It’s a cracker. Better than I expected, actually. Somehow, although 2001’s Lateralus has some great tracks, I never thought it was as good as Tool’s 1996 masterpiece Aenima. The progression wasn’t quite as marked as before, and even the greatest tracks didn’t seem epic in the same way that 'Push It' or 'Third Eye' from Aenima did. And this time round epic is back, and in a big way; although it might take a few listens to get into it all. 10,000 Days is, in my rather opinionated view, the best ‘prog’ album since Marillion’s Marbles in 2004, and the best album since Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial last year.
10,000 Days starts off in much the manner I had feared, which is rather well. The two openers 'Vicarious' and 'Jambi' are fine Tool songs, layered and building in a way that only a few contemporary bands seem capable of. But they felt like what I was expecting, and somehow that wasn’t enough from a Tool album. It’s been five years since the last release, and I didn’t want the new album to merely do what was expected: I wanted it to surprise me. I wanted to be blown away, not think that it made a nice companion to Lateralus. And with the third track I got what I wanted.
Actually, the third track is the first of a pair entitled 'Wings For Marie (Part 1)' and '10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)'. There’s a lull of a kind between them, like gathering breath, but the two belong together, and if you want to import them onto your iPod you’ll need to use the ‘Join CD Tracks’ option to avoid a click between them. And together they clock in at 17:24. If 'Wings…' resembles anything Tool have done before musically, it’s the live version of 'Push It' from Salival, but this is still more mediative; lyrically, it’s probably the most personal thing they’ve ever been, apparently about the death of Maynard's mother. It’s long, elegant, beautifully rhythmic, and quite possibly the most ‘prog’ thing they’ve ever done. And the fact that the album is set up to lull the listener into a false sense of security with the opening tracks before engaging in such an epic is a stroke of genius. On a lesser album, 'Wings…' would be placed at the end, not before the half-way point; but by the time you’ve reached the second part, it’s clear that you’re not listening to a normal album with normal programming. This is an album which is meant to demand your attention, to snap you out of complacency, to break away from the formulaic, even when those formulas are (pretty much) unique to Tool themselves.
The next track 'The Pot' is similarly askew, beginning like some kind of a-cappella shanty which momentarily reminded me of 'Fiddle and the Drum' from A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe. The vocal is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from Maynard before, and is mixed louder than on the rest of the album, making it the dominant feature. The song itself is good, although after Wings… it feels like there’s a little something missing.
After that we come to the first segue on 10,000 Days, a piece called 'Lipan Conjuring', which resembles nothing if not one of Can’s 'Ethnic Forgery Series', this time with Buddhist monks as the subject. Or maybe Native Americans. Or some bizarre synthesis of the two. Whatever it is, it works, and it provides an effective break between the two parts of the album.
Then we’re back to another epic, this time 'Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann) / Rosetta Stoned', which come to a combined total of 14:57. 'Keys…' works like an introduction, with movie samples providing a narrative, while 'Rosetta…' features probably the strangest vocal Maynard has ever committed to record. I have no real idea of what it being sung throughout most of it; the voice is more like an instrument than it has ever been, and snatches of lyric float in and out of coherence. Odd references to previous songs from previous albums enter the music briefly, as if 'Rosetta…' is somehow the theme underlying much of the band’s previous work. It’s possibly the densest thing Tool have ever done, more wall-of-sound than song, and certainly comparable to the densest moments of Aenima. What it’s all about I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s tremendously good. Definitely one to play to scare your friends, or to illustrate why Tool are unlike any other so-called Metal band.
Things then seem to settle down a bit with Intension. I've heard this compared to A Perfect Circle, and although there is a certain similarity in the opening vocal, the music is more atmospheric that anything Maynard’s Other Band have done. The percussion is initially based around tabla rather than drum-kit, and as song builds there seems to be some drum programming going on - although I wouldn’t put it past Danny Carey to be playing like a drum-machine rather than using one.
With 'Right In Two' the tabla is back, and the album heads towards its conclusion. The lyric evokes the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while the music hypnotically climbs towards a dramatic resolution. And then there’s the odd ambient/industrial piece 'Viginti Tres', and 10,000 Days is over, more than 75 minutes after it began.
My initial impression is that the new album is better than Lateralus by quite some way. I’m not in a position to compare it to Aenima yet, but then that was a masterpiece. Yet it certainly has more in common with the earlier record. All of Tool’s trademarks are here in abundance: rhythmic playing like no other Metal band, epic songs, ethereal voice, surprising arrangements and original programming. But it while it is arguably the most ‘prog’ album Tool have yet released, and also the most cohesive, my guess is that it will be less successful than Lateralus - which entered the American charts at #1. My reason for thinking this is that 10,000 Days is less bound by convention, and far less easy to pigeon-hole. It’s unlike anything else out there at the moment, and some people will undoubtedly decide that it’s cool to say it sucks. Others will find the it immensely rewarding; and I will definitely be among them.