Review Summary: Tool's astonishing breakthrough album
Aenima is Tool's major breakthrough work. Compared to its predecessors, Aenima is a completely different beast. It is a lot more complex and harder to digest. It may take months or even years to fully absorb it, and you are well advised to start with Undertow if you have never heard any Tool before. Once you've internalized their earlier work, you can come to Aenima and spend quite some time with it. Otherwise, like some people tend to do, you may just write them off as a pretentious act who are terribly overrated by their fan base, which would be a big loss for you.
On Aenima, Tool continues to explore the depths of the human mind and soul, touching on themes such as pain, frustration, guilt, and social decay. As with every Tool album, the band puts forth thought-provoking lyrical messages in their songs, rendering them more powerful through creative musical passages and compositional ideas. Even though former bassist Paul D'Amour is now replaced by Justin Chancellor, the bass parts on this album do not lack a single thing. On the contrary, Chancellor's bass, along with Danny Carey's precise drum work, is still central to the songs, as Adam Jones mostly builds his guitars around his ferocious rhythms. Starting with "Stinkfist", the album opener, the bass sound is ever-present, deep and growling throughout its five-minute course, a midst crackling effects, cool percussion, and effect-laden guitar sounds all of which serve to highlight vocalist Maynard Keenan's light verse/heavy chorus dynamics.
While I agree Tool's music is quite hard to decipher on first listen, the diversity in each song is astonishing. Each piece is defined by thick threads of colors and inventive instrumentation. The weird sounds and eerie percussion in the intro of "Eulogy" suggest a somewhat droney track, but with the arrival of a big bass motif and processed vocals, the tone escalates to impossible heights, resolving with a richly melodic chorus and dense guitar theme blanketing the almost incomprehensible spoken rants atop weird effects and clear bass lines. Maynard's singing is more versatile than both Opiate and Undertow combined. He goes from fragile low registers to tortured screaming on "H." in order to match the flow of the song. This song has an amazing intro with awesome drumming and there is a killer guitar line in the middle where the same note is repeated over and over until it becomes addictive. This dreamy aura is then replaced as the band pick up pace and aggression towards the end.
There are fifteen tracks on the album, but not all of them are songs per se. Some of the pieces have been put on the disc to enhance the unity, such as the static hissing of "Useful Idiot"; the weird piano track "Message to Harry Manback", where an Italian-accented immigrant who has allegedly been deported from the country relays a hateful message about the American government; the slightly goofy analog synths of "Intermission"; or the hysterically crying babies with sickening guitar feedback of "Cesaro Summability" are all pieces under the two-minute mark. The most interesting one of them all, however, has got to be track ten, "Die Eier Von Satan", which means "The Eggs of Satan". It begins with chunky bass and industrial beats, and the sound is incredibly huge. All of a sudden a guy with a strong East German accent begins to give the recipe for something which I fail to understand and after listing all the necessary ingredients he just says something along the lines of "Now put all these things and bake it in 200 degrees, just without the eggs of satan". I know it sounds weird, and it really is, but it contributes immensely to the band's artistic expression.
On the more song-based material, "Hooker with a Penis" grooves hard in an almost post-punk sensibility with fast guitars and thick rhythms; whilst the way the keyboard riff on "Intermission" is interpreted on guitars on "Jimmy" is simply amazing. The bass and drums behind the guitars are stomping and the vocal melody is incredible. It is impossible not to see how much Dead Soul Tribe's Devon Graves has been influenced by this band. This is arguably the most overlooked song on Aenima, and its grinding riffage at the very end is crushing to say the least. Speaking of influences, the opening bass line of "Forty-Six & 2" must have certainly inspired Dream Theater when they were writing "Home". This is another song with sublime percussion, a gripping chorus, and swift chord progressions. The instrumental break highlights Danny Carey's prowess - he is perhaps the most creative drummer in rock today.
The album also harbors the mystical "Pushit", something Tool would further explore on Lateralus; the killer title track with its snaky rhythms and socially observant lyrics; the dissonant "(-) Ions", complete with wind effects and numbing guitar drills. The CD ends on a curious note, with the almost fifteen-minute number "Third Eye", which starts with an excerpt from famous comedian Bill Hicks (to whom this album is dedicated) commenting on the positive effects of drugs on artists before delving deep into siren-like guitars, sparse drum beats, and the anti-song aesthetic of progressive rock instrumentation. Adam Jones' guitar work is at the center of the piece, and he fearlessly unleashes an abrasive sonic assault, utilizing tons of guitar feedback and somewhat tuneless interludes. Maynard's singing is intense and angry as he spews the lyrics with utter disgust, especially in the final verse.
Aenima is one of the most important albums of the 90's. Again, I agree it's not for everyone, but one cannot deny its impact on all kinds of bands from all kinds of genres.