Tool – Ænima (1996)
I subscribe to Encyclopedia Metallum’s view that Tool is not a metal band, but instead an alt-rock band that occasionally delves into the ‘progressive’ label. Outside of the musical tools they took from bands like King Crimson (which you’ll learn about if you’re willing to read this entire review), Tool seems to rely on making relatively complicated arrangements from relatively simple, sparse musicianship. That general approach is good for coherence over long periods (an example of this succeeding is A Blaze In The Northern Sky by Darkthrone), but if done wrong, it doesn’t make for entertaining listening. Either way, the record sales make Tool out to be a sort of alt-rock messiah, so it’s worth understanding what they did and why so many people like it.
One thing I’ve noticed about Ænima is that it has a large dynamic range, but songs tend to focus primarily on the edges of such. In other words, lots of quiet sections and lots of loud ones, not much in the middle. Transitions between volume levels are also abrupt, which is frequently played for contrast, although verses tend to be quieter than choruses. The fact these songs have verses and choruses is also worth mentioning, but also important is the amount of content bridging them – at some times (like “Eulogy”), it almost takes the form of a second set of verses and chorus interleaved through the first section. Even shorter songs here employ these techniques, which results in Tool having a very melodramatic sound. While all the band’s members put on capable and musically varied performances, I still think of Tool as a heavily vocal/lyrics driven band. Maynard James Keenan appears to exert a heavy influence over the tone of this band’s recordings, and his actual performance on Ænima is definitely charismatic. There’s a lot of bitter, spiteful sounding content on this album, apparently due to the various band members’ desires to shock and frighten. It occasionally gets pretty funny, too – I particularly enjoy how “Hooker With A Penis” ends with Maynard calling for us to buy his new record.
I mentioned significant similarities to King Crimson here – Tool seems to occupy a sound mixing the compositional approach of the 1980s/Adrian Belew fronted lineup of the band with the 1970s/John Wetton lineup’s aesthetic tendencies. This is obviously not a 1:1 matchup, but the taste for extended compositions and time signature experimentation did make an impression on me in both cases. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that KC’s 1990s lineup formed because its members noticed the spawn they had birthed unto the world and wanted to one-up them. King Crimson (even on Thrak, the album that idea lead to) tends to be more elaborate, with more technical instrumentation, more nuanced dynamics, a greater variety of lyrical topics, etc. Tool’s other influences are ones I am less familiar with, but I presume they’re somewhat wide-ranging – they do carry on the “shock-rock” tradition of so many ’70s and ’80s bands to a degree, amongst others. They probably also listened to a bunch of heavy metal and alternative rock albums, but that’s probably not as much of a revelation to the average reader of this blog. Either way, Ænima does represent a fusion of these many traditions. Due to its commercial success, it may have pushed millions of listeners to further explore genres of music that they might not have been exposed to otherwise. If I hadn’t pushed deep into metal and prog before listening to this album, I might’ve done so as a result of it. That, if anything, should be a marker of its success in fusing tropes, but whether or not you can say Tool belongs to any one school, at least on Ænima… …is an ordeal.
Highlights: “Eulogy”, “46 & 2”, “Die Eier Von Satan”, “Ænima”