Ænima by Tool
My entire senior year of high school was wrapped up in this band.
The other day when my family was coming out of Guardians of the Galaxy 3, a car was pulled up in front of the theater with tinted windows blasting rap music with impossibly loud bass at the loudest possible volume. My youngest son, 10-year-old Will, was flabbergasted by the whole thing. “Why would they play their music that loud?” Will sometimes says things like this, I think, in an attempt to get parental approval for calling out what he’s guessing is universally bad behavior. He’s a little pleaser in that way. He’s always surprised when he makes a bet, and I don’t think the behavior is all that bad. This was one of those cases.
I laughed and told him how I used to do that stuff too. Playing loud music was a way to feel rebellious and cement your identity as a kid. It’s a way to broadcast to the world who you are. It’s part of how you project what you think is cool and that you are also cool for associating with whatever is assaulting all the unwilling or uninitiated ears you encounter. It’s part canvassing for yourself and part trying to boost the things you love. Or at least that’s what I was trying to do when I did that in high school.
I was joking about this later with my younger brother, who is also in his 40s now, and he laughed before saying he used to lower his volume because he never wanted to be noticed anywhere ever when he was a teenager. Maybe it wasn’t all of us that acted this way. That seems so foreign to me because even if I wasn’t windows-down guy, I was blasting at the highest possible volume before my speakers started distorting. I wanted to listen to my music and I wanted you to know what I was listening to as well. I was projecting my identity that way. In hindsight, I’m not sure why, but I know I was intentional about it. I loved Aerosmith and Alanis and Counting Crows, but it was always aggressive and heavy when I rolled up. And more likely than not, during my senior year of high school, it was Tool. Even more likely than that, it was “Stinkfist” by Tool, but probably only because I didn’t have a Firebird and an REO Speedwagon t-shirt.
Billy Madison references aside; I really did feel like the top of the heap in a lot of ways as a high school senior. We started school, and Ænima would come out just a month later in September. At that time, it was about the most anticipated album of my short lifetime. Evil Empire by Rage was one of the others. That came out in April. Just five months later, it was incredible that Tool would not only follow up Undertow but do so with something that felt like a giant leap forward. The album was sonically superior in every way. The songs felt longer and more complex as well. Even with extra length, the album never felt long-winded or unfocused. Even the interludes felt like unskippable glue for the album connecting classic and rebellious songs like “Forty Six & 2” to “Hooker With a Penis.” This record was so good that it was reasonable to think they might be peaking as a band. How could it get any better?
And that’s how it felt as a high school senior. I remember that year almost with a color filter like a warm fuzzy version of Three’s Company. Honestly, I don’t normally think in colors that way, but that’s how I think about my senior year of high school. I had good friends. I had a girlfriend. I was playing my senior year of soccer. I rejected AP English in favor of sticking with a teacher that taught me my love of writing. I was finishing this whole thing and going through all the emotions. The feelings of accomplishment and that I had it all figured out with a level of freedom of being on the precipice of my 18th birthday. At the same time, knowing that I didn’t know what was next. I didn’t know where I was going to college just yet.
And all the while I have Tool with songs like “Stinkfist” talking about how the modern world is desensitizing us to things while comparing it to deeper and deeper anal penetration for maximal effect. They were censored on MTV, who wouldn’t even use the actual song title on air, changing it to “Track #1.” And I dare you to drive the speed limit with this one pounding in your ear drums.
“Eulogy” was a pure epic. At nearly eight and a half minutes, it just keeps going and you don’t want it to end. Except it peaks right at the very end with some of the angriest, most defiant lyrics and sounds you could ever imagine. I’ve talked about this before, and I’m not sure why angst is so inherent to young men, even those who seemingly have everything going for them. But I can attest to the fact that it’s so intoxicating as a young man.
He had a lot to say
He had a lot of nothing to say
He had a lot to say
He had a lot of nothing to say
Get off your fuckin' cross
We need the fuckin' space
To nail the next fool martyr
To ascend you must die
You must be crucified
For our sins and our lies
And that “goodbye” is probably the biggest, loudest, longest note you’ve ever heard Maynard James Keenan sing.
