SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

TOOL – Ænima (1996)

September 17th, 1996, TOOL released their second full-length studio album, Ænima, through Zoo Entertainment. Ænima’s release happened in two phases, with vinyl hitting the shelves on September 17th, ’96, and the CD version released on October 1st. Tool’s trajectory since the release of their debut EP Opiate in 1992 was a steep, upward curve. Their popularity was ever-increasing, and so too were their considerable musical ambitions. The enigmatic nature of the band was also steadily becoming more intriguingly obtuse.

Their 1993 full-length debut Undertow helped Tool stand out in a crowded field of crunching guitar rock. For the time, their sound was so fresh and new they were embraced by metal fans, grunge enthusiasts, alternative rock lovers, and even prog and goth-heads. All vaguely unsure where their new favourite band fit in the grand scheme of ’90s alternative rock and metal. Tool’s appeal only increased with legendary performances on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour alongside Alice In Chains, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, and Dinosaur Jr.

Undertow became the 46th best-selling album of 1993 in the US. Considering this was the debut album by a band trading in a dark and, at times, impenetrable presentation, it was quite a feat. Following the success of Undertow, many in Tool’s position would have capitalised on that success by opening up, becoming more digestible, and tailoring their sound to a perceived notion of what the masses might want. Seemingly, such trivial thoughts never crossed the bands’ minds.

Tool has never been the kind of band to release a mere collection of songs. Central to the tenet of the band is that each album serves as a unified whole. This isn’t to say that the albums are necessarily “concept albums,” far from it. While they might deal with conceptual themes, they don’t tell a single story in the traditional understanding of the phrase. There is a story arch, but it’s one of atmosphere and mood while using the ebb and flow of musical tension and release to create dramatic shifts.

This approach was honed and expanded upon with Ænima. The carefully curated artwork and packaging and the band’s groundbreaking music videos augmented their heavy atmospheric sounds. Guitarist Adam Jones’s previous work as a sculptor and special effects designer for Hollywood movies, including Jurassic Park, Batman Returns, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Ghostbusters II, stood him in good stead for his role as director of the band’s music videos.

What TOOL offers with Ænima is endlessly spiralling depths. We can dissect every word or phrase for a more profound truth, and a devoted fan could find all sorts of meanings that had never occurred to the artists themselves. This enigmatic approach encapsulates the genius of Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics. He often presents the listener with philosophical musings; symbolism; meditations on the occult; Jungian concepts on the tribulations and interactions of male and female; contemplations on the nature of consciousness, and poop jokes. All this lends his writings a whiff of the mystical and absurd and leaves vast scope for discussion and interpretation.

On Ænima, the music also took on extra levels of complexity and depth. The interplay between Adam Jones, Danny Carey and new bassist Justin Chancellor had become prodigiously symbiotic. Mathematical time signatures butted up against vast atmospheric soundscapes. The crushingly heavy passages throughout the album are laced with highly emotive chord structures and sequences, while the cinematic soundscapes breathe and pulsate. Song lengths became stretched and elongated. The band also introduced shorter instrumental interludes to bridge between certain songs.

The album opens with “Stinkfist,” its thick, swampy guitar tone is imbued with enormous weight and tension. More polished than anything from Undertow, its foreboding tone sets up the journey the band intends to take the listener on throughout the album. As an opening salvo, “Stinkfist” is a shot across the bows. It’s a clarion call of intent from a band that set the bar incredibly high.

“Eulogy” begins with lightly tapped percussion in customary off-kilter time signatures. Ominous drones swim beneath while what sounds like a kazoo plays an insistent melody. After two minutes, Adam Jones’s guitar enters with syncopated two-note guitar stabs. Maynard James Keenan has said the song is about the tendency of people to stand on a soap box and sacrifice themselves in some way. The band has stated in several interviews that this song is about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Still, fans have attributed many other figures to the song’s meaning.

“H.” opens with Adam Jones’s saturated guitar tone. The band falls in with heavy percussive punctuations before gliding into a gorgeous, meditative verse. Jones’s clean guitar intertwines with Danny Carey’s tom-heavy drum patterns and Justin Chancellor’s bass counterpoint. Maynard sings, “What’s coming through is alive, What’s holding up is a mirror, But what’s singing songs is a snake, It is, Looking to turn my piss to wine, They’re both totally void of hate. And killing me just the same..”

“Useful Idiot” is forty-one seconds of white noise and the first instrumental interlude on the album. From Ænima on, TOOL would use musical transitions like this on all their albums. “46 & 2” follows. A masterpiece of progressive songwriting, the song showcases TOOL’s technical skill, artistic vision, and willingness to push boundaries. Its tight, knotty verses give way to slamming, propulsive choruses. Maynard’s voice is commanding and incredibly expressive.

