RANT BEGINS (Skip to the REVIEW if you like Tool)
I’ve developed a mental block when it comes to the band Tool. Really it’s more about their fans. There may have been a small window in the 1990’s where I had a chance to discover Tool on my own, and judge them objectively[i]. That window closed, and instead I have built a very long opinion about Tool based on the statements, endorsements, ravings, internet comments and general behavior of their fans.
Let’s be clear – there is a stereotype at work here. It’s sort of a slippery one, but it exists sure enough. It is the Tool fan as a profoundly uncool, pseudo-intellectual white male. Picture the characters from Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but with less charisma, no comic timing, and a deep and externally awkward sense of self-seriousness.
Additionally, Tool fans are RABID. Anyone who doesn’t recognize Tool’s greatness is a Troglodyte, a musical Philistine unworthy to even pronounce the name Maynard James Keenan. Of course, if you want to argue about, a card carrying member of the Tool Army will argue with you for hours, laying out in stunning detail just how complex, spiritual, technically superb and intellectually deep Tool are.
In many ways, Tool fans formed a blueprint for the Nolan-Batman fanboys of the 2000’s. I can’t tell you how many times I encountered the sycophantic ramblings of batman fans in comment sections or on facebook and thought “Replace The Dark Knight with Lateralus and this exact campaign has been waged somewhere before. What we’re hearing is an echo.”
So to be forthright, I have become prejudiced toward Tool and their fans. I’m part of the great, often silent backlash. I have met recommendations of Tool over the years with subtle derision, ironic enthusiasm, quiet doubt and probably outright hostility. How could I ever join the Tool army? In Mark Prindle’s review of Tool’s 10,000 Days he wrote:
DEFENSIVE POST-SCRIPT: So I don’t know. The more I listen to Tool – and this album in particular – the more they seem less like an ‘intelligent’ band and more like a band that seems ‘intelligent’ to people of average intelligence. I’m not saying that to put anybody down — I like plenty of dumb as shit music, and it’s no secret that I’m not exactly a Rocket Surgeon. But the whole Tool package, with its unnecessary and ineffectual little musical changes every few seconds, the unceasingly ‘serious’ mood tied to simplistic riffs, the lyrics that tackle insightful issues in a hamfisted high school philosophy manner – man, I’m dumb as shit and even I’m not dumb enough to fall for this. It just reeks of ‘the uncreative preaching to the easily impressed.’ And maybe they’re smarter than Soundgarden or Britney Spears or something, but how much is that really saying?[ii]
That stuck with me. It seemed accurate somehow. Ever felt that spirit of “I listen to Tool, therefore I am 35% smarter, and certainly smarter than you.”? It hangs like a foul mist, the residue of poor social skills in action. People listen to certain kinds of music to feel stronger, more adequate, understood. I know that’s why I listen to Punk Rock. But to take your taste and use it as a bludgeoning ‘Tool’ to assert your superior intelligence over others is an unfortunate mistake.[iii] And hey, I’ve been huckstered by pseudo-intellectual music before, particularly Canibus, after he traded in his cleverly phrased, rhythmically exciting battle-raps for long regurgitations of programs he saw on The History Channel.
So Tool is not for me, I decided. And nothing I heard or saw since made me regret my decision. I’m listening to Aenima right now, and I’m hardly jizzing my pants with epiphany. While Tool’s music is technically tight and conceptually ambitious, it is in truth, tedious. These riffs just create too much tension for the releases to satisfy[iv], and Maynard’s affected vocals just aren’t doing anything for me.
I didn’t really set out to write about Tool. But the intertwined topics of Tool and fanboys have been on my mind for years and years, revitalized every time one of my heavy friends recommended Tool or lionized MJK, every time a Christopher Nolan Batman sequel was announced. It’s a strange and awkward feeling, when a friend raves about Tool. It’s like when someone you respect for their independent intelligence and ability begins talking in earnest about the help they received from God or Jesus Christ. But I digress.
What brought about the above screed was my encountering of the Italian Post-Rock, Post-Metal band Kubark, whom I found one day on Bandcamp. Upon first hearing “VIXI”, the closing track from Kubark’s Ulysses EP, I realized very clearly that “This band sounds like Tool, but they’re good!” Just what is it that sets Kubark so definitively apart from the art-alt metal pretentiousness of Tool?
Yes – Sex! Indeed, “Ainsoph”, the EP’s second song, begins with a long and somewhat uncomfortable sample from a pornographic BDSM video. But more generally, and more enjoyably, there is a subtle Sexiness, a sort of shifting blend of mischief, melancholy and desire that pervades Kubark’s work. This kind of vibe is rarely found in this kind of music. Note the opening lyrics to VIXI:
Head on your / Eyes on your
Thoughts on your / Fingers in your
Hands on your / Face on your
Tongue in your / Cock in your
Naked body / Naked mind
Your arms wide open / Your legs wide open
Which are delivered in a seductive, yet earnest croon, followed by a delightful, lovelorn section of “Lai dee di”s and “Lai dee daan lai”s, delivered sonorously over romantic guitar arpeggios and gently cresting cymbal crashes. This is the second aspect that makes Kubark enjoyable – the wistful melancholy which suffuses their songs. Instead of the epic-scale intellectual frustration of Tool, we have something much more relatable and immediate – sexual misadventures, urban loneliness, beautifully sad nighttime walks through festively-lit arcades. Kubark don’t brood, they smolder.
But there is also release – On the great “Autogenic”[v] from Kubark’s previous, eponymous release, there is a section where Andrea Nulla literally ROARS repeatedly after a long buildup. Things don’t get this heavy on Ulysses, but stomping sections featuring big, heavy guitar chords do make their way into Kubark’s stemwinders.
I don’t mean to sound like everything is perfect. The sample that begins “Ainsoph” is too long and loud to be clever, and the song itself just isn’t that great. The last part of “VIXI” is patently not as good as the first part, ending the EP on a somewhat mediocre note.
However, as a whole, Kubark are a unique and promising band. Their combination of poignant wistfulness, sexual energy, woven into their atmospheric post-rock and muscular post-metal feels confident and natural. The three-song run that closes the EP – The immaculately constructed “Love & Preach Hate”, cosmopolitan instrumental “Ulysses” and the aforementioned “VIXI” – are pure gold. They buoy Ulysses to a quality worthy of enshrinement in the Post-Rock hall of fame someday. I would also highly recommended Kubark to fans of Tool.
[i] Alas, a lost art, and the reason I love Bandcamp.
[ii] Pitchfork Media also piled on with this review: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/8104-lateralus/
[iii] Which I’ve been guilty of. I just try not to say it too much or too seriously.
[iv] The idea of tension with no release is an idea that is welcomed in indie rock and other genres, but unforgivable in Heavy Metal. If anything, Metal’s guiding principle is closer to ‘All release, all of the time.’
[v] Memorable lyric: “Organize a naked meal”