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The Tool Page: An Article

Publication: The Nashville Scene

Date: June, 2001

Transcribed by
dave (

 title: Air of Mystery 
author: Ben Taylor 
I have a theory about the new Radiohead album, Amnesiac. 
Rumor has it that after touring for two years behind the 
surprise massive success of OK Computer, delicate English 
flower and resident artistic ego Thom Yorke didn't want to re-
create the experience. So when the band went back into the 
studio, Yorke was determined to create a new sound, 
something that didn't merely come across as OK Computer 
Part Deux. What ensued was two years of writing, recording, 
experimentation, and internal band conflict, as Radiohead 
attempted to reject expectations and make an artistic 
statement. In the end, they had Kid A, which featured a 
bracing, brave sound from a smart band. But when you've 
spent two years and a lot of your label's money, you've got 
to sell a lot of records to make up for it. This is where my 
theory comes in. Since Radiohead didn't have a highly 
marketable product on their hands with Kid A, they decided to 
take several of the unused tracks from the sessions, put 
them together as a record, lie to the public about the second 
batch of songs being more "accessible," and reap the rewards 
as people ran to the stores. 

I know that seems awfully cynical. Especially when Radiohead 
present themselves as a band rife with artistic integrity. But 
one has to figure out some way to explain the disparity 
between what Radiohead have been saying about the new 
album and what it actually is. Amnesiac is in many ways less 
accessible than Kid A and more like its bipolar twin. While 
underneath Kid A's pristine sonic landscapes there was 
yearning in Yorke's voice and in the band's performance, 
Amnesiac has a cold, sterile feel, as if everyone involved 
were dispassionate about the project. The song structures are 
no more conventional than Kid A; there are no real choruses 
to speak of, and certainly no hooks. Claims were made that 
this album would be more band-oriented, reminiscent of The 
Bends. In reality, though, there are only about two songs that 
come close to full band arrangements sans technological 
gizmos, but even those aren't as engaging or organic as the 
straightforward "Optimistic" on Kid A. 

Of course, one of the things that has made Radiohead so 
irresistible to so many is their alluring sense of mystery. The 
marketing campaign for Kid A last year--few band 
appearances, no singles, no videos--basically sold you 
mystery until you broke down and bought the record to try 
and uncover its secrets. But on Amnesiac, some of those 
quirky traits are starting to feel silly. One presumes that the 
title might refer to the band forgetting much of what it had 
learned about songwriting. If I had been around, I would 
have suggested a perhaps more apropos title in Consonants 
Are Exhausting. I say this because Thom Yorke's singing 
appears to have devolved into extended vowels and nothing 
more, which serves to make any of the obtuse lyrics that 
sneak through intelligibly seem more ludicrous than 
mysterious. And the band's avoidance of conventional 
songcraft has begun to feel more obstinate than daring. All 
of which leaves one with a feeling that Amnesiac is nothing 
more than a batch of leftovers--as if these were Radiohead's 
initial attempts at transforming their sound before getting to 
the revelations on Kid A. Certainly, the record is more 
fascinating and ambitious than most groups' scraps; few 
bands could pull off an electronica experiment like "Pulk/Pull 
Revolving Doors" quite so effectively. And if nothing else, 
they display a complete mastery of haunting soundscapes. 
So perhaps Amnesiac will end up being their There's a Riot 
Goin' On: a difficult, emotionally conflicted record that will 
only reveal its genius years later when its audience has had 
enough time to digest it. For the moment, though, it feels 
like nothing more than the detritus of a long, creative winter. 

Much like Radiohead, the band Tool depend upon mystique 
to cultivate their following. Rarely do members of Tool appear 
in public. They're even more withdrawn when it comes to their 
videos, which usually consist of some impressive stop-motion 
animation depicting a rather gruesome sci-fi theme. And their 
albums have rather bizarre titles like Aenima or Salival. As 
with Radiohead, it all serves to seduce their audience into 
buying their unmarketable music (art metal in Tool's case). 
And considering that it's been five years since their last 
record, the debut of their latest release, Lateralus, at No. 1 
on the Billboard charts is quite a testament to how well that 
seduction has worked. 

I saw Tool once, many years ago at a Lollapalooza show in 
Atlanta. Nobody knew who they were at the time, but their 
name and their merchandise hinted at an obviously heavy 
sound. That particular afternoon was easily the most 
miserable day that I have ever had to endure at an outdoor 
festival. The July heat was up to a good 95 degrees by 1 
p.m., and many of my fellow concertgoers were dousing 
themselves under showers only to find themselves 
completely dry five minutes later. When Tool took the stage 
in the blistering 3 p.m. heat, I remember feeling like I was 
going to collapse from the combination of the heat and 
Tool's ear-shredding, unrelenting riff assault. After that 
experience, I wasn't really interested in getting to know Tool. 
Over the years since, though, I've always been intrigued by 
their meticulous presentation. Their grim animated videos 
were admittedly the coolest use of the format on MTV in the 
mid-'90s. Also, they had a fervent fan base that, much like 
Deadheads, made you want to figure out what exactly you 
were missing. 

Well, after listening to Lateralus a couple of times, I can 
truthfully say we're not missing much at all. Despite lead 
singer Maynard James Keenan's flirtation last year with the 
more conventional metal side project A Perfect Circle, Tool 
are still Tool. Which means that, much like on that hot 
Atlanta day, I'm still begging for mercy and praying for it to 
end. With the album's non-instrumental tracks lasting an 
average of seven-and-a-half minutes, such cheery sing-
alongs as "The Grudge," "Schism," and "Ticks & Leeches" 
meld with 10 other tracks to form one 80-minute miasma of 
egghead metal crunch and tribal rhythmic atmospherics. 

In fact, the most annoying thing about Tool is that, for a 
band who want to create these ominous epics, there's very 
little variation in sound to reel you in. The basic Tool formula 
pretty much adheres to this: slow, meditative guitar figure; 
quivering, empathetic vocal; sudden blast of big riffs for 
several minutes; ambient rolling middle section; end with two 
or three minutes of big riffs. The setup never differs. What's 
more, they don't even vary the tone of their instruments in 
the slightest. The guitar texture is identical in every song, as 
is everything else. So instead of sucking you in with their 
musical dexterity, they bludgeon you with a bunch of 
oppressive, interchangeable pretentiousness. Their radio 
singles, isolated from the other tracks mimicking the same 
tricks, are far more engaging. 

I'll give Tool this much: They certainly seem to have some 
idea of what their mystery is about. Amnesiac, on the other 
hand, starts to feel like those seasons of The X-Files when 
you realized Chris Carter was just making it up as he went 
along. Lateralus sounds as though it might have some sort 
of cohesive thesis-- at least to the band. And Keenan 
certainly gives it his all to convince us. But Tool's latest 
comes across as unending metal background noise that 
makes you wish you had a cool video to watch along with it. 

Posted to t.d.n: 06/15/01 07:12:48