Record Time

Tool's Lateralus
Tool's Lateralus
R.E.M.'s Reveal
R.E.M.'s Reveal
The Flashing Lights' Sweet Release
The Flashing Lights' Sweet Release

Tool
Lateralus

For almost two decades, the term ‘progressive rock’ has become as much an insult as a category. It conjures images of self-indulgent musicians from the seventies, playing instruments with too many strings and wailing about mountains, goblins, and other oft-mocked staples of fantasy lore.

A band who plays prog-rock in the 21st century, we would be led to believe, is fooling itself. Now is the time for two-minute pop tunes, songs about girls and boys and the umpteen different ways that they love or leave each other. Witches, warlocks, and 5/7 time signatures need not apply.

This probably explains why Lateralus, the first studio album in five years from L.A. art-metal oddballs Tool, is so perplexing upon first listen. At the beginning of the disc, where popular taste dictates that there should be an “oh baby, baby,” or a “stick it up your” whatever, one finds instead a fierce, throbbing guitar riff that defies you to tap your toes or your calculator finger to its skewed blasts. Such is our introduction to “The Grudge,” the album’s first track, and by extension to Lateralus as a whole. Because if there’s one thing easy to understand about Tool, it’s that they’re not going to dumb it down for you as you go along.

Nor are they going to make it particularly pleasant. There are no flowers or candy or ‘booty’ on Lateralus. As per usual with Tool, there’s no lyric sheet provided, but one need only hear Maynard James Keenan howl “I hope you’re choking,” with unnerving earnestness in “Ticks & Leeches” to understand that the band’s preferred stomping ground is the darker side of human nature. To be sure, there are no elves or dragons here, but there are certainly sinister creatures afoot. Lateralus is arguably a full-out prog record, but instead of fairy-tale monsters, Tool makes music about the monsters in the mirror.

Which is not to say that Lateralus isn’t overblown. On the contrary, it’s possibly the most challenging record to ever sell 250,000 copies in its first week of sales. It’s long and dense, and it dares you to listen to it listen carefully, rather than just throwing it on in the background while you make a tuna sandwich. It veers dangerously close to pretension, and plain runs into it every once in awhile. Yet it succeeds, due in large part to a quality that is lost from most of today’s popular music: Lateralus is mighty, and Tool is the last mighty band left in the land.

Since the demise of Rage Against The Machine, Tool have become the only purveyors of heavy music that combine sharp intelligence, serious musicianship and real weight in their music. Call Limp Bizkit ‘heavy’ all you want, it won’t change the fact that the only difference between “Nookie” and “Bye Bye Bye” is a cheap distortion pedal. Lateralus is weighty in every possible way: it deals with heavy lyrical themes, it throws difficult time changes at you like popcorn kernels. Danny Carey and Justin Chancellor are perhaps the premier rhythm section playing any kind of music anywhere, and when they decide to make a beat, they want you to realize why it’s called that. Adam Jones can veer between snaky, delicate guitar lines and thick chunky riffs in a skipped heartbeat, and Maynard James Keenan uses his lungs like a man who sees the injustice in the impossibility of ever becoming a god. Tool is heavy.

Like 1997’s Aenima, Lateralus was produced by Hamilton, Ontario based engineer David Bottrill, whose credits include albums by Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Tool doesn’t quite fit among those obscure prog-giants just yet. There’s still a healthy dose of rock in Tool, and enough rage to provide the average nu-metal fan with an adequate soundtrack for a spree of property abuse. Yet one gets the feeling that the band feels much more allegiance with Robert Fripp than with the almighty Durst. And maybe that’s a good thing: it’s comforting to know that while Britney likely still has an “Oops” or two left in her, there’s always a sanctuary for those who want their music loud, but who aren’t afraid to let their head be twisted while it’s being pounded.

—Joel McConvey

R.E.M.
Reveal

REM fans can relax—their favourite band sounds almost happy.

Unlike the disturbing brood of songs that pocked-marked 1998’s Up (the band’s first release after the departure of ex-drummer Bill Berry), their latest disc Reveal is confident, calm and free of neuroses.

