As Tool's Ænima turns 20 years old, producer David Bottrill talks to us about aging, rumours and more
It was on 1 October, 1996 that Tool released its second studio album Ænima on CD
The year was 1996. The month was October.
Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix) was riding high atop the Billboard 100 charts in the US, while over in the UK, Arsène Wenger had begun his war on pizza and chocolate bars as he took over as manager of Arsenal Football Club. And India was about to experience Michael Jackson live and in the flesh for the first and only time.
Elsewhere in the world, progressive metal four-piece Tool — comprising Adam Jones on guitars, Justin Chancellor on the bass, Danny Carey on the drums and Maynard James Keenan on vocals — had just released its second full-length studio album (after 1993's Undertow and the 1992 EP Opiate) titled Ænima on vinyl, and was all set for the album's 1 October CD release. And this SEO-unfriendly album name, it's worth pointing out, is widely believed to be a portmanteau of 'anima' — Latin for 'soul' and a term used by Carl Jung — and enema — English for, well, you know... — that together refer to a sort of deep cleanse of the soul.
"Frankly, I knew very little about the band," David Bottrill, the producer of Ænima, tells me, "They contacted me and sent me Undertow and Opiate. I liked it, but as I hadn’t really worked on that kind of heavy music too much I thought that they may have confused me with someone else."
October 2016 finds David in Italy, working with the Italian metal band KLOGR. "They are great musicians and the songs are heavy, melodic and powerful," he says and he's not wrong (give KLOGR's Silk and Thorns a listen and see for yourself). He adds, "Great riffs, singing and a powerful rhythm section."
Hmm. Sounds like another band we know.
But until he was contacted by that band, David — who would go on to be a three-time Grammy Award-wining mixer and producer — had worked on albums by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp, Toni Childs and King Crimson. Tool was clearly going to be a very different proposition. "I was very impressed with their musicianship, compositional skill and strong work ethic. Personally I love all their individual characters," recalls David, who would later produce and mix the band's Lateralus album and Salival EP.
To say that Stinkfist possesses one of the most deceptive openings to a song would be an understatement. At first listen, it's far from the most explosive kickstart to an album the album; far from it, in fact. The sound of distorted tablas at the very beginning sounds a lot more like the sort of filler track that would appear midway through the album. And then there's that swirl of anticipation — that almost sounds like a distorted version of the hissing of a flame running up a fuse nearing those sticks of dynamite. Thirty seconds in comes the twin jolt of that colossal crashing of drums and that bassline that drops on your skull like an anvil — a rather apt device for a song about getting around desensitisation caused by over-stimulation.
"It turned out that their favourite records of the past few years had been engineered or produced by me and they wanted to explore a more original approach to their style of music than the standard LA metal production," adds David. And we're all grateful for that departure from the industry standard because a significant share of credit for the sheer beauty of Ænima must go to the mix and production of the album — particularly the way the drums sound.
"When we did the tracking of the full band for Ænima, we set up a PA behind the drums to originally put the electronic sounds out into the same room as the kit, because Danny played all his parts live with the kit and electronics. I then put the close microphones from all the drums into the PA as well and made a balance so as to give more power to the kit," explains David and adds with satisfaction, "It worked well and I am very happy with the drum sounds I achieved on that record."
Quite obviously, that wasn't his only contribution to how Ænima sounds.
"I like the processing of the percussion through some of my guitar pedals on that record and the triple amp guitar sounds. But I hope my best contribution was to encourage the band members to play to the top of their ability and improve over the duration of the record," reminisces David.
It's hard to know for sure whether or not (and how much) the band improved over the duration of the record, but the final results speak for themselves. The album went triple platinum in 2003 and easily finds itself on most 'best metal albums' lists. "I had no idea what the response (to the album) would be, but I knew we had made something special," says the man, who has over the course of his career, produced albums by artists including (but by no means limited to) Silverchair, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, Peter Gabriel and Godsmack.
Also, as David assures me, "They (the band members) were very professional and focused for the most part. And well-prepared. As with all my projects, I had high hopes that Ænima would be received well."
