Something happened to Tool in the five years since its last album: The Los Angeles quartet became relevant, important, and even crucial to the rock and roll landscape. Lateralus, its fourth album, is immersed in the same prog-metal juices of its past work, but while previous albums seemed self-serious, slight, and pretentious at turns, Lateralus charges into the battlefield with something those other albums lacked: a purpose. This is the young century's most vital hard rock album. Singer Maynard James Keenan isn't a typical metalhead. His thoughtful and thought-provoking ruminations on life, death, and the morality that guides the in-between are an entire class away from the knuckleheaded misanthropy of what passes as modern hard rock these days. Tool has absolutely no interest in applying hip-hop beats to its music. If anything, the excessive length of most of Lateralus's songs (most check in at eight or so minutes) point toward heady '70s prog as inspiration.
The ebb/flow and slow build of these tracks ultimately erupt in a torrent of guitars and noise, but the trip there is what matters. The formula hasn't changed all that much since 1996's AEnima, yet Tool, in its absence (during which time alt-rock collapsed and neo-metal emerged), developed a cult and made certain it was missed. Keenan still sings of misery and downward spirals, but in this era of whining white B-boys and tattooed morons wearing their loser badges as if they were war medals, he makes it real. This is deep, exhilarating stuff. And it sounds like nothing else qualifying as nu-metal. (The intricate percussion alone on "The Grudge" and "Reflection" is more developed than anything on the charts.) The opaque soundscapes the band constructs on Lateralus are alternately brilliant and grandiose; the songs, cerebral and assertive. This is modern rock at its finest.