Where Up struggled under the weight of its own gloom, Reveal shimmers with a lush and organic sound—something like the REM we grew up with in ’91-92, the REM of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, but with ten more years of experience under their already venerable belts.

Though his lyrics remain elliptical, Michael Stipe’s vocals ring clear and warm, and his message, when decipherable, is humane and free of the vitriol that he has been prone to since 1994’s Monster.

Standouts on Reveal include the opener “Lifting,” the heart-breaker “I’ll Take The Rain,” and the otherworldly “Saturn Return.” The best track on the album, however, is “I’ve Been High.” Breezy and careless, with a delicate vocal from Stipe, “High” is the group’s most instantly likeable tune since “Electrolite’—one of those great REM songs too often ignored by radio.

The first radio single from Reveal, “Imitations of Life,” is overrated and will not age well. With a saccharine chorus that irritates more with each listen, this is actually a poor imitation of a great REM song—”Imitations” is a lot like “Man on the Moon” on Prozac. The next single, “All the Way to Reno (you’re gonna be a star),” is altogether bland. Neither song does the album justice.

That said, no song on Reveal ranks as an honest-to-gawd clunker. REM generally makes good music, and Reveal is a generally good—though not great—album.

—Pat Tanzola

The Flashing Lights
Sweet Release

The Flashing Lights are the kind of band you can see your parents getting tricked into liking.

Their poppy homages to all things retro are at times so convincing it’s hard to believe they aren’t being beamed out of Britain in the early sixties. Sandwich one of the tracks from their 1999 debut Where The Change Is between “Twist and Shout” and “The Kids Are Alright,” and you’d be hard pressed to find a reformed rock n’ roll rebel who could spot the difference. Stick any number of songs from the Lights’ newly-released sophomore disc Sweet Release in as garnish, and you’re not going to taste any bold new flavours. The band’s approach has changed little since their debut. All of the same ingredients are there: harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys and early Beatles, and a pop sensibility rooted firmly in decades long past.

Take opening track “Been Waiting,” a crunchy bon-bon of a song that invokes summer nights and Burger King amidst fuzzy chords and Matt Murphy’s schoolboy whine. ‘It’s hard to assess / the power we possess / if you haven’t caught our act in awhile,’ Murphy boasts over a snappy chorus, further ensconcing the Lights’ sound and image somewhere in the mystique of the collective pop memory. Indeed, if the Lights have been waiting, it seems that what they’ve been waiting for got here—and left—quite some time ago.

Of course, aspiring to spiritual communion with the ghosts of rock n’ roll past is hardly a mission unique to Matt Murphy and crew. And to be fair, The Flashing Lights mine shinier musical nuggets than do most pretenders to the sixties pop throne. “Too Delightful” and “Same Old Life” are both instantly likeable tunes—the former a propulsive rocker with a guitar line that swaggers harder than any would-be disco pimp, the latter a sweet slice of hazy melancholia. “Since They Were Crowned” features spacey ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from guest background vocalists Mike O’Neill and The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, and a nifty guitar lick from Murphy that bends upwards like a wisp of sweet-smelling smoke. The sixties indeed.

Sweet Release really only falters when the Lights forget that what their professed fore

fathers were creating was pop. Not art-rock, not jam-rock—just pop, as in ‘popular’. An eight-minute rave-up might have been thrilling at a Who concert, where the frenzy of breakage that concluded it still looked something like a revolution, but it doesn’t work in the case of Sweet Release’s “It’s Alright.” In fact, it falls disastrously in the middle of what could have been one of the album’s finest tracks, which starts, typically and promisingly, with some bubbly guitar, some bloopy organ, and an innocent Monkees sort of feel.

A band like The Flashing Lights isn’t going to surprise us—or, for that matter, our parents—so it’s no surprise they’re most successful when they aren’t trying to. “You do the same thing twice / But I know a little bit of something ‘bout that,” sings Murphy in “Same Thing Twice,” and he’s right. In fact, it’s what he knows best.

—Joel McConvey

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.