Maynard James Keenan, to borrow an observation made about the young William Burroughs, has the face of a sheep-killing dog — taut, starved, bleakly symmetrical, with an underhang of menace. He sings in a voice like wire running off a spool. He’s into sodomy and holiness. And the new Tool CD, 10,000 Days (Volcano), comes with a pair of stereoscopic lenses through which to peer at the trippy artwork. (If you do this, in the cloister of your bedroom or study, I guarantee you will hear distant, mocking laughter.) What a wacky, wacky band.
VISCERAL VENOM: The smell of Maynard James Keenan’s enmity is part of the Tool mystique.
And what a mighty one, too. They sold out their May 21 Orpheum show in 32 seconds, and they wouldn’t give your fun-loving Phoenix an interview, the bastards. Then again, why should they? They don’t need us. Tool long ago achieved a state of glimmering shadow renown, in which we are always lurkingly aware, as if cursed, of their existence and potency. They survived grunge, Lollapalooza, new metal, and whatever the last thing was that happened. Silence and absence now conspire in their favor. Sparse press; forbidding æsthetics; an album every five years or so, beamed directly into the pineal gland of their enthralled audience; mega, mega sales. Undertow (1993) went double platinum; the last album, Lateralus (2001), went straight to #1, and 10,000 Days just did the same, dethroning Godsmack’s IV. If I were the singer of a hack metal band, dutifully slopping out riffs ’n’ grunts for the masses only to watch Tool swing down from their velvet obscurity and cream my sales figures, I might catch myself muttering, “Dude, what the FUCK . . . ?”
Well here’s the secret: they’re wizards. “Black and white are all I see, in my infancy,” whispered Keenan urgently on the title track of Lateralus, his breath synched to the pattern of Danny Carey’s toms. “Red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me . . . ” Black, white, yellow and red: the four main stages of the alchemical opus. In one of alchemy’s foundational texts, the Tractatus Aureus (“Golden Treatise”) attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a vulture stands on the side of a mountain and cries, “I am the white of the black, and the red of the white and the yellow of the red, and I am very truthful.” Which is something Maynard Keenan might say (or sing). Tool are eye-deep in the great arcanum, seething with alchemical lore, the Kabala, entheogenic revelation, and God knows what else. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the release date of 10,000 Days was lined up astrologically for maximum efficacy, or that some of its time signatures are Pythagorean spells engineered to depress the market value of Godsmack.