So we’re at the end of an incredibly ambitious, complex album with a unifying theme of change—challenging preconceived beliefs, achieving enlightenment through sometimes painful (and sometimes painfully freaky) ways, and growing an extra pair of chromosomes. And in the tradition of many concept albums, the last song is saddled with nothing less than having to tie together all of these desperate themes while adding its own exclamation point to the work. For a daunting challenge such as this, even a band like Tool may need some outside help. Enter the late Bill Hicks.
I wish I could say that I received a more direct introduction to Bill Hicks, like stumbling across one of his albums at a record store. But like millions of his fans who discovered the comedian after his passing, I found him through Tool. To cut myself (as well as the millions of people who discovered him in the mid-to-late ‘90s) some slack, 1996 was still the age of dial-up Internet, where downloading clips from live performances could take hours, and YouTube was a decade away.
The skit that opens “Third Eye” sounds like a typical “drugs makes music awesome” routine, though spoken with far more effectiveness than most comedians. A faint heartbeat-like effect gently throbs in the background as ambient noises whirl into a newscast-like segment, detailing someone’s positive acid trip experience, ending with “Here’s Tom with the weather.” On first listen, this seems to be a “weird for the sake of being weird” effect employed by the band. But if this is your first introduction to Hicks, and it’s compelling enough to get you to listen to the comedian’s other works, you know Hicks’ routine has a far greater purpose than just creating a moody weirdness.
Music-wise, the song stews in a hurricane-like murk. Adam Jones’ guitar dredges through the first half of the song. Meanwhile, Maynard James Keenan whispers about children’s rhymes stuck in his head and “wiping the webs of dew from my withered eye”. For awhile, it appears the song’s focus has derailed into a series of tangents. You get that feeling around the sixth or seventh minute of the song. And that’s the minor miracle of “Third Eye”: it keeps you listening for those six or seven minutes, whereas other bands’ six or seven-minute songs would have already had listeners pressing skip.
In the Toolest of fashions, you don’t even hear the chorus into the song’s ninth minute. And from the last third of the song, “Third Eye” actually begins to sound like a more traditional rock song, complete with bridges, choruses, and even melodies that were not found in the previous eight minutes. Patient listeners are finally awarded with cathartic, jackhammer-like riffs while Keenan screams “Prying open my third eye” like he’s escaping solitary confinement.
And as the song ends with a boiling buzz of feedback, Ænima finally comes to an end. On first listen, it’s an incredible amount to digest. But in 1996, listeners had five years to fully absorb, digest, and analyze all of Ænima‘s complexities before their even denser follow-up, Lateralus (2001), was released. During that time, Bill Hicks gained a posthumous following that’s still is gaining converts today. The fact that people were introduced to him by an uncompromising, challenging piece of music that strove to get people to challenge their perceptions on how they see the world is a testament to the creative risks and ambitions on Ænima as well as Hick’s body of work.
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