10,000 Days

(Volcano; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 29 February 2008

Conrad and Rob are slouched on a basement couch, morose expressions radiating tragically. The final seconds of “Viginti Tres,” the closing track from Tool’s 10,000 Days, fade from a ghetto blaster covered in Megadeth’s Vick stickers. Both are considering the freshly tattooed “wrench with balls” symbol on their forearms.

Conrad: Um.
Rob: I haven’t felt like this since I opened the booklet to Load and saw that Metallica cut their hair.

Let’s be fair. Metal isn’t a genre that forgives change and Tool have never compromised in doing exactly what they want, so when will (and why would) they ever release an album that will satisfy both the genre guards and the casually curious? To confound expectations, or at least include what is easily recognized as an attempt to confound expectations, has been their way since Opiate, so a Tool fan should already know what they’re getting into.

Still, each Tool album seems to suffer the fan base’s expectations more than the last. There’s a perception that pre-Lateralus Tool used to plumb an easy depth to pin their anger on something tangible, targeting religion, L.A. or just the fan who cries sellout and can’t take a joke where traditional metal seemed more concerned with stock demon imagery, self-indulgence, substance abuse, women caricatures, and the seriousness of a genre’s self-imposed sanctity. In response, Tool’s brand of metal became a participatory brand of judgmental, a Judge Judy for the metal world with both the mainstays of the genre and those outside of it acting the defendant. But somewhere between challenging their fans to point a finger at something real and challenging their fans to think about…The Universe… (Fanning fingers, a look of cosmic awe splaying across the face), the band has resorted to idiosyncrasies and 3-D packaging. If even much-loved Aenima experiences minor and periodic backlash at the obscurity of the compulsory intermission “Message to Harry Manback,” then 10,000 Days doesn’t stand a chance.

While challenging one’s fan base to think critically can be admirable, challenging one’s fan base to think critically about their expectations for an album they’ve patiently waited five years for is a bit shitty. I maintain (though acknowledge how few might agree with me) that Lateralus was a perfect distillation of both of Tool’s worlds, possessing both the Undertow gratification of “Parabola” while exploring big ideas musically, like the three song arch of “Disposition,” “Reflection” and “Triad,” and lyrically, as in the weighty motifs of Apollonian and Dionysian dualism touched lightly upon in “Schism,” “Parabola” and “Lateralus”. Where it lacked the goofiness of a “Disgustipated,” or memorable hooks of a “Sober,” Lateralus made up for it in the hours, days and weeks that the listener could spend unraveling the album's many meanings and inhabiting its many tones (finally) explored by Adam Jones’ complex guitar work. While 10,000 Days is closer to Lateralus in sound and seriousness, it is somehow an inverse, the distillation of an imbalance of these elements. Neither funny nor thought-provoking, the band strains for touchstones beyond the technicality of prog-metal and rarely achieves them.

Rob: So why is the album so disappointing?
Conrad: I’m not sure. (Presses play on the CD player, skips forward a few tracks.) Maybe it’s all this thunder they recorded and played over “10,000 Days (Part 2),” or the few minutes it takes for the song to build to what is basically the minute or two before the apex in “Lateralus.” Tool’s title tracks used to be so vast…”Undertow,” ”Aenima,” and “Lateralus” are all worthy of being central to such big concept albums. This, on the other hand, just never peaks.
Rob: (Drawing Eddie on his jeans with a ballpoint pen, looking contemplative; a chasm of existential conflict gnawing at his belly.) Nice bass line coming in at 5:40, though. Gets even better at 8:00. Wait…(despairingly) what the hell is this?
(Looking at the CD case with 3-D glasses) This is “The Pot.” (Ducks, looks behind him.)
Rob: Is that a pitch-shifted / cut-up voice intro?

But Tool have always been way funnier than they’ve been given credit for. Or they’ve tried to be. A picture of a cow licking its own anus springs, unbidden, to mind. (It should be noted that a sense of humor is essential to enjoying Danny Carey’s other band, Pigmy Love Circus.) But it’s more difficult than some might admit to determine when the band is being intentionally stupid rather than intentionally dramatic, and the band’s goals are often lost between how easily stupidity and drama can be confused for one another. (Please, insert your own “fine line” Spinal Tap joke here.) When Maynard doesn’t sound as caustic as he used to by saying, “Who are you to wave your finger?” and “You must have been high,” he’s surely speaking as / mocking somebody else, but the tone of the song doesn’t belie humor or sarcasm. And where it sounds like there’s an inside joke somewhere in “Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann),” its inclusion, like the objective of the aforementioned line, is more likely to prompt a skip than an attempt to decipher.

Where the band has rarely tried to settle the expansiveness of prog with funny lyrics, “Rosetta Stoned” is an example of how allowing these contrasting elements to bounce off of one another can force an impeccably conceived and performed song into farce. “Rosetta Stoned” ends, quite dramatically, with the line, “God damn / shit the bed,” and its resounding finality and stupidly theatrical delivery stunned a carload of Tool fans into awkward coughs. It’s unclear whether one should assume Maynard is talking about shit the same way Kundera talks about it, or whether, as the title might suggest, you’re probably just supposed to listen, but neither approach is the stuff of which listening a second time is made.

Conrad: Maybe the fact that this music isn’t fun anymore means that the band is taking its projects more seriously than they did around Undertow. Maybe as long as you and I let go of these critical pretensions and just give ourselves up to what is obviously dramatic music, we’ll enjoy it more than…wait a minute. What the fuck is this?
Rob: (silence)
Conrad: (silence)
A Jobless Middle America, Pining for Some Intelligent Protest Music or Topical Humor, Whatever Comes First: (silence)
Rob: I believe that this is Native American chanting.
Conrad: (upset silence)

10,000 Days is not really a failure. That “Vicarious” sounds like “Schism” is not a bad thing; “Jambi” is all palm-muted density and Pink Floyd breakdowns; Danny Carey is still ridiculous. Tool also continue to pile mass on impressive mass, weight on weight and detail on detail like a group of cartoonish Warhammer 30000 characters, stacking the end of their discs with songs like “Right in Two,” which seems too impenetrable to appreciate without extended and careful listens and impossibly ambitious in scope. For fans of the band the climactic payoff of “Right in Two” will counterbalance the stagnancy of “Intension” and “Wings for Marie (Part 1),” but the imagery is somehow mimicry rather than evocative. The difference between “Aenima” and “Right in Two” might be that where the former imagined California dropping into the ocean, an apocalyptic day of reckoning for which the indulgent and self-involved had best learn to swim lest they be swept away, a channeling of Old Testament-inspired dialogue for the contemporary world into an inspired explosion of anger and disgust, why “Right in Two” and most of 10,000 Days is important, is anybody’s guess.