I couldn’t get enough of this band, including their live shows. Some of my favorite concert experiences happened during this time period. I had been lucky enough to see Tool play on the Undertow tour on May 15, 1994, but after Ænima, the band was even better live.
I got to see the band on November 18, 1996, at the famed Agora Theater in Cleveland. I was 17 years old and had the freedom to go to this show with a bunch of my friends and my younger brother, who was a sophomore. He hung back with another friend who wasn’t the moshing type. The rest of us all packed into the tight mosh pit, and the band opened with “Stinkfist.” As I chaotically tossed and turned around the pit, I was consistently running into friends of mine here and there. Pass along a crowd surfer, run into another friend. I must have known more than ten people in the pit that night. The hits kept coming.
Tool went from “Stinkfist” straight into “Forty Six & 2” with a foreboding bass riff to get things started. That song allowed everyone to breathe, but not for long, as it just builds and builds to a crescendo. After three minutes, it gets loud as as Maynard sings “My Shadow. Change is coming. Now is my time.” Everyone seemed to know every damn word too. By the time the drum solo kicks in to set off the final section of the song, the crowd was out of its mind.
“Swamp Song” hit next, but in hindsight, we might have fast-forwarded if we had known that “Eulogy” was up next. “Eulogy” was an epic, as I stated before, but it was also mysterious. How did they make those sounds? Tool was in no mood to let out the secrets just yet as Maynard faced the drums with relative darkness over the stage as the intro meanders its way to the actual singing sections. “Eulogy” was one of those songs that we absolutely worshipped on the album, but we just had to see the band perform it live. This was the first of many performances we’d see.
“Jimmy” came next, followed by “H.” Tool threw it back to their EP Opiate with “Cold and Ugly.” They finished the night with “Sober,” “Opiate” and then blew the roof off the place with “Ænema.” Let’s talk about this song for a second.
“Ænema” was a wholly unrelateable song. It’s based on some concepts from a Bill Hicks comedy bit about Los Angeles falling off at the fault lines and into the ocean. It’s an attack on many of the superficial cultural things from Los Angeles. “Fret for your figure and fret for your latte and fret for your lawsuit and fret for your hairpiece and fret for you Prozac and fret for you pilot and fret for your contract and fret for your car it’s a bull shit three ring circus sideshow of freaks.”
I couldn’t relate in the slightest but the power of the music that Maynard, Adam Jones, Danny Carey, and Justin Chancellor created made me hate all these things too. “Learn to swim!” All these Cleveland kids are chanting “learn to swim” as the band plasters through the song. But the magic is yet to come.
There’s a break in the song and Maynard sings one of his most beautiful vocal lines in all of Tool’s catalog.
'Cause I'm praying for rain
I'm praying for tidal waves
I wanna see the ground give way
I wanna watch it all go down
Mom, please flush it all away
I wanna see it go right in and down
I wanna watch it go right in
Watch you flush it all away
And just in time to finish it crazy and aggressive and bleak and desperate.
As the band was finishing, some idiot crowd surfer found their way on stage and ran up to Maynard and put their arm around him. Maynard stormed off as the band finished the song musically. I think they were done, but the crowd would have loved to find that person at that moment. Talk about a dangerous move in that moment with all that angst and testosterone emanating from the pit below the band.
There’s no video online of the show that I went to, but this is from just a month before in California and is probably pretty emblematic of the show we saw.
Shortly after I graduated, some of those same friends got together and went to Lollapalooza 1997 to see Tool again. Korn and Devo were also there, but we were there for Tool. You never want to begrudge your favorite bands from being successful, but the days of seeing them in venues like Nautica and The Agora were over. A year later, back from college for the summer, we went to the Rubber Bowl in Akron to see Tool at Ozzfest on July 18, 1998. It was great and we had a lot of fun, but it felt like trying to recapture something… like we were now chasing it.
I’ve had other great times with Tool over the years, including taking my then first grader to see them in Pittsburgh on the last day of school. None of this is to diminish the band or what they’ve become. It’s just to recognize how magical it was at that moment in time when it hit me at the peak of my youth experiences in Ohio.
I don’t know how easy it is for new fans and younger people who weren’t old enough or even alive as they discover Tool today, but there are many good reasons why they continue to be revered and sell out every show they play.