"Aenima" was a breathe of fresh air amidst a late 90's mess of post-grunge dribble, arriving nu-metal fiascos and a host of supposedly alternative bands creating rather mundane and tired music. Tool swiped all of this mess aside with this sprawling 77-minute masterpiece.
And yes, I do consider this album a masterpiece - one for the modern generation of rock and metal fans. Not since Pink Floyd's mid 70's heyday had a band created something with such thought-provoking intensity and fluid combination of technical ecstasy and outstanding, often complex, song writing. As a result, this album has become my most listened to, most appreciated and simply most adored album.
To put this album into a bit of context - Tool had released one LP, 1993's "Undertow", and a short EP, 1992's "Opiate". While "Opiate" was fun and genuinely aggressive, it lacked decent song writing and was a bit one-dimensional. This was changed with "Undertow", a brooding transitional album which saw the band fuse the raw aggression they had with a new sophisticated song writing approach, often drawing out song structures and adding a whole new level of musical complexity. The signs were there - the technical abilities were on display, structures were becoming more ambitious and intricate - so really, the makings of Aenima had already begun way before the band set out to create it.
"Aenima" is for me the most mysterious Tool release. Their other albums, including this year's "10,000 Days" release, all have more obvious themes and take less time to peel apart and decipher. "Aenima" has the oddest art and layout, all of it being very dark and cryptic, including a strange painting of Bill Hicks as a doctor, a neon purple man with his forehead open to reveal a glimmering third eye, and babies being chased by strange green beings. There is also a rant excerpt in the liner art discussing the dangers of "anaesthetic" states. It also gives meaning to the album's title - being both a physical and mental experience.
And this is a fair claim from the band. "Aenima" is both intensely thought provoking in its themes and messages, but also musically exhilarating, which translates into a wonderful physical experience. An experience which begins with one of the band's most well known songs, the rocking "Stinkfist". "All good albums have a song about anal sex" I have read Maynard James Keenan jokingly saying in an interview, and well, here is that tongue-in-cheek aspect of his character in song. While many attempt to come up with obscure and hidden meanings behind the lyrics, it is essentially to do with two people joining (anal sex or not), to help each other. Musically it is a great opener, with lots of catchy riffs from Adam Jones, complemented by Justin Chancellor's bold bass tones, and all set off by the wizardry of the multi-limbed Danny Carey. The song has a rather straightforward verse/chorus beginning but this gives way to an excellent climatic finish, involving swift section changes and contrasting dynamics.
"Eulogy" is the sound of the new evolved Tool. A long drawn-out introduction builds its way to a typically menacing MJK talk/whisper, then pummels into a barrage of fuzzy guitars and soaring vocals, instantly displaying the outstanding vocal range of Keenan. Through its 9 minute entirety the song weaves in and out of sections, themes and motifs, combining alternate time signatures, powerful confrontational vocals and flat-out rocking moments. This is the statement of the new Tool, and the wondrous styling does not cease hereafter.
Instead of going through each individual song, and explaining aspects of it, I shall pick out my personal highlights, starting with "46&2". This song was my initial favourite on the album due to its accessible structuring and extremely contagious bass riff. This song is really the shining point for the rhythm section, with English bassist Justin Chancellor creating the best riff of the album, and Carey almost stealing the show with his bewildering, seemingly off-time drum break that never crosses the border into technical masturbation as he keeps it concise, and fuses it with the song perfectly. The song also has an inspiring and uplifting theme to it, that of "stepping out of your shadow", a philosophical idea created by Carl Jung - "the shadow is an unconscious complex that is defined as the repressed and suppressed aspects of the conscious self". Here Keenan sings of shedding skin, stepping out of the shadow, ultimately evolving into a bettered being - portrayed both mentally but also physically with the evolution of gaining two extra chromosomes to make 46.
The title track is another straightforward rocker, and again showcases a very catchy lead riff and the amazing vocal range of Keenan, sliding from laid-back melancholy to the spitting, visceral chorus lines attacking the poor social state of L.A. It is the most aggressive song on the album, and harkens back to the "Undertow" and "Opiate" days.
For me the sheer excellence of this album comes in the two large pieces, "Pushit" and "Third Eye". Thematically these two songs are very different, with "Pushit" looking at the struggles of personal relationships, and how one has to come to the decision to end a relationship if the situation is becoming out of control, while "Third Eye" comments on the utility of mind altering drugs as augmenting personal, artistic, cultural growth, development, and understanding of the nature of existence...opening one's third eye. Musically though, these two songs are simply stunning, and the most ambitious works on the album. "Pushit" starts in a rather meandering fashion, with a less than inspired lead riff and chorus section. But the band does not let this continue for long, creating one of the most desolate and menacing bridges I have ever heard, with Keenan's haunting whispers of "pushed me somewhere I don't want to be". This slowly and patiently builds into THE most exhilerating song climax I have ever experienced. The ending to this song still sends my hairs on end if I'm in the mood for it, even after hundreds of listens. It needs to be heard, simple as that. "Third Eye" follows a similar formula, with lots of weaving and subtle sections, all contrasting dynamics and themes, gradually building to a beautiful and monumental ending. Again musically describing this song is ultimately pointless as its structure is so vast and challenging, one simply has to sit down and experience it. These two songs especially need repeated listens as they are way too much to swallow first time.
And this is really the theme for the rest of the album, it is a massive body of work, and will need a lot of dedicated time and effort to really unravel its beauty and power. Even today after listening to this hundreds of times through, I am still questioning notions, picking up new sounds, new themes. A truly epic piece of work, and a modern classic every fan of rock or metal should experience.