I love TOOL. I've loved them since first hearing the "Opiate" EP back in 1992, and both "Undertow" and "Aenima" are two of my favorite heavy rock albums of the Nineties. But lately, I would be lying if I didn't say that TOOL was starting to make me a little…fidgety. Like RADIOHEAD, the group has taken its fans on a journey with its more recent material that sometimes didn't seem to have a definite roadmap (I'd be curious to know how many RADIOHEAD fans listen to "Kid A" more than "OK Computer").When initially hearing 2001's "Lateralus", TOOL's last album before the new "10,000 Days", I had a sort of forced enthusiasm just because I was glad to hear the sound of the band whose previous effort — "Aenima", released way back in '96 — had had such a powerful effect on me. But after a couple of spins, I never went back to "Lateralus" — the always tense relationship between the band's heavier musical assault and its artier, more exploratory stylings seem to be tipping in favor of the latter, leading to songs that became less focused and more meandering even as they stayed long or got even longer. Of course, the band's superb musicianship, pristine sound and Maynard James Keenan's impassioned vocal delivery remained treasured components of this unique band's sound. Fast forward another five years to 2006 and the return of TOOL with its fourth full-length studio effort. All the elements are in place — the brilliant playing (especially from guitarist Adam Jones), the atmospheric overall sound and Keenan's crystalline voice — but the tension has grown between the two sides to TOOL's schizoid musical personality. Opener "Vicarious" (also the CD's first single) is a classic TOOL hard hitter that doesn't fully sink in for two or three listens but ultimately is as powerful a track as "Stinkfist" or "Intolerance". The lyrics — dealing with our society's obsession with reality TV, televised mayhem and the "if it bleeds, it leads" form of journalism — are about as direct as Keenan has ever gotten. "Jambi" follows with a zigzagging, almost thrash-like riff from Jones that leads into another steady buildup and explosive finale. But by the third and fourth songs, "Wings for Marie Pt. 1" and "10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2)", the group begins to stretch out, the melodies grow less distinct and the tunes become extended, introspective collages instead of true songs. Lyrically, these two are an entirely different story: Keenan deals on a painfully honest level with the death of his mother, who passed away in 2003 after suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke for 27 years (or very nearly 10,000 days). As musically split as the album is, Keenan has delved into more personal subject matter on this disc than ever before. The rest of "10,000 Days", all 77 minutes of it, follows a similar pattern: moments of precision, artfully heavy rock interspersed with long expanses of exploration and experimentation that sometimes makes the listener want to tell the band to just get on with it. Short, cryptic instrumental passages like "Lipan Conjuring" and "Lost Keys" seem like filler, of which there should really be none from a band that makes albums at such a leisurely pace. Yet at the same time, "The Pot" features an almost funky groove beneath more excellent Jones guitar work and another forceful vocal from Keenan, making it one of TOOL's most immediate and compelling songs in years. With the eight full songs (out of 11 tracks) all clocking in at over six minutes, and two of them going well past the 11-minute mark, it appears that the exploratory side of TOOL is taking more and more precedence over the band's heavier, sharper roots. It doesn't need to be said that the band is free to write and play what it chooses, and needs to follow whatever musical path calls to it. But the results are alternately breathtaking and frustrating, with self-indulgence sometimes beating out innovation. With "10,000 Days", the members of TOOL deserve credit for staying completely true to themselves, but who and what they are remains a partially intriguing, partially maddening riddle that fans will no doubt stay intent on solving.
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