“Message To Harry Manback” is another interlude. Over a piano refrain, we hear a voice message on former Green Jelly member Gary Helsinger (Hotsy Menshot) ‘s answering machine. The man in the recording was Gary’s roommate, but Gary kicked him out of his apartment for stealing another roommate’s belongings. As the message shows, he did not take it well. Gary was roommates with Tool members Maynard James Keenan, and Danny Carey and was later roommates with Maynard and Billy Howerdel from A Perfect Circle. The man in the recording has identified himself as Francesco Sonoyo, who didn’t find out about the song until the late 2010s. He has taken it all in stride and even wrote a book about the situation called The Legend of Harry Manback.

“Hooker With A Penis” opens with an immense slab of guitar, not dissimilar in tone to the gargantuan desert rock Kyuss was trading in the mid-’90s. From there, it explodes with raging punk energy. The song’s verse is a blast of military precision riffing as Maynard rips a fan he met who accused him of selling out. “I met a boy wearing Vans, 501s. And a dope Beastie tee, nipple rings. New tattoos that claimed that he was OGT, back from ’92, from the first EP. And in between sips of Coke. He told me that he thought we were sellin’ out. Layin’ down, suckin’ up to the man..”

Keenan reminds the fan that he is just as responsible because he bought the album. “All you know about me is what I’ve sold ya, dumb fuck. I sold out long before you’d ever even heard my name. I sold my soul to make a record, dipshit. And then you bought one…” A ferocious performance from Jones, Carey and Chancellor equally matches Maynard’s rage.

“Intermission” is a one-minute interlude that takes the core riff of the next song, “Jimmy”, and plays it on a fairground organ. “Jimmy” has a very distinctive 10/4 time signature. Employing a (3/4 + 3/4 + 4/4) sequence gives the song a rolling feel. The Jimmy of the song title is a reference to Maynard himself. In which he talks about his childhood, “Under a dead Ohio sky,” and a traumatic event that happened when he was 11: “Eleven and she was gone, Eleven is when we waved goodbye.”

“Die Eier Von Satan” is another interlude. At two minutes and eighteen seconds, it could be considered a song in its own right. Over a grinding industrial beat, we hear a passionate narrator speaking German; as his words become more impassioned, we hear an audience cheering vigorously and approvingly. Presumably, the intention is to have the listener automatically associate this with Hitler and his many public speeches. However, translating the lyrics, we find the intense address is nothing more than a recipe for a dessert called “The Balls (Eggs) of Satan.” Throughout the speech, Maynard says, “Und kine Eier,” which means, “And no eggs.” Ultimately, it is a political statement, knocking Nazism and comparing Hitler’s Jewless nation to the Balls of Satan – a recipe which fails without eggs.

“Pushit’s” opening guitar refrain buzzes like a lumbering wasp. The song’s dynamics are tight until it explodes into a pummelling frenzy before dropping into an atmospheric dirge. Powerful waves for percussion and guitars follow, building in intensity. As Maynard returns, the band drop out altogether, leaving him alone to sing the line “I must persuade you another way” with heartstopping clarity and feel.

“Cesaro Summability” begins with a distressed child crying, which gives way to white noise and distant disembodied voices. The album title track, Ænima, follows. Jones’s main riff has proven to be one of the greatest the band has ever produced. Justin Chancellor’s bass playing drives the verses, his dexterous hammer-ons and pull-offs adding electrifying momentum.

“(-) Ions” is the longest interlude on the album. Four minutes of droning synth and the sound of an electric fly-killer as it zaps unwitting pests. “Third Eye” closes the album and is its longest track. Opening with an excerpt from Bill Hicks’s stand-up comedy show. Bill Hicks was more than a comedian; he was one of the great thinkers of our time. The song’s title references one of Hicks’s monologues, in which he talks about squeegeeing his Third Eye. In a routine that influenced this song, Hicks said that if we had a third eye to see the universe’s beauty more clearly, watching television was like spraying black paint over it. Hicks’s died after a battle with pancreatic cancer in February 1994; he was just 33 years old. His passing robbed us of one of the generation’s greatest voices. Not only did Tool add his dialogue to the album. Hicks can also be seen in the album’s artwork, where he’s dressed in a doctor’s coat, tending to a somewhat disfigured-looking Maynard.

Ænima is an undoubted masterpiece. While the album is multi-layered, deeply conceptual and musically complex, fans not bothered by the complex minutia can enjoy it on a purely base level. It rocks hard with a devastating emotional punch. The songs are memorable, and the hooks sink deep.

Essential…!