May 15th, 2001, TOOL released their third full-length album, Lateralus, through Volcano Entertainment. For most bands, following an album like Ænima may have proved impossible. That album’s rich tapestry of crushing dynamics, brooding atmosphere, gilt-edged songwriting, and goosebump-inducing performances left many to wonder if the band had reached the pinnacle of their creativity just two albums in. TOOL, seemingly unfazed by such concerns, used the monumental statement made on Ænima as a springboard to launch their musical vision into the stratosphere with Lateralus.

Where Ænima took a squeegee to your third eye, Lateralus stuffs you in a deprivation tank, pumps it with hallucinogens and shoots you into space. It’s mind-altering music. It’s crushing, dense, otherworldly, harsh, and often wilfully inscrutable. With nine songs and four instrumental “interludes”, Lateralus packs weight and substance into every crevice of its nearly eighty-minute runtime.

The journey begins with “The Grudge”, a nine-minute juggernaut referencing Roman mythology, Saturn’s return, and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan delves deep into the human experience, searching for what divides and unites us. The song opens with the sound of a reel-to-reel tape spinning into life; there’s no slow atmospheric build as Adam Jones, Danny Carey, and Justin Chancellor launch headlong into a galvanizing, pulsating riff right out of the gate. Their near-mythical interplay is immediately apparent as they dish out limb-twisting time signatures and dynamics, often within the same sequence.

Their ability to weave more voluminous detail into a single song than most bands can wring out of an entire album is staggering. “The Grudge” oscillates through waves of emotional highs and gripping depths. The band spend four minutes ramping up the tension before delivering a tight, syncopated payoff.

“Eon Blue Apocalypse” is the first of four transitional instrumental pieces. Predominantly, Adam Jones coaxes some spacious and atmospheric sounds from his guitar, which perfectly sets up “The Patient.”

With its beautifully slow build, “The Patient’s” looping guitar motif resembles the ticking of a clock, over which Chancellor and Carey masterfully add heft and movement. Maynard sounds defiant as he opines, “A groan of tedium escapes me, startling the fearful,” he then asks, “Is this a test?” After the verse’s hypnotic lull, the crushing weight of the chorus is startling. Maynard sighs across the din, intending to “Wait it out / Gonna wait it out / Wait it out, be patient.” The song builds toward an emphatic release before returning to its hypnotic intro cadence.

“Mantra” is a droning one-minute fourteen-second interlude which sets the tone for the album’s first single “Schism.” When “Schism” dropped in the spring of 2001, it became Tool’s biggest song to date. It even cracked the Hot 100, a feat the band would not repeat until the “Fear Inoculum” single in 2019.

Opening with a beautiful countermelody that gives way to Chancellor’s infectious, rolling bass riff, “Schism” is propelled by some genuinely odd time signatures: starting in 12/8, moving to 5/8, and then to 7/8. These unusual metres make the music and lyrics coexist in a profound way. Maynard glides across the fray with a breathy intensity; his tight, rhythmic phrasing is in lock-step with the exaggerated off-kilter downbeats of Danny Carey. After a reflective middle-eight, they build to a passionate crescendo before delving into the twisting, murky depths of taut, chugging rhythms as the song claws toward its end.

“Parabol” is a cinematic three-minute meditative mood piece. Maynard lightly floats above the brooding atmosphere, singing, “This body holding me / reminding me that I am not alone / This body makes me feel eternal / All this pain is an illusion.” The sentiment of this lyrical passage is explored and elaborated on in the following song, “Parabola.”

Not many bands choose a sprawling ten-minute masterpiece like “Parabola” as a single, but then again, TOOL is not your average band. The opening four minutes of atmosphere building succeeds in lulling the listener into a false sense of safety. Its sinister hush is womb-like and oddly comforting as Maynard’s voice lilts and soars with a gossamer-thin grace.

That ambience is soon crushed as the hazy aura gives way to a galvanizing adrenaline rush. A strident riff pummels the senses before a verse of tribal drum patterns and muted guitar stabs support Maynard’s ghostly musings. The song’s chorus is devastatingly emotive and endlessly haunting as Maynard holds a single note over a raging sea of guitars and drums.

“Ticks And Leeches” opens with Danny Carey’s powerfully hypnotic drum pattern. Carey’s timbre and vitality are second to none as he wrings every ounce of intensity from his kit. The band is crushing throughout this raging gut punch in song form. Maynard spits and riles, roaring throat-shredding phrases with blistering intent. After three and a half minutes of onslaught, we’re suddenly left cold with just Adam Jones’s naked guitar set against the sound of distant, billowing wind and disembodied, faraway voices.

