Publication: The Nashville Scene
Date: June, 2001
page: 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