Spirituality in Metal: Tool Remind Us to Shine a Little Light

tool___10_000_days_wallpaper_by_flooki-d4jgnnq

I wanted to celebrate New Music Friday’s rebranding by digging into the vaults and hauling out an album that I haven’t listened to, much less written about, in quite some time.

I’m talking about Tool’s controversial 2006 album, 10,000 Days.

Why controversial? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but I think it’s fair to say that this album was received with just a touch less enthusiasm than its predecessor, the masterful (and still, probably, the best prog metal album of all time) Lateralus.

But then again, Tool’s music has always been a difficult thing to come to terms with. They combine the harsh, snarling guitars of grunge bands like Alice in Chains with the progressive sensibilities of King Crimson and Pink Floyd. To call them a hard rock band is to sell them short; to call them progressive metal is to draw unfortunate comparisons to, say, Dream Theater.

So let’s split the difference and call this an “art rock” album.

Back in 2006, I was in the eighth grade. I literally can’t believe I just typed that, because it means this album is now nine (nine!) years old. That’s more than one-third the time I’ve been alive.

And it feels like it, too; I have a long and complicated history with this album. It’s like an old friend at this point, with all of the baggage you’d come to expect from any long-term relationship.

Opening track “Vicarious” leaked several months in advance of the album’s release, as did second single “The Pot.” I knew even then that changes were in store for the band; both tracks contained the lyrical playfulness of their earliest work (think “Hush” and “Disgustipated,” from Opiate and Undertow, respectively), and both exhibited the band’s trademark combination of grittiness with the slick musicianship and production values of Lateralus. And Maynard even tried a few new vocal tricks this time around; “Vicarious” sees him adopting a harsh rasp, and much of “The Pot” is sung in a higher register than most of his other work.

At the time, I believed that 10,000 Days was the most uneven album of the band’s career. I can listen to Ænima and Lateralus from start to finish, and even the “filler” tracks seem to serve a purpose: to usher us gracefully from one song to the next.

                      

Looked at in this way, 10,000 Days becomes a disappointment. The songs are not nearly as musically cohesive as they were on Lateralus,  indicating a lack of focus that’s distracting at best and jarring at worst. The strength of any album is derived in part from how fluidly it transitions from one song to the next, and 10,000 Days falls short of the mark on more than one occasion.

Even so, this album contains some of the band’s best material to date. The album’s centerpiece, a 17-minute suite consisting of “Wings for Marie” and “10,000 Days,” remains one of the band’s most emotionally devastating musical achievements. Some of Maynard’s previous work with A Perfect Circle unflinchingly and brutally criticized his mother’s unflinching devotion to her God, which persisted even after she spent the better part of 27 years (ten thousand days—get it?) bound to a wheelchair. “Judith,” appearing on APC’s debut album, is almost startling in its condemnation.

And yet, on “Wings for Marie/10,000 Days,” Maynard takes a contemplative turn toward compassion, respect, and grace. This, more than anything else, I think, demonstrates Tool’s almost relentless musical and lyrical progress over the years. These two songs are both hauntingly understated and beautifully composed, serving as a memorial for a woman who stayed true to her beliefs in spite of suffering that would have—both literally and figuratively—crippled a person of lesser moral fiber.

                    

This is the spiritual journey at the heart of every Tool album. Even with the colorful (and sometimes upsetting) metaphors, the sarcastic turns of phrase, and the bold musicianship, this has always been a band in search of the truth—or, failing that, some kind of personal truth. Lateralus was all about reaching beyond human understanding, even as it railed against classic definitions of “faith” and “religion.”

Elsewhere on 10,000 Days, the band searches for truth in other ways. “Rosetta Stoned” is the humorous (but still harrowing) story of an LSD pioneer who becomes convinced during a bad trip that he’s the savior of all mankind.

The song “Intension” is Tool’s twisted attempt at a ballad, and examines nothing more or less than the process whereby human souls—ostensibly “pure” at birth—are gradually compromised by greed and hostile instincts:

Pure as we begin / Here we have a stone / Gather, place, array, so / Shelter turns to home … Pure as we begin / Here we have a stone / Throw to stay the stranger / Swore to crush his bones…

Spark becomes a flame / Flame becomes a fire / Light the way or warm this / Home we occupy.

And then, on “Right in Two,” we’re given another not-very-subtle reminder of mankind’s tendency to embrace his base nature:

Don’t these talking monkeys know that Eden has enough to go around? / Plenty in this holy garden, silly monkeys / Where there’s one you’re bound to divide it right in two … Father blessed them all with reason / And this is what they choose?

Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability / To lift the light of Heaven, conscious of his fleeting time here.

If there’s a lesson to be found here, it’s that spirituality desperately needs to be divorced from religion. Once you do, you realize that the human spirit is not a gift from on high, but something each of us must cultivate and nurture on our own. It absolves us of one false form of responsibility, and burdens us instead with an objective one. The resulting message is as tortured as it is uplifting; many of these lyrics are so beautifully chosen that I literally get goosebumps while I type them. This is that kind of album.

So, after all these years, I’m willing to forgive some of the poor track transitions. I’m willing to forgive the fact that this album isn’t Lateralus 2.0. But Tool has never made the same album twice, and I was wrong to expect them to betray the instincts that have served them so well for so long.

But even more surprising than the musical progress is the lyrical and philosophical maturity. Tool’s earliest work, peppered with hostility and obscenities, was a poor indicator of how far the group would come with subsequent releases.

A recurring motif on 10,000 Days is borrowed from that old Christian classic, “This Little Light of Mine.” Maynard invokes it explicitly on “Wings for Marie,” as he says a final goodbye to his mother:

This little light of mine, a gift you passed on to me / I’m gonna let it shine to guide you safely on your way.

That song serves as a reminder that there is indeed an ember of understanding, fairness, rationality, and beauty inside every one of us. It’s the gift that makes us human, and Tool here reminds us that such gifts are wasted if we don’t learn how to breathe life into them.