Before we speak about Ænema, it is important to note that the title isn't a typo. In fact, while Ænima — the album — is about the superimposition of 'anima' and enema as detailed above to reflect an overall theme, Ænema — the song — puts the emphasis firmly on the cleanse. Washing it all away. Floods and tidal waves flushing the likes of hip gangster-wannabes, insecure actresses, junkies, smiley gladhands (basically, politicians) and millions of dumbfounded dipsh*ts that inhabit LA, away and down Arizona Bay. And the only ones spared will be those who have learnt to swim. Basically Noah for the late 20th and early 21st Century. It's not just the theme though. It's the way the track simmers, bubbles and boils over — most evident in the way the low whispered 'hey, hey, hey's at the start of the track turn urgent and frantic at the end — that makes it one of the brightest sparkling gems on this album.
It's been over 10 years since Tool's last album 10,000 Days was released and a new one is long overdue. And while members of the band have made various noises about just what is going on, when it's going to be out, how many songs it's going to contain and so on, almost nothing is certain. That almost is the fact that the followup to Tool's fourth studio album will contain strange filler tracks.
After all, every Tool album contains its fair share of strange, sometimes ambient, sometimes unsettling filler tracks. And Ænima is no different. For every Stinkfist, Ænema, Eulogy, H, Forty Six & 2, Hooker with a Penis and jimmy, there's a Useful Idiot, Intermission, Die Eier von Satan, Cesaro Summability, (-) Ions and Message to Harry Manback.
A criticism of the album has been that its filler tracks take up far too much time — moreso than Lateralus and 10,000 Days, at the very least. It can, however, be argued that when you've got proper songs the likes of which Ænima is filled, it doesn't matter if 10 minutes or so are spent on filler tracks. Besides, some of those are quite fun. Case in point: Message to Harry Manback, which is an answering machine message (left by an uninvited Italian houseguest of acquaintance of a former housemate of Maynard's, who was slightly irritated at being kicked out of the house) layered over gentle piano that, at the start, sounds suspiciously like the intro to Michael Jackson's Give In To Me.
When asked about the role he played in the selection or design of those filler tracks, David replies, "Not much really. Danny did a lot of the work on those. Although, I did play piano on Message to Harry Manback." Errr... let's move on.
Ænima, as noted earlier, was the first of two Tool LPs on which David worked. So, which one was harder to make?
"Ænima," he says, "But only because we needed to open our lines of communication. Lateralus was much easier for me as those barriers had already been opened." David elaborates, "The band was going through some stress due to their past few years of legal troubles, but for me, it was an easier process once all those troubles were dealt with."
Forty Six & 2 isn't merely a Tool song. It's as much an exhibition of the band's prowess and abilities as a mission statement. It's one thing to be virtuosos, capable of playing the most intricate of parts in the most obscure key and to the most complicated time signatures. But all of that is nothing if you're not moving people — whether by appealing to their hearts or minds. And that is what Tool does. The lyrics deal with evolution and are a nice examination of how we will tackle that next stage. What else stands out? Quite clearly, the rhythm section — Justin's basslines on this track are some of the best he's played and Danny provides yet another drumming masterclass. But so too do Adam's understated and restrained guitar parts and Maynard's demonstration of his vocal range. This is the most complete Tool track.
I recall first listening to Ænima in 2002. Hey, better late than never, right? During the course of listening to the album most recently — at the time of writing this article — I was struck by its freshness. It could have been released at any point in the past 20 years and it would still sound as fresh, new and exciting. And I'm not alone in thinking that way.
David says, "I think it’s one of the few records of that time that has stood the test of aging. It still seems fresh and unlike anything of that time or the current trends. Tool is that kind of band. It doesn’t seem to age as much."
The current trends versus the music of that time. It's an interesting comparison, but what is the fundamental difference? "I think that was a time period of some special music being made," he says, before reasoning, "Not that today is bereft of quality. It’s just that at that point in music, we had hit a stride of compositional quality."
That isn't, however, to say that contemporary music isn't capable of achieving that compositional quality. David observes, "Some of the work Slipknot and Stone Sour are doing, I think, is fantastic."
Now, one last thing: Tool rumours.
From coming up with the idea of lachrymology as "the science of crying as a therapy" to spreading theories like Maynard finding Jesus or hoaxes like the band being in bus accidents, Tool rumours have claimed victims across the globe. Let's talk favourite rumours.
Disappointingly, David replies, "I don’t really follow those. It’s for the fans mostly. I know they love to mess with people and put out strange rumours. They all have a great sense of humour."
And we'll all appreciate it a great deal if rumours that the 'upcoming album' is right around the corner aren't a joke. But until then, I think another listening of Ænima is in order.