Saturday, October 30, 2010

October 30: Tool, "Sober"

Artist: Tool
Song: "Sober"
Album: Undertow
Year: 1993

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If there is one thing that has been definitively proven over the course of the past three decades, it is the fact that playing music louder rarely makes it sound better.  That is to say, playing "good" hard rock or heavy metal is one of the most difficult achievements, as finding the balance between noise and engaging the listener is a very tough line to walk.  Furthermore, when a band attempts to inject a dark or confrontational mood into the music, it further complicates things, and only a handful of groups have been able to successfully achieve such a sound in the entire history of music.  While many bands have been more commercially successful, one cannot deny that no band has ever been able to combine brilliant musical arrangements, superior musicianship, gripping moods and massive levels of sound like California's own Tool.  Their name alone instantly demands a certain level of respect, as they are one of the few bands that clearly is more concerned about putting out records of the highest quality as opposed to releasing albums with any regularity.  With this in mind, each of the four records Tool has released over the past decade and a half are nothing short of extraordinary, and no other band has been able to come close to their sound.  Though their later records show more of their powerful side, it is on their debut record, 1993's Undertow, that Tool's uncanny ability to balance sound and mood can be heard, and there are few better examples than their second single, the unforgettable "Sober."

The mood on "Sober" is set in the opening notes, as the deep, pulsing bass of Paul D'Amour makes it clear that the song will aim for that balance between dark mood and heavy sound.  Throughout the song, D'mour keeps this sound going, as even during the heavy break-down sections of the song, he continues to drive this repetition, giving the song a unique presence.  The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Danny Carey, became an instant legend in the world of drumming with his work on Undertow, and the way in which he changes up both the tempo and mood throughout "Sober" is a shining example of his exceptional level of talent.  It is within his playing that the intimidating, unsettling mood of the song comes across, and when Carey lets loose on the bridge and chorus sections, it is his sound that becomes the most aggressive.  Rounding out the musical side of the band is guitarist Adam Jones, and his tone is perfect for the overall mood of the song, ranging from grinding chords to his solos which bring a strange, dark echo to the song.  One can look to the performance of Jones as a clear sign that while Tool was playing the hard rock or heavy metal style, they were doing it in a way unlike any other band, and the combined sound of the three musicians brings a strangely majestic, captivating, yet unquestionably brutal mood, and this is the key aspect that makes Tool so extraordinary.

Though the music of Tool is instantly recognizable, it is the vocals of Maynard James Keenan that define the bands sound, and where much of their power can be found.  Sounding completely unlike any other singer in music history, Keenan has a presence that can be felt immediately, and his ability to work the entire vocal spectrum, as well as bring a number of different tones to his delivery is much the reason he remains in a class all his own.  Whether he is almost speaking the verses or letting his voice take flight across the bridge seconds to an all out yell on the choruses, the way in which Keenan is able to convey the mood and power of his writing is second to none, and this becomes even more intense during the bands' legendary live performances.  While this is in many ways just "how things are" in modern times, when the band first let the world into their sound on "Sober," there was simply nothing that could have prepared people for the power of Keenan's delivery.  The lyrics of "Sober" remain some of the bands' finest, as Keenan crafts a story of self-hate and destruction along with subtle and blunt religious references.  Though each line carries with it a great weight, there are few lyrics more powerful than when he sings, "...I will find a center in you, I will chew it up and leave, I will work to elevate you, just enough to bring you down..."  Both in what he sings, as well as the wide-range of delivery styles, it is songs like "Sober" that prove the unmatched talent of Maynard James Keenan.

Truth be told, "Sober" was actually written in the late 1980's, and was one of the first songs Keenan ever wrote.  Bringing an extraordinary mood of hopelessness and despair, there was simply nothing previously recorded by any band that even came close to the overall impact of "Sober."  In both the lyrics and the music, this feeling comes across clearly, and nearly two decades later, the mood retains its power and "Sober" still stands as a pillar within the hard rock and heavy metal genres.  It is within "Sober," as well as Undertow on the whole that Tool reminded listeners that when done correctly, there was a spirit and sound that could be achieved via heavy metal that could not be found elsewhere, and it is in their playing that the line was forever drawn between "good" and "bad" heavy metal records.  Few bands have proven an ability to move as a single unit as perfectly as one finds within the music of Tool, and the quartet is able to inject an amazing amount of theatrical drama into their music, raising the overall intensity, yet never coming off as cliché or artificial.  In short, Tool is all about bringing as much power and sound as they can to a song, yet never sacrificing the quality or mood that they seek from the music.  Though later songs brought the band more accolades and sales, it was their initial single that stands as their most powerful, and even nearly two decades later, there are few songs that can compare to the sonic brilliance and sheer presence of Tool's unmistakable 1993 single, "Sober."

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