Heaviness and Light

Hallucinogens and extraterrestrials behind them, Tool is finally ready for some "emotional traveling"

There's no reason to make a record every year if you haven't changed or grown as a person enough to warrant it," Tool drummer Danny Carey says. "I'm fine with the schedule we keep."

Apparently, the record-buying public is too — or at least fine enough to keep supporting a band that won't hesitate to make its fans wait five years between albums. It might be hard to believe, but it's been more than 15 years since Tool first sent chills down the collective spine of the heavy-music community with its unprecedented sound. Now that the band is considered an institution, it's easy to take for granted how revolutionary Tool sounded to some metal fans when it first broke on a big scale in 1993. Of course, rock bands have always sought to match heaviness with urgency, but Tool raised the bar on what it means to bring heightened emotionality to riff-based music. They've also incorporated abstract elements in both their subject matter and approach to rhythm that make their work strangely compelling in a way that, even after all these years, is hard to pin down.

In a recent conversation with New Times, Carey himself shed some light on Tool's intangible uniqueness. "We just try to use the words in our songs and the artwork — which we all contribute to, and the music also — as a whole," Carey explains. "We try to do the best that we can so it can be interpreted on a lot of different levels. That's what good art usually does, where there's something in it for everyone. It doesn't really matter to us who gets it and who doesn't, as long as we're doing the best we can."

Even for a band that's made a concerted effort to break new ground with each release, its latest album, 10,000 Days, sees Tool heading into uncharted territory. Carey and his bandmates — guitarist Adam Jones, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, and bassist Justin Chancellor — play for long, drawn-out passages and with more restraint than in the past. At times, Carey — normally an inescapable presence — almost recedes into the music and becomes as light on the ears as, say, a delay effect on a guitar chord or a background vocal. So much is Carey's touch on the drums corralled into the realm of texture that when the album was leaked onto the Internet in advance of its release, suspicions arose that the music was a decoy and that the actual release would turn out to be heavier. In the end, though, 10,000 Days turned out to be exactly what some fans initially doubted and dismissed: a work that demands patience and even a sense of stillness from the listener and lends itself to introspection.

"There's places on the new record," Carey offers, "where maybe it's mellow and leads toward a kind of mellower emotion, but there's also places that are heavier than anything we've ever done. Hopefully, our palette is being expanded in every direction possible. I hope we're still getting heavier, but we're also able to maybe provoke emotions that we haven't before. That's the goal."

As if to match the tone of the music, Keenan in particular shows new levels of sensitivity and vulnerability, especially on the album's centerpiece, a song that addresses the coma Keenan's mother has been in for more than 27 years (hence the album title). Whether Keenan is in fact telling the truth — he and the rest of the band have had a field day telling tall tales in the media and still make wildly deceptive claims — the stark disclosure in his performance speaks for itself. That's saying a lot for a guy who once sang an explicit song about child rape from the perspective of the victimizer.

Indeed, Keenan's performance on 10,000 Days stands apart from what he brought to the band's earlier releases: the naked, antireligious rage of Opiate, for example, or the dark, hallucinogen-driven, occult-tinged vagueness that permeated the band's breakthrough, Undertow. Even compared to the tones he contributed to more recent albums, like the intellectually abstract Aenima and New Age-leaning Lateralus, the new album allows the listener unprecedented access to the band's frame of mind.

Especially on Undertow, it almost seemed as if the band were trying to pull the listener into an altered state of mind with its music. Because Keenan often kept his lyrics vague while addressing disturbing themes, it wasn't always clear that the band wasn't making you feel uneasy or even anxious and terrified on purpose. With the band openly endorsing psychedelic drugs at the time, Undertow arguably offered a kind of low-risk substitute for a bad trip, with songs that, if focused on properly, could cut right through to the heart of your insecurity and dread. But the experience of listening to 10,000 Days feels, for lack of a better word, safer and more secure all around, though no less evocative. Carey, however, doesn't agree.

"To me," he answers, "any art form puts people in that frame of mind if it's effective. I don't think our motives have ever really changed as far as that goes. I just think we've gotten better at what we do. Our songs have become more concise vehicles for emotional traveling. We always have different conversations with each other as we grow and learn about ourselves, and the intention's still pretty much the same. I guess, as long as our intentions are pure, we're hopefully inspiring people to go in a good direction instead of a bad one. You never know, though — some people could hear a Beatles song and go wipe out a family. It's not up to us. We just have to do our job and then cast it out."

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