Review Summary: An intense behemoth of an album, Lateralus manages to combine incredibly refined metal and unexpectedly perfected tribal elements into one intense, emotional whole that really does become 'something else.'
LARGE DISCLAIMER: Yes, this review is very very long, so I wouldn't be too offended should you just choose to go back to the homepage now. And, if you're not able to tell from the glowing conclusion here, this is my favourite album of all time. I did look at it as objectively as possible for me here, but I feel like I should get that out in the open now regardless. Anyway, hopefully at least a couple of people will read/enjoy this, so on with the review.
‘Intense.’ This is a word that I’ve seen being bandied about with increasing frequency in the world of music criticism. I’ve seen it used on completely undeserving bands and songs, used in the wrong context and, some of the time, it seems like the writer is thinking of an entirely different meaning of the word that I am. But if I had to sum up my favourite piece of art in one word, it would be that. And Lateralus is really, REALLY ***ing intense.
The interesting thing about Tool for me is, despite all of their ‘crazy time signature’ bravado and Danny Carey’s absolutely monstrous ability as a drummer, their music is, often, actually fairly minimalist compared to other progressive and metal bands. Sure, tracks like Schism and Vicarious boast sprawling song structures and multiple time signature changes, but when you actually listen to what’s really ‘there,’ it’s just one guitar, one bass, one drum kit and one particularly enthusiastic singer. Whilst seen as a weakness by some of the more atmosphere-focused groups in the genre, such as, say, Porcupine Tree or Opeth, this relative paucity of noisemakers is their biggest strength, as it’s what lets them hammer out their single-minded, aggressive musical ideas with a tenacity that’s almost terrifying in its relentlessness.
The first track of the album, ‘The Grudge,’ is probably the best example of this that one could hope to find. Its main riff is composed of only two notes, in a rhythm that’s shared by both the guitar and the bass, and its also matched by Danny Carey’s unrelenting assault on the drums that takes place for the duration of the album. The song builds and builds, and just when you think you can’t take it anymore, singer Maynard James Keenan lets loose one of the most vicious, and impressive, screams in music. Lasting for a full twenty seconds at least, it’s the only logical conclusion to a song that had started off as being incredibly, yes, intense, and that had simply gone skyward from there. After the final crack of the cymbals has resounded, you’re exhausted; the silence following the eight minute adrenaline rush that preceded it is, strangely, comparatively deafening. This is the experience of listening to Lateralus.
But that’s not so amazing, I hear you cry. And sure, many an amazing opener has resulted in a disappointing remainder of an album to follow it up, but the most endearing, and inexplicable thing about Lateralus is that it just refuses to let up. The only real moments in which the album allows you to come up for air is in the two filler tracks, and a particularly ambient section in the middle of ‘Ticks & Leeches.’ But the album as a whole is just such an assault on the senses, in the best way possible, that it might have to come with some sort of health warning on the case, were these brief periods of recuperation not present.
I often try to pick out a few choice tracks to discuss in my reviews, but Lateralus is essentially an album of five star material, a glorious run of thirteen tracks that manages to career from highlight to highlight. Take the (unexpectedly) big radio hit ‘Schism,’ a track that switches time signatures like a bipolar switches moods, before it all comes to a head in a glorious moment of controlled chaos. The resulting breakdown is hypnotic, and the eventual, furious outro is just as chilling after around the two hundredth listen as it is after the first. Or maybe your favourite moment would be how the ‘calm before the storm’ loitering of ‘Parabol’ explodes into the pendulum of a riff that begins its part two, ‘Parabola.’ Or maybe it’s the sudden dropout of every instrument except the guitar in the title track’s most jaw-dropping moment, before the full band comes back in to accompany it hammering out Tool’s most simple, but arguably most effective, riff that they’ve ever penned. Or maybe- you get the idea by now. Lateralus is not an album with any padding; other than the specifically filler tracks, the album is, for lack of a less clichéd analogy, a constant rollercoaster of euphoric highs and heavy, pulsating lows.
But when I say that Lateralus is intense, I’m not just talking about ‘oh my God that guitar riff was really fast and the drums were really loud’ intensity. At several points throughout the album, Tool ditch the ‘in your face’ riffing and change tacks unexpectedly, and they transform seamlessly into, well, an incredible trance band. Whether it’s the undulating guitar and bass duet that lulls you into a false sense of security in the middle section of ‘Schism,’ or the calm, reserved bass that Justin Chancellor delivers in the bridge of the title track, Tool are constantly proving that they can fit these gorgeous, sleep-inducing (in a good way, I hasten to add) sections into their metal, which is probably what earned them the now-overused ‘thinking man’s metal band’ tag, which they did, at least initially, rightfully own.
The perfect example of this trance like atmosphere comes in the three-part suite that comprises the ending of the album. ‘Disposition’ begins this trilogy with a quiet bass riff that’s joined by an equally restrained guitar riff from Adam Jones, and then Danny Carey adds to the key ingredient to what makes this newfound penchant for trance so irresistible: the tabla. It is, at risk of sounding like a philistine, ‘basically a weird bongo.’ Whilst that sounds like a terrible idea, I think the blame falls largely on my description of it rather than its actual implementation. Carey adds suitably hypnotic beats to the circular guitar and bass patterns, and transforms them into something that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place at a tribal festival in African territory. ‘Disposition’ introduces this motif without you really noticing, so soporific is its effect, and then the ‘proper’ drums enter again in ‘Reflection,’ which is an absolute monster of a track. Clocking in at eleven minutes, I’ve seen it described as dull, not going anywhere and pretentious. I can see all three sides to that argument, but I’d respectfully, and completely, disagree. The intro features the most hypnotic drumbeat I’ve heard outside of dance or house music, and it’s soon joined by a sinister bass riff. These two things repeat, admittedly with a small amount of variation, for the entirety of the song. Yes, eleven minutes. And I can understand how that sounds awful. But the way that Tool keep adding subtle layers to this, be it an Arabian-sounding synth line, an understated guitar part, or just a small drum fill, means that the track is constantly growing, but it does it in such a subtle manner that there’s no single moment that will cause you to sit up and go ‘aha, it’s actually started properly now.’ With headphones, ‘Reflection’ can turn into (and yes, I know I’m really stepping into classic Tool fan territory here, but for once it’s justified) a quasi-religious experience. Just allowing oneself to be lost in the thickness, the menace, and overriding sense of sheer darkness that ‘Reflection’ creates ranks amongst the most absorbing experiences one could hope to have, in music or otherwise.
Obviously, I’ve mainly focused on the effect that the music has on the listener in this review. But that’s just one of the facets of Lateralus, and only one part of the puzzle that makes it such a compelling listen, time and time again. I haven’t touched on the pretentious, but knowingly and brilliantly so, lyrics, the superb ‘nuggets’ hidden throughout the entirety of the album, the absolutely perfect artwork and the overall feeling that you get after listening through the album in one go (hint: it’s great). But after this many words, I feel like I’ve lost any of the readers I had to begin with a long time ago, so I’ll refrain. All you need to know is this; Lateralus is an intense behemoth of an album, managing to balance refined Western metal and unexpectedly perfected tribal elements into one mysterious, shifting whole that manages to cram just about every emotion that music can inspire into one marathon, enormously affecting listen. Yes, there are flaws, and yes, it is insufferably pretentious (much like this review, I expect) throughout, but Lateralus is just so much more than the sum of its parts that it transcends the medium of music and begins something different altogether, an experience like no other that I’ve found yet. Eat your heart out, Radiohead, this truly is music as art.