Shine On Benevolent Sun:
4,000 words on 10,000 Days, or personal outtakes on the new Tool record
It's been six or seven years since I listened to Tool for the first time. Around the turn of the century, deep inside a suburban Nashville hideaway, I was fucking my lover (now lover and wife). Beyond being madly in love, my ears were banging in religious bewilderment. I had no idea what had hit me. Was it metal? Was it punk? Was it that mythic, pompous, and pretentious beast known as "progressive rock"?
Four years since the last tour, the fourth full-length studio album by Tool hit the streets and stores this past Tuesday, May 2nd. But as is standard course in the sticky world of the web, the devout fans were madly downloading the recording for days preceding its proper release. And so, the serious questions, wicked rumors, and ponderous theories began to pour from the electronic hose like the muddy water that rocks my humble hollow after a Tennessee thunderstorm.
Is it an Internet hoax?
Like too many Tool fans, I tasted the forbidden fruit and listened to a leaked version a whole week before it hit the stores. Would this band-known for its puckish pranks and culture-jamming jabs-actually devote themselves to making two records, one fake and one real? By the second snoop on April 25th, I knew I was in the presence of profound sound, each song perfect in its own way. I never doubted-as some cyber denizens definitely did-that this was the authentic article. Then, on May 3rd, I dutifully paid $14 for my own real copy, packaging and all.
Is it merely a low-dose of Lateralus part two?
I will never really understand why fans of bands with such overall distinctive sounds are always complaining when "all the songs sound the same." Sure Lateralus sounded like Aenema and 10,000 Days sounds like Lateralus. Can we say "duh"?
Because at the end of the day, this is still a Tool record, a sacred incision in the skin of the collective consciousness, an insurrectionary incense for the ears, a barrage of sonic stinkbombs so entirely unique that the aural aroma will linger in your dreams for days.
Even during a good year, many fans would still require a post-graduate degree just to approximate a layman's understanding of the lyrical poetry or the musical math. And then, probably, some people posting all this pissy problematic poppycock just aren't Tool fans-poseurs, we used to call them.
Granted, it took me a long time to get here as a serious Tool fan, and like any kind of geeked out devotee, we can doubtless be a bit annoying. But now that I'm living it, loving it, and basking in this new record, I'm not really grooving when I read some bone-headed off-the-cuff dismissive bullshit from folks who heard the record once on the I-pod. Tastes differ, granted, but if you loved the last two records . . . and hate this one?
Are these really Tool fans bitching and whining about the similarities of the new record to Lateralus? Like, "Gawd, that new blissed-out, earth-shattering ejaculation was such a boring orgasm. It was so much like my previous orgasm."
Is it going to be too political? Is Maynard just another Bush-bashing post-whatever rock dinosaur doing the Billy Joe Armstrong-Eddie Vedder-Michael Stipe-Bruce Springsteen-Neil Young dance?
Please don't get me wrong-I am a huge fan of those five I mentioned as musicians and as anti-war, anti-Republican rockers and am perfectly fond of as much Bush-bashing in my daily soundtrack as it takes. And I'm not going to join any sour-mouthed mosh-pit of people puking on A Perfect Circle's last record of peace, love, and pissed-off cover songs. In fact, I love A Perfect Circle and Tool-just like I love sweet and sour or dusk and dawn, fully and equally.
But symbolic protest itself is not enough, as Maynard makes perfectly clear in a recent Revolver interview: "I've lost a little faith watching the whole political thing. Looking back, I was just a little kid living in Ohio when there were students getting gunned down on campus because they were speaking their minds. And it seems like nowadays, people sign a petition online or they send an email. That's about as much as they can do, and it's a little depressing to me."
