Review Summary: Aenima is a dark, dense and impenetrable gem of an album - it might well require repeated listens to uncover its many treasures, but those who take up the challenge will be rewarded with what might well be Tool's secret best album.
I'm not sure what's more impressive about Aenima; the fact that it's got the most consistently brilliant set of songs (filler tracks aside) out of practically any album I can think of, or the fact that an album with an opener called 'Stinkfist' manages to be one of the most mature of its genre by the death throes of the last song. Either way, what Tool had on their hands in 1996 with this album's release was something quite unexpected, even for the most ardent lover of their previous album, Undertow. Aenima was a decidedly gritter, more grown-up release than its predecessor, both musically and lyrically, and it's one of the dankest, dirtiest, darkest and downright angriest albums one could hope to come across. And despite all of that, it's a complete and utter masterpiece.
As is now the custom with Tool releases, Aenima begins unassumingly, with a strange sound effect easing us into the first track, the aforementioned Stinkfist, before an ominous mushroom cloud of feedback swells into the basic, but somehow mighty, hammer-like main riff. When Maynard's vocals enter, they're obscured by a sort of filter, which adds weight to his lyrics which might otherwise seem, well, a little dirty. Being Tool, the lyrics are pretentious, but brilliant, throughout, and this track utilises the metaphor of fisting to show how desensitized society has become to things we see on the news every day. Whilst initially a bit offputting, once you get past the first shock of the metaphor ('is the chorus REALLY that unsubtle?!') the lyrics actually reveal themselves to be arguably more poetic than those seen on Tool's other albums, eschewing much of the pseudo-spirituality that put many off of 2001's Lateralus. The lyrics on Aenima are altogether more plain, more brutal and more to-the-point than any of Tool's later diatribes, and the more down-to-earth song structures reflect this well.
It's clear from the first riff of the album to the last that Aenima borrows heavily from some of the heavier grunge bands for its instrumental parts, with downtuned guitars and prominently mixed bass leading the way on almost every song. Obviously, Danny Carey is on his usual godlike form for the duration of the album, with the intro to the title track (bar one letter) and the bridge to Eulogy standing out as being in-your-face drumming insanity, which is always nice. Whilst the album certainly feels stripped back musically compared to the time-signature insanity of Lateralus and 10,000 Days, it still has its moments; jimmy, which is for my money Tool's most underrated song, features an outro that sounds almost post-coital in it's dreamy, shell-shocked soundscape. Third Eye features some raw, psychedelic solos from Adam Jones that should have put a stop to the various jokes about his ability, or lack thereof, but sadly didn't. Hell, Forty Six & 2 might be the band's most hypnotic song other than Reflection, with it's deceptively complex timing and tight bass-guitar interlocking in some of the riffs coming off as nothing less than dazzling. The songs might not be as overtly showy in their musicality as parts of, say, Schism or Vicarious, but there are definitely standout moments peppered throughout every song; they just require a little more attention.
Maynard is on top form vocally, too. Eulogy's outro in particular never fails to send chills down my spine, with Maynard's cry of 'to ascend you must die!' etc sounding like lame teenage rebellion when seen in text like so, but they feel like the most chilling battle cry of all time when witnessed properly. The title track's chorus is the worst possible way to get a non-Tool fan into Tool, but the expletive-littered anthem comes second only to deceptively cleverly named Hooker With A Penis in terms of its anthemic nature. The album is far swearier than later releases, but that fits the slightly grittier vibe nicely, without feeling immature. Except in, well, Hooker With A Penis, but that's the point of the irony in the song. The closing song, Third Eye, features the most spine-chilling wails of Maynard's career, with the mantra 'PRYING OPEN MY THIRD EYE' crashing into the preceding silence like a sledgehammer into the listener's brain. Maynard's voice is distinctively less nasal than on Lateralus and less refined than on 10,000 Days but, once again, this suits the mood of the album, which is pretty much summed up in the bleakness of the cover art.
I've omitted one key feature of the album, and it's the one feature that seems infuriate people' there are a LOT of filler tracks. Some of them are only thirty seconds or so long, some are as long as four minutes, but there are a fair number of them, and they do, eventually, get incredibly annoying. However, I don't think they're anywhere near as big a hindrance to the overall quality of the album as people think they are; the short ones are unobtrusive enough that they don't detract from the experience in any way, and the longer ones are, well, skippable. The proper songs here are more than refined enough, and they're damn well good enough, to make up for this 'flaw.'
I feel like I've described everything tangibly describable about Aenima, and yet, to be honest, the true quality of the album can't really be put down in word all too persuasively; I hate to say it, but it really has to be experienced. I actually despised the album on my first listen, hated it on my second, and disliked it all the way up until my fifth or so spin, at which point it metamorphosed into one of my top five albums ever. It's a dense, inscrutable beast of an album that requires much plumbing to access its depths, but, rest assured, they are most certainly there. In the shadow of Tool's 'magnum opus,' Lateralus, and their infinitely more accessible 10,000 Days, Aenima might seem, at first, to be the neglected younger brother of the 'big two' albums of the band's catalogue. But that's absolutely not the case; sure, it's a much more low-key affair than its bombastic successors, but Aenima absolutely deserves the amount of effort it takes to uncover its many charms. And, despite the opening lines of Stinkfist, if you truly give Aenima the concentration and time that this impenetrable masterpiece deserves, you'll be pretty damn convinced that Tool wouldn't have been able to change anything in this album to make it any more of a masterpiece than it already is.