Tool's current commercial success was anything but inevitable. In 1993, the band appeared on the second stage at Lollapalooza, playing its peculiar brand of prog-rock-influenced metal between forgettable alternative rock bands and performance artists. It spent the subsequent years caught in a record label squabble that led to speculation about a breakup. Tool certainly wasn't in any position to become the above-ground darling that it is now, earning regular airplay from mainstream media outlets and moving over a half-million units of its latest album, Lateralus
, during the first week of its May release. Aside from the fact that the album lacks obvious modern-rock radio hits such as "Sober" (from 1993's Undertow
) and "Stinkfist" (from 1996's Aenema
is, of course, hardly different from the Tool records that came before it. Like Lollapalooza '93 alums Rage Against the Machine, Tool has made a career of applying the same sturdy sonic concepts over and over again. But somehow it's managed to use this approach to become metal's answer to Radiohead, a band whose longing for high concept seems to nullify all criticism. Some credit for this goes to vocalist Maynard James Keenan's more melodic side project, a Perfect Circle, which not only helped Tool attract a wider audience, but also seemed to salvage the otherwise bleak, boy-band-dominated year of 2000. Indeed, Tool's popularity is very much a matter of timing: It looks as smart as it does partly because almost everyone else making records at its level right now is so simple-minded. Even when he spouts quasiphilosophy and juvenile references to painful sex, Keenan is still a hell of a lot more intelligent than the guys in the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync.