by Tom Johnson
When Tool’s Lateralus came out a few years back, there was much talk about how intense it was going to be, how it was going to be all about building tension and sudden release. I ran out and scarfed up a copy shortly after the stores opened on the day it was released, then drove across town to see my parents — a 40 minute drive that gave me an opportunity to hear about half of the album each way.
Midway through my journey, I stopped to get a drink at a convenience store, pausing the CD as I shut off my truck. When I got back in, I unpaused it, accidently fumbling against a few buttons on the interface of my CD player, but was soon bathed in the atmospheric intro to the song “Parabola,” the cleverly titled “Parabol.”
As “Parabol” played, it would cycle through some gently strummed guitar with singer Maynard James Keenan on top for about two minutes, and then a heavily distorted guitar would swell in from silence – and then stop, jumping right back to the gently strummed guitar. “Man,” I thought, about 5 minutes into this, “they weren’t kidding when they said ‘tension and release.’” This was some intense stuff: I just knew any moment now that swelling guitar was going to break into a driving, pounding, scraping rhythm. But it never did; it was just tension and tension and tension, the only release being a mild one at the end of that guitar swell. Being a big fan of ambient music, I was used to Eno pulling stuff like this, but this wasn’t Eno, it was Tool. There has to be a payoff here somewhere, right?
By the time I got to my parents house, I’d been listening to this song for a good 12 minutes or so, patiently waiting for that payoff, and certain I would most likely choose to skip this very long, very minimalist track in the future. And then when I hit pause again moments before removing the CD, a thought occured to me.
Did I hit a button back there at the Circle K? I looked over the interface and immediately spied the problem. Unwittingly, I’d placed the just-starting track 6, “Parabol,” on repeat, and had been listening to a simple two minute intro far longer than Tool ever intended. Repeat unpushed, “Parabol” flowed seamlessly into “Parabola,” but that intro track was never the same to me again. Forever spoiled by 12 minutes of “what could have been,” the payoff of even a great track like “Parabola” just couldn’t match up to my expectations. I felt gypped — and it wasn’t even the band’s fault.
That’s what’s funny about Muddy Waters‘ “Mannish Boy,” from one of his final albums, Hard Again. For five and a half minutes, the song is all about building tension, utilizing a very familiar, very oft-repeated blues vamp over which Waters croons to an unknown woman about how manly he really is. The song grows in intensity, the band banging out the head over and over and over, but each pass adding energy, striking chords and drums and keys harder and harder and harder, and you know at some point Muddy’s going to break into a steaming solo.
This tension builds and builds, grows more intense, and the initial impression I had was: “Just how are they going to pull this off? How can they possibly match the steam they’ve built up with something even heavier and harder?” The answer: They don’t. Waters and band simply end the tune. Having reached a peak that was unsurpassable, the band just stops, knowing there’s no way they can top what they’ve already done.
Lucky for us, the sounds of the studio are kept intact on the album and we’re greeted with the whoops and hollers of a bunch of guys who’ve just poured out every bit of energy they had — cries of relief. The payoff is no payoff. And it’s quite a payoff.