In the latest Between the Grooves series, Sean McCarthy undertakes a track-by-track examination of the concept of change in Tool's 1996 classic, Ænima, starting with "Stinkfist", one of the best metal songs of the '90s.
Change is brutal. The process may be romanticized in pop culture mainstays such as the film Pretty Woman, Sheryl Crow's shuffling hit single "A Change Would Do You Good", or even television's The Biggest Loser, but real change is painful. Think earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or massive floods. For the human factor, think of economists using the term "creative destruction" to describe how economies must evolve, even if it means the elimination of millions of jobs in one sector so that millions of jobs in other sectors can be created.
The concept of change is a daunting theme for an album, but Tool had no difficulty building its 1996 classic Ænima around that theme. Ambitious in scope, sound, and concept, Ænima managed to be accessible enough to sell three million copies while at the same time remaining provocative (check out the "performance art" inner sleeve work). Ænima can be credited for not only taking metal into the new millennium, but for also introducing countless fans to the work of comedian Bill Hicks, for whom the album is dedicated to (along with another mid-'90s classic, Radiohead's The Bends).
When Tool's first album Undertow was released in 1993, metal was still a toxic toxic term in mainstream rock. The general consensus was that Nirvana laid waste to the crop of metal that flourished in the '80s. While bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were still doing well on the charts, labels were eager to categorize their music as "grunge" or "hard rock". Fortunately, Tool had the chops, hooks, and groundbreaking videos to be one of the few metal acts to achieve some level of chart success in the early '90s. And with Ænima, the band took advantage of a bigger budget to embrace its progressive leanings.
"Stinkfist", the opening track of Ænima, perfectly sets the stage for the rest of the album. Sound-wise, the lead-off track is far more polished than anything off of Undertow. Though it may sound pristine, the song begins with a foreboding, muffled sound that could have easily been the musical toybox of a modern-day Marquis de Sade. Suddenly, the track roars into Adam Jones' monster guitar riff. Pure metal at its finest.
However, Tool rarely makes things easy for the listener. Singer Maynard James Keenan may give listeners a shout-along chorus, but the subject matter is hardly typical heavy metal fare. Even though the song title "Stinkfist" marries two words that would pass most TV censors, the very image that title implies made MTV censors change the name to "Track #1".
Like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Keenan occasionally relished the opportunity to tweak some of the more homophobic stereotypes in metal. Cobain did this by donning drag and singing "God is gay." Keenan used the first track and single off of one of the most anticipated metal albums of the '90s. As the song progresses from finger, to knuckle, to elbow "deep within the borderline", Keenan softly assures the recipient, "This may hurt a little, but it's something you get used to." Squirm-worthy, yes, but the comedic value of seeing some of the more closed-minded circles of the metal community shout the lyrics at a concert more than makes up for the unease "Track #1" lays on a listener.
The subject matter may be off-putting, but the music is the exact opposite. "Stinkfist", quite simply, is one of the best metal songs of the '90s. Tool's core members on Ænima were easily talented enough to be on the cover of most every drumming/bass or guitar magazine of that time. But "Stinkfist" was a marriage of all their respective talents. Jones' guitar riff is so great because it's instantly recognizable after only one listen, but Justin Chancellor's bass supplies the steady current that propels the song. And drummer Danny Carey provides much of the pile-driving punch of the chorus.
As the final seconds of "Stinkfist" settle, Keenan gently sings "Turn around and take my . . .", and Chancellor's bass eases the listener into the next track. As a lead-off track, you couldn't ask for a better opener. It grabs the listener's attention with an insanely catchy chorus, it shows a major evolution for the band, and perhaps most importantly, keeps the listener listening for the next 70 minutes. That is, if they can keep from hitting "repeat".