AMN Reviews: Tool’s Ænima at 25

In 1996 it was virtually impossible to hear non-mainstream music on the radio. I did not have a CD player in my car at the time and was commuting long distances to and from work. So the radio it was. When something with unconventional timing, structures, and lyrics came along, it would get my attention. Tool’s Ænima was such a song. Not only was it lengthier than most popular music (almost 7 whole minutes), but it evolved through several parts and exhibited a ton of dark angst (with about every fourth word bleeped or skipped due to profanity). Even better was the fact that my wife liked it as well, a sliver of overlap in the Venn diagram of our musical tastes.

But the album with the same name remains an enigma. It was a triple-platinum best seller for a band that is reclusive and has put out relatively little since. Despite their broad appeal, Tool’s influences are well-established to be non-commercial, such as King Crimson and the Melvins among other progressive rock and metal bands. One might also hear similarities to Mr. Bungle as well as Idiot Flesh.

So this is one of those rare occurrences of a popular group making weird music. Subtly weird music. Case in point, several shorter pieces on Ænima, Useful Idiot, Message to Harry Manback, Intermission, Die Eier von Satan, Cesaro Summability, and (-) Ions incorporate field recordings, sound collages, silly rhythms, and a cookie recipe recited in German to a cheering crowd and industrial accompaniment.

In between these experimental offerings are the main “songs” of the album, Ænima being the most well-known. But there also is the 13-minute Third Eye, which centers around a routine about drugs from an acerbic comedian. The music is appropriately psychedelic with heavy riffing and circular drum patterns, not to mention a few freaked-out solos. Even the more straightforward pieces are gritty, with feedback and vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s oddball phrasing and expressiveness.

But keep in mind that the lyrics are direct, dark, and still prescient today in how fed up they are with the shallowness of the world. One of the song Ænima’s passages is an example:

Some say a comet will fall from the sky
Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves
Followed by fault lines that cannot sit still
Followed by millions of dumbfounded dipshits
And some say the end is near
Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon
I certainly hope we will
I sure could use a vacation from this
Stupid shit, silly shit, stupid shit

Bottom line: If you like avant music, don’t let the notoriety of this group put you off. Ænima has more than its share of offbeat and adventurous passages.