This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
There’s heavy and then there’s heavy. And when it comes to sheer sonic wallop, there are tons of bands heavier than Tool — bands that play twice as fast, twice as loud and twice as hard. Bands whose guitar solos can part your hair like a mad barber and whose bass drums pound your sternum like a hyperactive paramedic. Bands whose sole purpose in life seems to be to loosen the bowels of every living thing within a 100-mile radius.
But Tool … well, Tool are a whole ’nother shade of heavy. The heavy that‘s usually preceded by, “Like,” and followed by, “man.” Heavy as in complex, challenging, uncompromising, difficult, intelligent and stubbornly non-conformist. Heavy as in in-freaking-credibly freaky.
By that measurement, Lateralus is hands-down the heaviest album on the New Release wall at your friendly neighbourhood CD shop. From its high-ticket packaging (it comes wrapped in a sleeve of faux X-ray film, accompanied by a clear plastic booklet that looks like Timothy Leary had his way with some anatomy-textbook plates) to its high-impact sonics (79 minutes of mathematical, technical, architectural sonic structures that combine the art-rock of King Crimson and the underground metal sludge of Black Sabbath) to its high-IQ lyrical content (a philosophy based on alien conspiracies, subliminal messages, theological transmogrification and good old white-hot seething anger), Lateralus is as impenetrable, dark and mysterious as the initiation rites at the Skull and Bones Society.
The ceremony begins with the rubbery, Tony Levin-like bassline to The Grudge, which simmers and snarls as frontman Maynard James Keenan paints a portrait of malice: “Wear your grudge like a crown of negativity / Calculate what you will or will not tolerate / Desperate to control all and everything.” More than an hour later, it comes to a sudden halt in the midst of Faaip de Oiad, a soundscape of dentist-drill static, frenzied percussion and paranoid rantings about extra-dimensional beings.
What lies between the two end points is often tougher to map. As usual, most of Tool’s songs are anti-songs — seven-and-eight-minute progressions whose prime-number time signatures, hypnotically circular guitar lines and rambling changes replace more conventional musical components like verses, choruses and solos. Many of the songs flow into and out of each other, blurring the edges and turning Lateralus into an epic-length journey to the edge of the universe and the centre of your mind. “I know the pieces fit ’cause I watched them fall away … disintegrating as it goes, testing our communication,” Keenan bemoans in Schism. He’s singing about a relationship, but he could be describing a listener trying to wrap his head around this album.
And make no mistake, if you’re going to get anything out of Lateralus, you’re going to have to work for it. Like Radiohead’s Kid A, this is not an album to play while you’re doing housework. It’s a disc that demands your full attention, drawing you further into its mysterious web the more you play it. But while repeated listening — preferably with headphones on and eyes firmly closed to concentrate on Maynard’s every bruised syllable — will earn you a few tantalizing clues along the way, Lateralus does not give up its secrets easily. In this age of spoon-fed entertainment, Tool are asking something almost unheard-of from their audience — they‘re asking us to think. Now that’s heavy.