“A Critique of the World”

Man, how’s this for irony: TOOL’s breakthrough ’96 album Aenima, in which the band laments the “Freaks here in this hopeless fu**ing / Hole we call LA”, [1] gathered some notable praise even from the LA Times itself. Aenima seems to have predated Metacritic, as I can only find scores for Lateralus and 10,000 Days, but looking at its various critical ratings on Wikipedia does almost resemble watching some beautifully apocalyptic tidal wave. The verdict was in, with of course the lone, three-month late exception of the juvenile, petulant Rolling Stone fart courtesy of Robert Fricke: doomsaying was a hit. It was kind of a big deal, even.

Now, what with TOOL being one of the most popular bands on the planet today, having headlined a Lollapalooza (which I was lucky enough to see, in ’09) [2], and proviso of a lead singer who now owns his own vineyard, which is in Arizona, for the record, a lot can, and should be drawn from Aenima. Musically, with lambasting Fender-stack blitz, it’s cutting edge. Lyrically, it’s futuristic, without ambiguity. Yet, it’s still quintessentially ROCK at its core, which makes it easy to understand and process, arguably its finest strength.

Further to its credit, it came out in a time, the mid-’90s, when the world was really sick of rock, or at least claimed to be sick of it (I think it was just sick of itself, the same skittish hipsters who claimed to shun CD’s this decade). For ground zero of this immature insolence we can of course look to the venerable David Fricke, who attempts to note the “claustrophobic dead end of alternative metal,” as if anybody were actually sick of this music other than these rich coke-snorting brats.

TOOL’s next two albums were also full of riffy sludge-rock and were likewise widely popular, spawning the aforementioned Lolla headlining slot and all. Ultimately, I think, part of why the band stayed so popular and why fans continued to flock to the music, even today anxiously awaiting a rumored new album, is that the band can be relied upon to belt out that very selfsame brand of Fender fury, to crank up the axe noise and let your ears bleed with something quintessentially American, which would never be borne any gadgetry or the krautrock Audubon.

But how you mistake the fact of Aenima being SINGULAR is beyond me. I know this one hardcore TOOL fan who names Lateralus as his favorite band LP and I agree that one definitely rocks, dour Pitchfork rating largely null and void, but even at that album’s most kinetic and forceful moments it doesn’t approach the multi-pronged spiritual attack of Aenima, which has full-out, Pantera-approximating metal (“Eulogy”), catchy songs (“Forty Six & 2”), that distinct apocalyptic stomp (“Aenima”) and then even a sort of psych-sludge indictment of really basic, immediate but universal life frustrations in “Third Eye.” TOOL’s Maynard James Keenan had the balls to come out and fully, indulgently proclaim from the mountaintops that he was frustrated, and that’s how he became one of the most successful men in rock.

Along with TOOL, Keenan has branched off into a couple of pretty successful side projects in the last couple decades, as well. Personally, for my part, I probably prefer the bluesy, rhythmic and sassy Puscifer to the overserious, sappy and melodramatic A Perfect Circle. TOOL, though, almost stands as a sort of “pure” entity to date, especially in light of all the LA bands with the penchant for going electronic like Abe Vigoda and HEALTH, in this way altering their identity to a disconcerting extent, to where their “brand” isn’t what it once was, even if the music does progress in a way that is quantitatively precocious.

But the world, for as much as it obviously wants to rock, sometimes doesn’t even have the guts to stand up and say that, or to admit that such a thing would really be good for it. Here, we stand in 2019 in hopeless suspension before the idea of a new TOOL album, when already in ’96 they’d basically proclaimed the world dead to rights. We are in a world composed of noxious fibers and of entropic egos, a world which often attempts unsuccessfully to communicate with itself, and in which those very deaf ears, it seems, are sometimes the lucky ones.


[1] Of course, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they just didn’t get that far in the album, as the title track comes 12th out of 15. Aenima isn’t exactly an appetizer like The Strokes’ Is This It? or Weezer’s green album.


[2] It should be noted that happily I would have skipped TOOL for the quirky, inimitable Beastie Boys had the cosmos been so willing.


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