Review Summary: Tool release their most mature album yet, but lose a large part of what makes them so compelling in the aging process.
Let's just get this out of the way now: Tool are my favourite band. I'm almost at the level of the stereotypical Maynard fanboy, bowing down to him and treating every pretentious statement he gives as Gospel, and revering Tool albums with the appropriate level of worship. That's why it's so hard for me to write an objective review of any of their albums; I was considering Lateralus, or Aenima, but I love them far too much to pen anything other than an essay on their genius. 10,000 Days, however, is a different matter; I didn't really enjoy it for a good few spins after it came out, and fans regularly label it as one of their weakest efforts. All the same, what's so new about a Tool fanboy reviewing a Tool album; why is this review even necessary? Well, after about a couple of years of digesting what I initially dismissed as Tool's lowest point, I think I've finally listened to it enough to give it the proper, objective (mostly) review from a fanboy's perspective that it deserves.
After Tool had freaked the world the *** out with the final track of it's 'magnum opus,' Lateralus, five years previously, 10,000 Days had a lot to live up to, and a lot of impossible expectations to meet, before it's existence was even confirmed. I actually got into Tool after this fervor of anticipation had long gone, and after the album had been deemed unworthy of it's predecessors crown. Going into the album with my expectations lowered in this way, I wasn't, perhaps, looking for the monolithic, earth-shattering record that Tool fans before me were, and so the opening chimes of Vicarious, taking up the torch where the bridge of Schism left off, were a surprisingly strong start. The song is a heavy rocker, with a classic Tool time-signature related twist, chugging along with a 5/4 groove that sounds surprisingly natural. It's actually one of Tool's best openers, and sets the bar for the rest of the album even higher than fan's expectations had.
A lot of reviews around the time of release agreed with everything I've just said about track one. But after that, a significant dropoff point seemed to occur for many fans and critics alike. They cited Jambi as slow and generic, the title track as overly ambitious, and some of the interludes as obnoxiously long, with almost as many ambient passages as 'actual' songs. Tl;dr? Tool had become hippies obsessed with overly long atmospheric pieces. They'd left the incredible trance metal that they'd refined on Lateralus behind. This was proclaimed by fans to be a fatal misstep; where had the Tool of old, the metal-oriented Tool that they loved, gone?!
Well, they'd just gone and grown up. The sprawling title track, the song that many held up as best exemplifying this 'new Tool's' self-indulgent, progressively influenced fallacies, surely demonstrates the exact reasons that the band chose to go down this new road; it's got stunningly mature lyrics, more atmospheric and deeper music, and some of guitarist Adam Jones' most tasteful solos, coupled with an unusual song structure, coming from a band who like destroying musical conventions for fun. Maynard's meditations on the death of his mother, and the failure of religion to help her, reach new heights of lyrical genius, and even though the lyrics on Lateralus were incredibly strong, especially for a metal album, one can't help but feel that this was Maynard at his best. The atmosphere in the track is palpable, and rivals even that of Reflection, a fan favourite and one of the band's best songs. Justin Chancellor's bass is tighter than ever, Adam Jones guitar solo is based on 'feel' more strongly than ever before, and Danny Carey is, well, Danny Carey being his octopus-like self. What's not to love?
Despite that paragraph of gushing, this is by no means my favourite Tool album. That title would be first reserved for Lateralus, and then Aenima, and then Undertow. 10,000 Days sits comfortably at the bottom of the Tool pile for me, and yet I still believe with absolute conviction that it's their most mature effort, their most refined outing musically. So where does this disconnect stem from?
Being a suitably pretentious Tool fan, I like to think it's something to do with passion. Sure, Vicarious is as perfectly constructed a hard rock opener as one could hope to find; it has Lateralus' first track 'The Grudge' beaten in terms of music, structure, solos and arguably even lyrics. But I love The Grudge so much more, because it has an unrivaled intensity, that only 'old Tool' seem able to capture. 'Right In Two' is an excellent closer to 10,000 Days, but it can't beat Third Eye, or Triad, or any other track off of Aenima or Lateralus that you care to name. It feels comparatively apathetic, as it reaches a typical climax for Tool, with power chord and bass tradeoffs entirely reminiscent of 'Forty Six & 2's' finale.
Despite all this, there is no real discernible difference of these negatives. Quite the opposite; as I said earlier, 10,000 Days sees Tool mature in almost entirely positive ways, on paper at least. But with this undeniable process of 'growing up', Tool seem to have lost a fair chunk of what made them... well, Tool. Sure, Jambi has one of the band's most inventive bridges, and some of Maynard's most thought provoking lyrics. It even has one of their most interesting endings, time-signature wise. But it's emblematic of all of the album's faults, just as the title track best shows 10,000 Days' successes: it objectively excellent, but Tool aren't about objective listening. Their best songs are some of the most intense pieces of music one could hope to find, and it was often the relative simplicity of the music that aided this. Sure, sometimes their lyrics were misguided and immature, sometimes their gimmicks went over-the-top in terms of pretentiousness, but they never lost that sheer intensity that makes them one of the most compelling bands of all time. They may have grown up on 10,000 Days, but that's not always a good thing: Tool were one of the bands least in need of maturing on the metal scene. Their much-anticipated new album will be of interest, even if only purely academically, to see which way they decide to go down the age scale.