Tool work at their own pace. Lateralus is only their third album of new material since 1993, and it reflects only the most modest shift in their big, lumbering thud & roll. By now, they have their own formula down cold: Start each song with a creepy rumble, whip it into a frenetic rage, slow it down for a gentler interlude, then rev it back up for the finale. It’s the sound of a giant beast slowly rousing from a slumber, raising havoc, and then settling back in again.
”Lateralus” reasserts Tool’s strengths: the way guitarist Adam Jones plays an ever shifting array of wormy riffs and avoids guitar solo clichés; the way Maynard James Keenan’s voice shifts from full throttle bellow to subtler singing, with a brief bit of Middle Eastern phrasing along the way; the bludgeoning power that results when Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and bassist Justin Chancellor lock in together. Then there’s the impressive way Keenan stretches out the word ”suck” to 10 full seconds in the bile filled attack ”Ticks & Leeches.”
Keenan also supplies ”Lateralus” with its occasional new, and welcome, changes. As always, he’s more than happy to pick over every mistake he ever made in life and pummel his brain senseless in the process. (He’s still the overthinking man’s headbanger.) He makes like he was born to suffer in ”The Patient” and castigates his ”narcissism” in ”Reflection.” But in a sign that he too is wearying of the Tortured Young Man shtick, Keenan appears to be reaching out to other people with something other than a baseball bat. It’s hard to state that as fact; Keenan’s lyrics, as always, remain elliptical. But ”Parabol” and ”Parabola” seem to be about lovemaking (”Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing,” he sings in the latter). The entire lyric of ”Mantra” is ”I love you.” And the romantic turmoil alluded to in ”Schism” isn’t all naysaying: ”Doomed to crumble unless we grow, and strengthen our communication,” he consoles, unexpectedly.
For all of Keenan’s explorations, though, ”Lateralus” repeatedly takes one step back. It isn’t simply that formula is formula. The music has a clean, fluid flow but sounds thin blooded and far less visceral — freeze dried — next to newer, younger Ozzfest regulars, like Staind, who have followed in Tool’s wake. Also, the band has admitted in interviews that the three musicians worked on the tracks while Keenan was off touring with side project A Perfect Circle, and the effect is noticeable. At times, his generalized musings seem to have been grafted onto the slithery melodies at random. As much as Keenan wants to break out of his mold, at least to some degree, the band keeps pulling him back in. ”Lateralus” leaves you admiring Tool’s principles while wishing they’d spent the last half decade getting out more.