I reject the simplistic pseudo-analysis of the blurb on Amazon: "Singer Maynard James Keenan is back on mystical form after his hiatus with the politically slanted A Perfect Circle . . ." How dare the critic break it down as though mystical and political were opposing camps as though Maynard could bifurcate himself like that! If anything, to say that Maynard has moved past the socially-cutting lyrics just because he finally came home to Tool after sojourning with his uber-political side-project would be to deny the defiant agit-prog that Tool are. Tool-who turned the middle-American metal-head masses onto Alex Grey and Bill Hicks-don't seem like they should just jettison the critique simply because Maynard went way over-the-top doing John Lennon and Marvin Gaye impersonations on the last record.
So, the new record is not too political. And it's political in all the right places-namely "Vicarious," "The Pot," and "Right in Two." (More on these in just a bit).
Further, the fullness of a Tool record can only be taken in on multiple levels, in manifold registers, and loving the lyrical jujitsu is only part of the larger equation. Fact is that this is Adam's band, Danny's band, Justin's band as much as this is Maynard's band. This is perhaps part of why the vocals like to lay so low in the mix, as if the words were that guy at the club who lurks in the corner on the verge of something important to say.
One dependable and fallible feature of critical fandom concerns reading way too much about the object of one's fascination, deliberation, and admiration. So, I have, I confess, read about Tool on the Internet daily for at least the last two weeks. I've purchased two mainstream magazines with prominent, cover-story interviews. I've read way more blogs, forums, show reviews, and the like than is probably considered healthy. I've skimped, though, on reading the record reviews for two reasons: (1) the kinds of questions I mentioned above do drive me a little crazy; and (2) I wanted my first scribbled testimony to be based as purely as possible on listening to the record. The record itself is the primary text. All this online babbling about it-while at times captivating and intoxicating when it's not infuriating-is nothing more than mere metatext, a story about the story.
But all that said, five days since the official release of 10,000 Days and eight days before I see the band live at Detroit's Fox Theater, I decided to take break from reading about the band and the new record and do as any decent fanzine writer must do. I decided to write about the disc, record my personal revelations.
And on the note of critical interpretation, let's be clear, that while I may be very interested in what "Maynard means" or what the band intends about any given song or snippet, interpretation always belongs to the listener, is always open for discussion, and changes with each interaction. So this is where I'm at after about twenty-three listens in thirteen days. How will I feel after 10,000 Listens? Before I compulsively browse another bulletin board or fulminate at another forum, here's my take, my reaction to, and my tangential digression on (as informed as it is by what I've already read), track by track, the new Tool record.
Vicarious: Damn the first track if it isn't any good. Damn Tool for making us beg for mercy as they unleash this "death rattle" on our war-weary imaginations. Damn anyone who doubted-this pummels me across the room. Damn this painfully accurate synopsis of how sucked-up and fucked-up the violent Wal-Martians can get as they purchase their little fourth-of-July flaglets, made in China, before they go home to blow the neighborhood apart with faux fireworks and infantile Independence Day fantasies.
Like too many Americans, I was deeply disgusted by the feverish, flag-waving bloodlust that filled the mass psyche in the months after September 11, 2001. I didn't understand my neighbors who don't understand history ("Fuck your short memory . . ."-Aenema). President Photo-Op and his operatives tapped into something we cannot pass off as a mere symptom of their massive power-the massive, voyeuristic death dream of the masses. You've seen them or been one of them, these are the ones who "Stare like a junkie/Into the TV/ Stare like a zombie."
We saw it just recently as the vividly vengeful-only some of them actual "victims"-gathered to ask for the death penalty in the case of Moussaui, alleged participant in orchestrating the deadly destruction in New York. Americans want to see others bleed-but on the big screen.
Indeed, without a sense of the past and with a deep sense of the dark Dahmeresque, cinematic ooze that is the video game vision of Grand Theft America, what do we end up with? We end up with:
"We won't give pause until the blood is flowing
I need to watch things die... from a good safe distance
Vicariously I live while the whole world dies
You all feel the same, so...
Why can't we just admit it?"
Jambi: Beyond what is rumored to be an overt reference to a genie character from PeeWee's Playhouse, this song already packs some mean mojo, a wild-eyed woo-woo wallop. Or put another way, to those who worried that the magnetic mysticism of Lateralus had been muted on this new release, listen to this track until you "get it." And then listen to this track again. And again.
