"Who cares about the music? It looks like Maynard's pointing right at me!"
When your band can fill a 15,000 seat hockey arena with punters willing to shell out 60 bucks to hear a skinny guy in leather hot pants covered head to toe in blue makeup sing from a backlit, spinning riser at the rear of the stage, it's clear you have clout in the music business. When you can take five years to put out a new album, and still be assured of debuting at number one, you have clout. When you insist that your albums’ packaging and artwork test the limits of how compact discs are designed and marketed, from lenticular images, to translucent booklets and X-ray style slipcases, to stereoscopic liner notes, and the record company hardly bats an eye, again, clout.
The one drawback to having such artistic control over one's product, however, is that having so much freedom can lead to the artist not knowing just how much is too much. After a pair of wildly popular albums, 1996's scattershot, often brilliant Ænima, and 2001's dark, dense opus Lateralus, both of which thrilling fans of the artier side of hard rock, and testing the patience of the many skeptics in the crowd, one had to wonder in what direction Tool would go next on their fourth full-length album in 13 years. After all the anticipation and internet speculation, 10,000 Days turns out to be, in a way, Tool's own version of Led Zeppelin's Presence; a massive, ponderous record that, while not without its merit, shows some serious chinks in the band's armor for the first time.
Many are under the misapprehension that Tool continually push the boundaries of modern rock music, but for all the overanalyzing of their music by devotees, the quartet remain one of the more minimalist bands operating under the "progressive rock" tag. Which is a very good thing; unlike young phenoms The Mars Volta, who mercilessly crammed last year's Frances the Mute full of ostentatious instrumental flourishes, Tool follow a rather simple, disciplined formula, and work it to a tee. The music may be sprawling, but at its best, for all the pomposity, there's an impressive economy to the performances, be it in Danny Carey's muscular drumming or Adam Jones's underrated guitar prowess. Immense, yes, but restrained.
The American hard rock/metal landscape may have changed greatly since 2001, but Tool still knows how to appease the riff-craving masses, and it's no surprise that the instant pleasers on 10,000 Days are the more aggressive tracks. "Vicarious" is quintessential Tool, centered around Jones's serpentine riffs, Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor creating their typically massive rhythm section (tastefully punctuated by Carey's trademark fills), the trio perfectly offsetting Maynard James Keenan's seething vocals. Keenan's attack on the desensitizing quality of television is far from an original idea, but his pointed attack is passionate enough for us to buy into his diatribe ("Cause I need to watch things die / From a distance / Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies / You all need it too, don't lie"). "Jambi" contains some of Jones's heaviest guitar work to date, which along with Chancellor's upper-register bass accents underscores Keenan's most versatile vocal performance on the disc, and is bolstered by a pit-pleasing breakdown that is sure to go over huge live. The dark groove of "The Pot", meanwhile, has Keenan's tremendous singing voice, the band's greatest asset, serving as the song's focal point.
The album's tour de force turns out to be the mellowest epic the band has pulled off to date, as "Wings For Marie (Pt 1)" and "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)" combine for a lengthy, 17 minute ode to Keenan's late mother. Tool has always dabbled in the ambient side of progressive rock in the past, but never to this extent, and not only does it dare the body-flinging masses to take pause and listen, but over the course of its duration, it takes on an increasingly sublime quality. Keenan is unabashed in his love for his mother (whose 27 years spent in paralysis served as the inspiration for the album's title), unafraid to declare his devotion, prefacing the piece by singing, "What have I done to be a son to an angel? / What have I done to be worthy?" "10,000 Days" very slowly builds momentum, Keenan adding spiritual, almost childlike sentiment ("This little light of mine…I'll let it shine"), Jones contributing a gorgeous, free-form solo before eventually climaxing with an emotional plea from son to mother: "Should you see your Maker's face tonight / Look Him in the eye, look Him in the eye, and tell Him: ‘I never lived a lie, never took a life, but surely saved one.'" The degree of honesty Keenan displays is not unlike Allen Ginsberg's legendary poetic elegy "Kaddish", defiantly rosy-hued, mournful, and the most heartfelt work the band has composed to date.
The five aforementioned songs make up the album's stunning first half, and sadly, the remaining 40 minutes of 10,000 Days struggles to maintain the same level of quality. "Right in Two" is the highlight of the latter half, and like "Vicarious", borders on hokey with Keenan's plea for world peace ("Monkey killing monkey killing monkey over pieces of the ground / Silly monkeys give them thumbs they forge a blade"), but after a pseudo-spiritual tabla interlude, Jones, Chancellor, and Carey bring the song to a typically Tool-like crescendo, the only fault of which being its predictability. "Rosetta Stoned" is a rather loosely performed, directionless jam whose eleven minute running time is kept interesting by Carey's multi-limbed percussion skills, while "Intension" is little more than a "Planet Caravan" knock-off that goes on for four minutes longer than it has to. Of the three interludes, "Lost Keys (Blame Hoffman)" is the only one remotely interesting, as we hear an enigmatic doctor-nurse conversation about an incoherent patient.
Tool remain one of the last bands to view the album as a piece of multimedia art, always contributing arresting visuals and creative packaging, and they've outdone themselves here. One of the most ingeniously conceived albums to come around in a long time, the tri-fold package comes with a pair of stereoscopic lenses attached, allowing us to view the three-dimensional artwork in the accompanying booklet. Cynics might call this a silly gimmick, akin to giving a kid a View Master at a King Crimson concert, but in all honesty, it's nice to have something to do while sitting through the tedium of "Intension", "Lipan Conjuring", and "Viginti Tres". Stupendously packaged, the music robustly mixed and often achieving new levels of bleak beauty, 10,000 Days is too strong a work to call a disappointment, but the constant need to fill out a CD to 75-80 minutes is threatening to become the band's undoing. We just hope that 2011 won't bring us Tool's In Through the Out Door.