Sunday, October 2, 2011

The rock album as a cohesive work of art

While listening to Tool's most recent album, 10,000 Days, on the way to the mall yesterday, I fell in love with it all over again. I had to stop to think why that was. I hear those songs all the time as part of playlists and shuffles on my iPod. But unless I'm listening to the whole album, they don't seem as powerful as they do separately.

Then it hit me. Tool meant this album, and its others, as a cohesive work of art. Its songs are the bits of tile that make up a mosaic. Sure, they're pretty on their own, but you don't get the whole picture unless you put them all together in a definite pattern. What makes the songs go together is Maynard's mourning of the death of his mother, which seems to drive the album's purpose, as well as the texture and feel of the songs. Instrumental/transitional tracks like "Lipan Conjuring" are used to link together less similar parts of the album - here, moving away from the moving tribute of "10,000 Days" and the edgy "The Pot" into the contemplative and eerie "Lost Keys (Blame Hoffmann)," which leads smoothly into "Rosetta Stoned." "Rosetta Stoned" just wouldn't make as much sense if you took away its preceeding track. And so it is with other of Tool's albums. I can't ever listen to "Parabol" without hearing "Schism" before it and "Parabola" after it...it's just not right.

Green Day uses another method to link its songs into a cohesive album: this time through lyrics, theme, and story moreso than instrumental texture and feel of the songs (although they do this too). American Idiot is a story. So is 21st Century Breakdown. The "story factor" of these albums was so strong that they could be woven together to create a Broadway rock opera. Yes, the story of that musical was weaker than that of, say, Rent or Wicked, but you could still eke out something of a plot line out of the music. And it made sense.

I think that with short attention spans and the popularity of the iPod, we're losing sight of the rock album as a cohesive work of art. Songs are made to fit into perfect 3-4 minute slots on the radio, and who wants to listen to a song on the radio if you have to go on your own and listen to the whole album to properly understand? And then the iPod. Put it on shuffle, or make a playlist, and you can go for hours without hearing more than one song from a particular album. It's tempting for the songs on today's rock albums to have nothing more in common than that they were made at roughly the same time. The bands who resist this are labeled as weird or too hard-to-understand sometimes, as is the case with Tool. I chalk it up to America's shortening attention span. I'd love to see rock bands make more cohesive albums, go out on a limb, try something new and creative - and come on, who didn't love The Who's Tommy?

In other news, I think I've decided on what I believe to be the best Tool album, and also my favorite. Despite all the praise I've heaped upon Lateralus and 10,000 Days, I think the prize HAS to go to AEnima. Why? It has the cohesive element I was talking about, and yet the songs can be understood on their own, taken out of context. Each major non-transitional track is a self-contained world, with multiple emotions, tempos, feels, and even time signatures. Yet when put together, they add to each other and flow. I think the tracks in the two albums that followed AEnima, while fabulous works of art, are less so  self-contained worlds. Every time I come across Parabol or Intension on a playlist, I skip them. It's not that I dislike them, it's just they only work within the context of an album.

And what was the problem with Opiate and Undertow? Not enough cohesive albums for my taste, and not as refined and deeply emotional/personal as the later albums. Tool is like a good wine. They get better with age, they grow, they develop. Most bands remain static or regress. Not saying I don't love those first two albums. But the technical musical skills, and song-composing skills, of the band improved with each successive album. The leap was probably the greatest between Undertow and AEnima, and then smaller between the following ones. But, even though 10,000 Days isn't my *favorite*, I will have to say it represents the peak of actual musical skill for Tool. Maynard's voice never sounded better, the drumming more precise, the bass more dark and thump-y than in their latest album. But then again, Tool, in my opinion, is so far ahead of all other bands that even Opiate, its weakest release, is pretty awesome in my eyes. The only bands that I think come close to Tool are A Perfect Circle, Pink Floyd, (those all make sense, right?), and Red Hot Chili Peppers (but in a totally different way).

P.S. Have you listened to I'm With You, the new release from RHCP, yet? If not, GO DO IT. It's beyond wonderful.