I’ve got two reviews this time, and I thought I might size my reviews to the respective lengths of the albums in question. Shall we?
I’m not sure how Weezer has sustained their popularity. They’ve been gone for five years, following a disastrously unpopular second album (Pinkerton) that, no matter what Rivers Cuomo might say, isn’t that bad. Their just-released third album had a lot of strikes against it for me. First, it’s an obvious attempt to regain past glory – it’s self-titled, the cover art is strikingly similar to that of the first album, and they called producer Ric Ocasek back to punch up the hit potential. Plus, the thing’s only 28 minutes long.
Surprise surprise, though, Weezer is great: ten short, sharp songs that come on stage, state their business and leave without wearing out their welcome. “Photograph” is terrific pop, “Crab” will stay in your head forever, and if “Island in the Sun” isn’t the hit of the summer, it won’t be the band’s fault. Weezer(also known as the Green Album) is an old-time pop record, perfect for short attention spans. It’s the best example of spending five years on 28 minutes and making them all count.
Tool has also been missing in action for five years, but their return album, Lateralus, is nearly three times as long as Weezer’s. It needs every second of it.
There is no band in the world that sounds quite like Tool. The quartet uses the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals, and in fact Presence-era Zep might have been one of their primary influences. They write twisty, progressive epics that hardly ever clock in at under six minutes, and they have a pronounced disdain for radio-fodder choruses. Their albums take time to digest. In fact, the first listen will probably leave you a little bewildered.
If Lateralus is your first Tool album, I don’t envy you. The band has been pretty good about easing their audience into their vision. Even so, their last album, Aenima, gave me more trouble as a reviewer than almost anything else that year. Listening to the 78-minute Aenima straight is quite a bit like being run over by a steamroller in slow motion. Each song pummels you at an agonizing crawl, never varying from the same three or four notes. Aenima sounds like the missing link between Helmet and Dream Theater. I found that it was best in small doses, one or two songs at a time.
Lateralus is best all at once. That may be because I’ve heard and digested Aenima, though. Lateralus builds upon the sound they created on that album, and like skipping a grade in school, if you don’t have the basic foundation, you’ll probably have no idea what the band is going for. Even for those of us familiar with the group’s sound, Lateralus doesn’t offer easy answers.
For starters, the album contains exactly two instantly memorable hooks, one in “Schism” and one in “Ticks and Leeches.” While the rest will leave you in slack-jawed silence, it purposely won’t stick in your head. The songs all shift, move and mutate beyond their original riffs. The opener, “The Grudge,” weighs in at eight minutes, and exists in a state of perpetual motion. The dynamic shifts alone are breathtaking, and when vocalist Maynard James Keenan (the not-so-secret weapon of the band) opens up full throttle, even if only for a slipped-in two-beat measure, Tool achieves a power the guitar-rock bands they’re usually lumped in with can’t match.
In fact, one of the main reasons you won’t find universal praise for Lateralus is that very alt-rock environment they’re associated with. The members of Tool have, to their credit, done everything possible to avoid that very association. They never appear in their own videos, they hardly ever print pictures of themselves in their CD jackets, and they tend to perform incognito. The foursome could walk down virtually any street in America and not be recognized. The idea is that the focus should be on the music, not the people making it.
Unfortunately, the great majority of music critics don’t have any idea how to talk about the music, so they’re forced to comment on the social and cultural environment, the moody atmosphere of the lyrics, the theatrical masks – anything but the actual musical art. Yes, Tool came to prominence during the grunge-rock era of the early ‘90s, and yes, Keenan’s lyrics have an indecipherable gloom, but the band comes from an entirely different, much more musical place than Saint Cobain and his Not-So-Merry Men. They’ve gone to every effort to make timeless music, and to distance themselves from any cultural phase they may have existed alongside.
But here I am, commenting on something other than the music.
Lateralus plays like a single thought, a 79-minute suite that builds and recedes at perfect intervals. At times, it’s difficult to believe there are only four members, the mass of sound is so huge. Paradoxically, at times it’s difficult to believe the sound wasn’t created by a single organism, the band is so tight. There are no solos, no random moments. Each song has so many sections and turns that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the transitions from song to song.
On top of all that, the 22-minute trilogy that closes the album (not counting the noise sculpture “Faaip de Oiad”) is unlike anything the band has done before. It takes their trademark buildup to new levels, unfolding at a snail’s pace, and adding strange textures. “Reflection,” the middle section, soars with a shakuhachi flute melody. Keenan’s contributions are atmospheric and subtle, and they provide the only concessions to traditional songcraft.
If I’ve made Lateralus sound daunting, well, it is. Not only do you have to devote 80 minutes of your time to digesting it, you’ll have to do it three or four times at least. Unlike Aenima, it can’t be taken in chunks. It has to be swallowed whole, another admirable stance in the face of the single-oriented alt-rock revolution. If you let it, though, Lateralus will blow your mind.
To sum up, then: Weezer’s Green Album is a satisfying snack, while Tool’s album is a filling seven-course feast. It depends on what you’re hungry for. Sometimes a box of Cracker Jack will do it for you, and sometimes you need a lasagna feast with a side of garlic bread.
And sometimes a metaphor should be put out of its misery before it causes irreparable harm.
See you in line Tuesday morning.