In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Tool’s Lateralus, which went to No. 1 on June 2, 2001, where it stayed for one week.
For a genre that has no problem with either nails or coffins, heavy metal has been dodging the last nail in its own coffin for decades. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on the part of a society that still views metal with distrust and distaste, and a music industry that collects its metal dividends while holding its nose, and a critical community that would rather write about the most mediocre indie-pop obscurity than the most creative, innovative, evocative, and earthshaking metal bands. But since rising to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s, metal has been ghettoized and tokenized—and tolerated only as far as it needed to be, as if hoping that it would all someday dissipate like a bad dream.
In the early ’90s, grunge was trumpeted as the antidote to metal. Instead, it became a gateway. Through grunge, a generation of kids discovered the perverse joys of dark, angry, weighty music delivered with larger-than-life gestures and a romantic streak of drama. The ’90s wound up being one of the richest decades for metal, even if most of it was teeming either just below the surface or far underground—in other words, where metal evolved to begin with. But by the end of the ’90s, metal was a punchline again. Nü-metal, which became the public face of the genre in the eyes of the mainstream, did its best to live up to every negative stereotype the world had about metal. Post-grunge became a thing, and it was even worse: tuneless, sexless exercises in excruciating earnestness. At the start of the ’90s, you had Mudhoney; by the end of the ’90s, you had “Mudshovel.”
Things didn’t look any less dire at the start of the 21st century. Incredible metal was still being made, but outside of the subculture itself, no one knew it. For all the world knew or cared, metal was once again ready for an obituary—until, in the summer of 2001, Tool dodged all those nails and coffins to debut at the top of the Billboard chart with Lateralus.
Tool was by no means an underdog when Lateralus came out. It took two years for the band’s 1993 debut full-length, Undertow, to go platinum—but once it did, it was all uphill for frontman Maynard James Keenan and crew. The band quickly developed a cult following, although there were far more casual fans among the millions who bought Undertow and 1996’s Ænima—the latter of which won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for the title track. As far as the math was concerned, Tool was mainstream. But it occupied the same strange position as did a handful of older groups like Rush: a stadium-filling outfit whose complex, challenging music made it feel more like a cult band. Lateralus also wound up winning a Grammy, in the same category, for the song “Schism”—a nearly seven-minute sprawl of coiled menace and layered dreaminess. Squirming beneath it is a subtle sensitivity, one that had the power to convert those who listened just a little more deeply. “Bring the pieces back together / Rediscover communication,” Keenan pleads magnetically on “Schism.” And that’s the gravity at the heart of Lateralus: a piercing yen for connection, a human howl, amid all the negative space and intricate riffage.
The intricacy of Lateralus, though, can’t be overlooked. It would be impossible to. With its previous albums, Tool had often wrongly gotten lumped in and dismissed with Korn, Limp Bizkit, and the rest of the nü-metal school, a sound Tool had very little in common with in the first place. Lateralus, finally and definitively, wedged a universe of distance between Tool and nü-metal. There’s nothing cartoonish or posed about the Keenan’s angst on lunging, deceptively melodic tracks like “The Grudge” and “Parabola,” not to mention the staggering, three-part movement comprising “Disposition,” “Reflection,” and “Triad.” Even the album’s nine-minute title track, with its algebraically insane time-signature shifts based on the Fibonacci sequence, feels as primal as it does cerebral. At its best, metal has always harnessed the friction between virtuosity and primitivism—but Tool reverse-engineered then reconstructed that dynamic with a haunting resonance on Lateralus.
But it’s “The Patient” that gives Lateralus its true pulse. The album’s seemingly simplest song (not counting the ethereal, instrumental interludes “Eon Blue Apocalypse” and “Mantra”), it churns around a lopsided yet hypnotic groove that showcases the supple power of drummer Danny Carey and bassist James Chancellor. Locked into that groove is Adam Jones’ guitar, which expands and collapses like a time-lapse film of the lifespan of a star. Again, Keenan keeps it intimate: A survivor, and then some, of the vicissitudes of metal, he sings with sinewy tension, “But I’m still right here / Giving blood, keeping faith.” At the end of the song, after the echoes of the band’s crescendos have ebbed away, he slips into a chant of whispery resignation: “Gonna wait it out / Gonna wait it out.”
Keenan had always flaunted his ambition to attain Pink Floyd levels of vastness and atmosphere—something he came a little closer to with Mer De Noms, the 2000 debut by his side project A Perfect Circle—but Lateralus soars, because it isn’t indebted to anything. There’s a nod to vintage prog, particularly to King Crimson’s harrowing, mid-’70s classics. Soundgarden’s masterful 1994 album Superunknown lurks somewhere in the shadows. And by no means was Tool the only band breaking new ground in heavy music in 2001. Its contemporary, Deftones, had hit its own peak with 2000’s White Pony; Opeth’s sumptuous Blackwater Park raised the bar earlier in 2001; and up-and-comers such as Mastodon and Isis were about to redefine the boundaries of conceptual metal. There was context surrounding Lateralus, and a continuum it was a part of. But it stood on its own, brutal yet vulnerable.
The entire spectrum of metal was gearing up for a rebound in the ’00s, a decade when extreme subgenres that had been strictly underground in the ’90s, like black metal and metalcore, suddenly grew both ubiquitous and bankable. Dark times were just around the corner when Lateralus came out, and it anticipated both the crush of despair and the nerve it takes to pull back from the brink. The album didn’t fly in the face of what was happening at the time in the heavier sectors of mainstream music. It didn’t lead a revolution or even an insurrection. It just showed the heights that could be hit when nails were bent into claws, and coffins were carved into monuments.