Sure, it's easy for a fat and rolling motherfucker like Maynard to talk about "wishing it all away." Yeah, we've heard it all before-because rich famous rock stars are well-known for ranting against the worthiness of material wealth and preaching like paupers of the Rumi and Jesus variety. When I get sick of listening to that, I just dig on a little class-war from my friends in the folk, punk, and rap genres. But Maynard and company make me believe it this time, and that means something.
Essentially this is two songs in one, which is easy when the complete track clocks in at just shy of eight minutes. The opening march, made magick under that tantalizingly Toolesque beat that boasts bass and drums as crisp crushing beatitude, teaches that timeless parable about the successful sonofabitch who doesn't realize how good life is:
"Here from the king's mountain view
Here from the wild dream come true
Feast like a sultan I do
On treasures and flesh, never few"
So the epic song's protagonist realizes the real deal and passionately propels his prostrate devotion:
"But I, I would wish it all away
If I thought I'd lose you just one day"
The object of this lyrical longing-kicked and coddled by the crunching noise behind it-could be lover or god or both-but it doesn't really matter as the first half of the song is just a warm-up, a prelude to where it's all so prolific and profound that the difference between lover and god dissolves.
After a monstrous middle where the guitar gouges out your third eye and the bass begs your bowels for the shit, a new song commences or the conjuring conclusion kicks in:
"Shine on forever
Shine on benevolent sun
Shine down upon the broken
Shine until the two become one"
So the message and the meaning are obviously spiritual, so simple to sing yet so hard to actually realize: shine on. Yeah, that's "shine on" in the "Instant Karma" sense of it, but even John Lennon never rocked this hard, except maybe on "Come Together" or "Cold Turkey." Note to self: If you ever go "cold turkey" again like you did with cigarettes, take this Tool record with you.
If I had to quit the record after only two tracks, it would be a ballsy, ballistic EP. But what's coming next will nearly break me.
Wings For Marie (Pt 1) and 10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2):
Even though these are technically two tracks, I'm going to have to write about them as one. I agree with those who suggested this should be just one, very long piece. These comprise seventeen of the most intense minutes in recent rock in intimately risky territory. While the first two picks got me pumped up and primed, these next two tracks took me to the water, to the spring, to the ocean of salty, pouring, wailing, hollering, desperate, deep, open, empty.
At my day-job teaching first-year college writing, we strongly discourage essays devoted to deceased friends, lovers, and family members. It's the par of an emotional kind of plagiarism, shamelessly playing to the reader's sentiments at best and manipulating the sensitive professor for an easy A at worst. In film, the tearjerker requires its own genre, to which I am admittedly an occasional sucker. In music, the sappy song is even more dangerous territory. When done poorly, there's nothing more wretched and pathetic. When done well, it's time for me to run for the handkerchief. Yes, I love an emotional roller-derby of a song when it gets me in that secret place. But from Tool? Let's just say I didn't expect "Wings For Marie" and "10,000 Days." And if I did know that the band would devote a whole fifth of the record to a deep tribute to Maynard's mom, I might have expected "Judith, Part Two" and "Judith, Part Three."
"Judith," as you might remember, was a seething skewering of religious dogma from the Perfect Circle songbook, circa 2000. She died-it's worth noting-in 2003. With his mother Judith's faith and paralysis as a rhetorical platform, Maynard minces no words with
"You're such an inspiration
For the ways
That I'll never ever choose to be
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How your savior has abandoned you
FUCK Your God
Your Lord, your Christ
He did this
Took all you had and
Left you this way
Still you pray, never stray, never
Taste of the fruit
Never thought to question why
It's not like you killed someone
It's not like you drove a hateful spear
Into his side
Praise the one who left you
Broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you...
Oh so many ways
For me to show you
How your dogma has abandoned you"
We'd have to scour the depths of punk purgatory and re-read atheist rants from Crass and Chumbawamba to find an anti-religious rock anthem of this vigor and velocity. It's a chilling and basic question that maintains currency for eternal doubters everywhere: If your "God" is so damn good, then why does "He" leave the humble and faithful to suffer so?