The eerie passage subsides to near quiet before the band launches a savage wave of powerfully pummelling riffs. Maynard’s splintered, shredded roars sound like death metal wails strangulated beneath a sea of thick molten lava. “Ticks And Leeches” finds TOOL at their most viciously passionate.

The title track, “Lateralus,” follows. Famous for using the Fibonacci sequence to illustrate the symmetry of life, Tool was never one to shy away from loftier means of self-expression. Fibonacci numbers are a sequence in which the following number is the sum of the previous two. For example: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. Maynard uses the lyrics’ syllable count to portray the Fibonacci sequence. The song begins with the words (numbers denote syllable counts):

1 – “Black”

1 – “Then”

2 – “White are”

3 – “All I see”

5 – “In My Infancy”

8 – “Red and yellow then came to be.”

5 – “Reaching out to me”

3 – “Lets me see”

When the syllable count reaches 8, it proceeds backwards through the numbers. The song eventually breaks the sequence, but there is a reason behind it. Maynard suggests that we should not live life in a constant fashion but rather spiral out and try new things. Break the sequence: “Over thinking, over analysing / Separates my body from my mind / Withering my intuition, missing opportunities / And I must feed my will to feel my moment / Drawing way outside the lines.”

Maynard implores the listener to “embrace the random.” The song’s slow build takes flight with a commanding syncopated riff. The band is tight and dexterous, and Maynard is at his haunting, emotive best. In rock terms, “Lateralus” may be high art. Still, it always retains sight of ingenious hooks, razor-sharp songwriting, and the idea that it can be enjoyed as a masterful piece of rock n roll, Fibonacci sequence or not.

Justin Chancellor’s gorgeous bass playing opens “Disposition,” which feels lighter and more life-affirming than the onslaught that preceded it. Maynard implores, “Mention this to me / Mention this to me / And watch the weather change.” Danny Carey’s light percussion glides from speaker to speaker as Adam Jones weaves memorable pedal point guitar motifs throughout.

“Reflection” could have sat alongside Graeme Revell’s score for the 1994 film The Crow. While that film’s soundtrack featured a bevvy of TOOL’s contemporaries, the instrumentation and atmosphere of “Reflection” shares more in common with Revell’s score. The use of deep synth sounds and Eastern bowed instrumentation creates an exotic tone. The song gradually builds, making the most of every second of its eleven-minute runtime.

Instrumental, “Triad” is almost industrial in its approach—squalling shards of guitar wail over a repetitive drum loop. The intensity lifts as Jones wrestles a mammoth riff from his Les Paul, indistinguishable industrial noises breathe and exhale below the din. Eventually, the elements lock the listener in a spiralling death roll that pulls deep into the murky depths.

The final track, “Faaip De Oiad”, is an unsettling soundscape of percussion swamped by static white noise. An agitated and fearful speaking voice is heard under the cacophony, “I, I don’t have a whole lot of time. Um, okay, I’m a former employee of Area 51. I, I was let go on a medical discharge about a week ago and, and I’ve kind of been running across the country. Damn, I don’t know where to start. They’re gonna, um, they’ll triangulate on this position really, really soon.”

His stammer becomes more pronounced as he sobs: “Okay, um, um, okay. What we’re thinking of as aliens are extradimensional beings that an earlier precursor of the space program made contact with. They are not what they claim to be. Uh, they’ve infiltrated a, a lot of aspects of, of, of the military establishment. Particularly the Area 51.”

His voice becomes increasingly desperate: “The disasters that are coming, they, the military. I’m sorry, the government knows about them. And there are a lot of safe areas in this world that they could begin moving the population to now, but they are not. They want those major population centres wiped out so that the few that are left will be more easily controllable.”

Listening to Lateralus for the first time demands attention. Those who do take the time to let its incredible depths unfold through repeat listening are left with no doubt that this is a high watermark in TOOL’s storied career. Lateralus isn’t just one of the greatest albums in TOOL’s back catalogue; it’s one of the greatest rock albums of all time. It’s cerebral, chaotic, lush, beautiful, jarring, powerful, strident and emotionally relentless.

Lateralus leaves you with a constant, unwavering feeling that something extraordinary is unfolding at every turn. It’s an aural journey that busts through the space-time continuum and drags you to a different place.