Tool and Mogwai made me realise that musicians are allowed to do anything they want.
But Tool had a stronger effect because they were my first real exposure to metal, which meant they were able to crystalise the most consistently important concept in my musical taste: beauty is harsh.
I first heard Mogwai in 1997, when I was about sixteen. I was lying in bed in the dark listening to The Breezeblock, Mary Ann Hobbs’s late night music programme on Radio One. She played Like Herod, a twelve-minute track from Mogwai’s first album, Young Team. I hadn’t heard music like that before: instrumental by default, symphonically structured, spoken word, moods rather than songs, occasional vocals that were accents, rather than scaffolding, and incongruous shifts in instrumentation and tone from section to section. I thought that Mogwai had, somehow, invented all this stuff. It wasn’t until 2002 that I realised that Slint had already got most of the way there by 1991.
I first heard Tool in 1998, when I was seventeen. My friend, Harry, lent me their 1996 album, Aenima, and I took it home and played it through the speakers built into the monitor of my Mac. I played it a lot over the next five or six years on my CD Walkman.
Aenima took me much further than Young Team. It was the first piece of modern music in which I heard the non-standard time signatures. It was the first record I heard that combined anger and sadness and melody into beauty. It was the first record I heard that had an overarching theme. The first record I heard that had continuity between songs. It made me consciously seek out weird, extreme music, music that would broaden my horizons and maybe give my brain more versions of that moment in Third Eye when Maynard James Keenan sings, “So good to see you, I missed you so much”: the joyous/agonising high of a sound that is simultaneously sad and beautiful, melodic and abrasive.
Most importantly, it was the record that made me fully aware of the fact that music doesn’t just come from some obscured, instinctual, idiot savant place in the brain. It is intentional art, just like novels and films and paintings. It is - can be - a series of conscious decisions, some of which the musician is unsure of. This is excellently illustrated in Third Eye by the two moments when Maynard James Keenan sings, “Prying open my third eye.” The first time, it stops the song with the long, arrhythmic pauses between repetitions. The second time, it is in parallel with a polyrhythmic drum beat, and repeated many more times, and totally cathartic.
Fourteen years later, poor Harry still hasn’t had his CD back.