But if "Wings" and "Days" actually do constitute a coda to "Judith," then Judith is also a preamble to this deeper prophecy. What makes Maynard a serious, soulful thinker and a more-than-interesting poet is that we take it both with us-the dark and the light, the angry and reflective, the desperation and affirmation.
Yes, 10,000 Days as album title could mean many things. Fans joke that it's the time between Tool records. One theory is a reference to the length of the Vietnam War. But as a song title, "10,000 Days" does suggest the time that Judith Marie Keenan spent after a stroke paralyzed her until the time of her death. And the epic lyrics to this section of the disc do confirm that.
Maynard's already on-record that this is in fact a blues album. If anything in the Tool library even approaches the primal moan that is the dark music of the African diaspora in America, it could be these songs, especially cuts three and four, this cutting "cry for your mama" catechism. Certainly, this is not "blues" in the most formulaic sense, but some blues basics bellow beneath the surface: both the bowl of radical religious skepticism and a stiff shot of faith to make the medicine go down.
The eerie, edgy, haunting of the first six minutes just prepare us from the drenched cinematic stench of the second eleven minutes. Thunder and lightning and rain pouring down, I imagine this song's narrative holding space in the country church down the street on a dark, sopping Sunday night. I like my fundamentalism with a pinch of southern gothic, Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. This is a progressive rock version of a ballsy bluegrass number about the roll getting called up yonder. And this song still makes me weep. For my friends and loved ones who've died after a long life. For you. For me. For all of us. For how the broken pure humility of it all can save us no more than the arrogant rockstar pomposity, no more than the righteous anger of whatever ideology rocks your world this season.
This song faces death in the face and does not fuck with death. It says death is definitely a leveler of all playing fields, a grim reaper who has no gratitude for self-aggrandizing gibberish, an equal opportunity harbinger for all, for even you, your time will come.
And it's a heart-breaking homage to mom. It's the kind of song that turns the bad-ass rock star into a little boy in his mother's arms. It takes to task the hypocritical faith that made "Judith" so jarring, but it takes it a step farther. Maynard takes down his guard. He takes down the shield of intellectualism, cynicism, rational rejection. He holds out a candle, an eternal flame that burns bright in a brutal storm.
Maynard comes full circle. He sings. I weep. He sings. We listen:
"Give me my wings.
You are the light, the way, they will only read about.
Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance
Burden of proof tossed upon non-believers.
You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence,
Judith Marie, unconditional one.
Daylight dims leaving cool flourescence.
Difficult to see you in this light.
Please forgive this bold suggestion:
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
It's time for you to bring me home."
The Pot: Some records intentionally extend the silence between tracks. Not here, but this is one moment when that would have worked just fine for me. Many listeners are still processing "Days" when this dog hits. I suggest the pause button.
The split-second between cuts is barely enough to recover and prepare for more Maynard and a high-pitched hype hovering in the outer reaches of some alien octave. And what he hollers is worth hearing:
"Who are you to wave your finger?
Ya' must have been out your head
I hold deep in muddy waters
You practically raised the dead
Rob the grave, to snow the cradle
Then burn the evidence down
Soapbox, house of cards, and glass
So don't go tossin' your stones around
You must have been high
You must have been high
You must have been"
Musically, this might be the most radio-friendly shot from the whole record, but for obvious reasons, it wasn't released first. With Justin jacking a funky bass he could have borrowed from Primus or the Chili Peppers, "The Pot" packs two obvious meanings-and probably many more. For starters, it calls up the common saying of "the pot calling the kettle black," an idiomatic invocation of idiotic hypocrisy. And then, it refers to reefer, marijuana, ganja, the pot plant popular as medicine and intoxicant. In one couplet, Maynard summarizes how so many of us feel about the sorry majority of lawyers, cops, and politicians:
"Foot in mouth, and head up asshole
What you talkin' 'bout?"
