With only a pair of overblown albums to its name, Tool didn't appear prepared to weather the grunge recession. But somehow, the band's brand of metallic bombast outlasted its contemporaries' angst, and today hard-rock fans consider Tool a paragon of integrity bobbing, beacon-like, above a sea of mediocrity. In this case, the fans may be right. Bypassing the usual paths to stardom, Tool won its following the hard way, through constant touring and uncompromising (if pretentious) artistry. In a time of overlong albums, Tool proudly pushes 80 minutes with Lateralus, its hotly anticipated and immaculately packaged third disc. Whether due to the band's ambition or just its inner Rush, Tool heartily embraces prog epics, daring fans to hold on and radio stations to sacrifice their precious airtime to tracks that push 10 minutes. But the labyrinthine, often lugubrious songs do present a true alternative to current trends: complex compositions that at least offer the illusion of intelligence—even if, under their technique-driven veneer, they never summon more than Black Sabbath's dopey demonology. The disc opens with the tribal "The Grudge," an immediate response to the pithier music singer Maynard James Keenan made with his successful side project, A Perfect Circle. The eight-minute track cascades through a series of dynamic shifts in volume and complex time signatures, where the occasional 4/4 respite sounds as radical as a 7/8 bridge would seem in most pop songs. Keenan's strong vocals keep the music from delving too deep into heady wank territory, which is Tool's secret: For all its indulgences, the group rarely resorts to rapid-fire solos. That approach distinguishes "Schism" and "Parabola" from typical metal dirges, or even such obvious predecessors as Metallica's …And Justice For All. Tool's songs are long because the band takes its time, resisting show-offy displays of speed in favor of texture and minimalist mood, borrowing key elements from Far Eastern music and industrial rock along the way. Tool's nuance demonstrates the difference between demanding patience and endurance, keeping listeners on edge with surprises and sinewy melodies that frequently resolve themselves miles (and many minutes) away from where they started. Sure, the band might be fooling itself by even bothering with different song titles, let alone by allowing space between the tracks. "Reflection" single-handedly takes up a huge chunk of Lateralus' running time without doing much to differentiate itself, duration aside. There's simply not much to distinguish one tricky 10-minute track from, say, two slightly shorter tricky tracks, especially considering the conspicuous absence of Roman numerals. But, even though the songs' tail-chasing, number-crunching tendencies ironically result in a samey-sounding album, they lend Lateralus a sense of suite-like cohesion that gives the music more majestic import than it probably deserves.
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