the background, his cries emanating from a place deep enough to lament the disconnect.

Although the sound is utterly singular, it needs to be placed in context. The record is haunted by the ghosts of ’70s classic-progsters King Crimson (from whom Danny drew endless influence) and near-contemporaries like Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden. It should be taken, too, in the light of contemporary releases including Deftones’ White Pony, Opeth’s Blackwater Park, Muse’s Origin Of Symmetry and perhaps even Toxicity from their LA-based brethren in System Of A Down.

But even compared to those records, Tool were far ahead of the curve.

Parabol and Parabola stand as twin pillars at the centre of the record. The former is a washed-out soundscape, eerily inhabited by itinerant didgeridoo and hopelessly traversed by Maynard’s downtrodden narrator. As it seamlessly segues into the latter, however, the music comes alive with the adrenaline rush of deliverance. The incredibly dynamic interpretation of human struggle and release remains as stirring today as it did then.

Ticks And Leeches tumbles through an unhinged drum solo, out through another eight minutes of stretched tension and juddering release. Taking aim at the self-interested fans and industry vampires with whom the band had come to contend over the previous decade, it could’ve unfolded with the petulance of old. Instead, as Maynard seethes 'Suck! Me! Dry!' through a lunatic climax, it feels like an ode to rising above and letting go.

Even the album’s interludes – previously treated as opportunities to poke fun at the most ridiculously highbrow of the band’s fanbase – are far more smoothly-integrated and soulful. Minimalist, almost Morricone-esque instrumental Eon Blue Apocalypse (Eon Blue having been the name of a chatroom on the band’s official site) deals with the loss of Adam’s 190-pound Great Dane. Mantra, named after the ‘sound’ of the human spirit, is the protracted echo of Maynard squeezing one of his Siamese cats.

The title-track represents the band at the height of their powers. The Fibonacci sequence – also known as ‘nature’s code’, ‘the divine proportion’ or ‘the golden ratio’ – is a pattern that runs through nature and high-art, from the shapes of beehives and snail-shells through masterpieces like Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man and Mona Lisa, Mozart’s piano sonatas and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Original title 987 was a reference to the vertiginously algebraic, descending time-signatures (9/8, 8/8, 7/8…) and lyrical motifs that undercut the song. Rather than focusing on the maths, though, the track became a vehicle for the record’s most positivist tendencies: 'There is so much more, and beckons me to look through to these infinite possibilities.'

Spinning out the almost 79-minute run-time (again, the full capacity of a single CD), Disposition, Reflection and Triad unfurl in an outrageous 22-minute sequence. Disposition explores the human need to rationalise the world in which we live. The weather is a provocative motif: things happen, but our utter helplessness means that worry is often futile. There is a strange beauty, however, in the human insistence on embracing that which bewilders us. Reflection was initially titled Resolution. It fixates on the ability to achieve anything through higher levels of human connection and consciousness. The instrumental Triad reckons on the pounding interrelationship between the core rock instruments: guitar, bass and drums.

Album closer Faap De Oiad (translating as ‘Voice Of God’ in the Enochian language) samples a classic radio-show call-in on Coast To Coast AM with Art Bell where an enthusiastic listener claimed to be an ex-Area 51 employee. Mysteriously, that broadcast satellite suddenly died during the call. Here, however, it’s part of a deliberately gleeful kiss-off that balances the band’s otherworldly focus and dry wit.

It’s a fitting conclusion to an album so sprawling and unruly that songs needed to be re-ordered to fit on the double-vinyl release. Audiences, of course, lapped it up, with over 500,000 copies shifted on its first week of release. Schism, too, won the GRAMMY for Best Metal Performance – ahead of Slayer, Slipknot and System Of A Down.

Just as you imagined they might get lost in their own high-minded piety, though, came the knowing wink, of which their old buddies Beavis and Butt-Head would’ve been proud. Stepping up to collect the gong, Danny flashes a grin, “I’d like to thank Satan!” Justin chips-in, “I, uh, want to thank my dad for doing my mom…”

Rapturous applause. Minds blown. Again.

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