All in all, "The Pot" is Tool at its hookiest, poppiest, rowdiest, and most rollicking. Allegedly, at the tour debut at the Coachella festival, two days before the record was officially released, Maynard stopped and more-or-less scolded fans who were singing along for downloading the disc. And I imagine it will garner a sort of special cult-status among the segment of fans who safely imbibe the smokable sacrament.
Lipan Conjuring: Midway through the album, I call this tribal interlude the intercession and intermission. The Lipan Apache are band from Texas, also known as "Warriors of the Mountains." Tool aren't the first American rock band to pay some respect to Native Americans, but it is always proper and appreciated, even as the shortest cut on the record.
Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann): Much heavier than most jam bands or most certainly more brutal than the Dead, Tool still share some of that psychedelic mystique. Tool ritually pays tribute to the mild-altering possibilities of-and implicitly endorses experimentation with-what some have called the "good drugs"-marijuana, LSD, psylocibin, and the like.
This track, which some are calling filler, is like the edutainment blurb before the next blistering pick pickles your brain. It not so subtly names the man who discovered acid-Albert Hoffman. Already online, people are confusing the freak drug scientist Albert with freak insurrectionist Abbie Hoffman.
The infomercial with guitars warns the listener that acid could get you in the hospital. It could also say that drugs are the lost key to truth, but further, that tripping people should not drive, or they will lose their keys and end up in the looney wing.
Rosetta Stoned: It's been already suggested that "Rosetta Stoned" is simply the reply from the character introduced in the previous piece. That would provide plausible reasoning behind the pure narrative that follows in all its pathos and perversion.
As much parody as prophecy, this places us in a new paradigm or a deep problem or both. The band can't really be accused of promoting drug use-because asking preteens to listen to this song and study its lyrics might likely be more effective anti-drug counseling than the sober low-shock therapy of officer-friendly showing you what weed looks like.
As for combining the compelling and complex as few other bands do, Tool take it far out into the outer reaches with this one, the last section an almost lyricless, stellar soundgasm.
Intension: Like any artwork, an album has an internal logic to it. By track nine, especially after an assault like "Stoned," the listener is ready for the kind of healing balm that reminds you why this round piece of plastic was worth the cash.
For any person seeking a clear-headed, hopeful, and honest introduction to the basic principles of magic, this song might be a good place to start.
Pure as we begin
Move by will alone.
Leave as we come in.
Pure as light.
Return to one.
Right In Two: While the previous track sweetly summarized a personal ethos of new age, anarchist, and magickal responsibility, this one levels the critique on humans' crude, cruel, and unevolved ways. What could compel us, as Maynard puts forward, to reject the garden-choosing war instead? What might make folks use their reason to choose the life without? Human stupidity opens the channels for Maynard's stark nihilism and cynicism about human community:
"Silly monkeys give them thumbs,
They make a club
And beat their brother down.
How they survive so misguided is a mystery.
Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability to live to light
a heaven conscious of his fleeting time here"
I'm still siding with the foolish hope that the monkeys might finally learn to love, but I bet Maynard's money is on the mother earth pushing on without us.
Viginti Tres: The last track is another that some call filler; it's essentially your reward for making it this far, especially enjoyable late-at-night, eyes closed, on headphones.
I don't think I've ever spent a whole day's work on one record review-until today. Did I say it any different than the other fans even more diehard than me? Did I make a point to put this in another perspective, diverging from 10,000 Reviews? After all the mystical shit has been pondered and all the agitation and preaching has been exhausted, of only a few things about this band I'm certain: Tool sound really good when the listener is sober. Tool sound like a kick of coffee in the ass of a new day. Tool sound really good after a decent beer buzz. Tool sound heavenly when stoned on substances you should first consult your witchdoctor or clergyperson about trying only in moderation. Tool should be listened to loud-I prefer to feel them in my testes and toenails. Tool are a rock band. Tool sound really good with the headphones on.
Tool are Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Danny Carey, and Justin Chancellor.
Pumpkin Hollow, Tennessee