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Tool in 10 Songs

A look at the lyrical and musical obsessions that make this legendary band tick

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Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Editor’s Note: This feature originally ran in October 2016. We’re reposting as Tool’s Fear Inoculum prepares to drop this Friday.

There are rumors of a new Tool album on the horizon, which was true for most of the Obama administration and may be true through Donald Trump’s administration as well. But avid fans keep hunting for rumors so ravenously that you would think the band members have been totally idle since Tool’s last studio album, 2006’s 10,000 Days. They haven’t. Guitarist Adam Jones (the man most responsible for Tool’s iconic music videos) and drummer Danny Carey have both played with The Melvins. Bassist Justin Chancellor has guested for Isis and Intronauts. And, most famously, Maynard James Keenan has gone on to front two other successful bands, first A Perfect Circle and more recently Puscifer. And, of course, there are still periodic mini-tours as Tool.

The inner workings of bands are somewhat mysterious, and we often learn the most when those bands come to an end. So it is with Tool’s long hiatus. We’ve learned, of course, that Keenan is frighteningly charismatic, capable of carrying an act almost single-handedly. But we also learned that Keenan, left to his own devices, is perfectly content to write a traditional four-minute rock song. This is not the kind of song for which Tool is famous. And while A Perfect Circle and Puscifer have both made interesting music, neither have stretched the boundaries of rock and metal until it wasn’t clear that “rock” and “metal” were even appropriate descriptors anymore. That is Tool’s legacy.

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Think about it: A great frontman is harder to find than a great guitarist, bassist, or drummer, mostly because the ability to write lyrics and the ability to sing them are two skills that have almost nothing to do with each other. Keenan is one of the greatest frontmen in the history of heavy music. But through all the new albums from A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, fans have continued to hunger for more Tool. This is a credit to the unique talents of Chancellor, Carey, and Jones.

Over the course of four classic albums and Opiate, the wonderful early EP, Tool have covered a range of topics that would daunt any would-be biographer. Nevertheless, Consequence of Sound has attempted to distill Tool’s appeal down to 10 representative songs. Each song has been selected because it covers a recurring interest of the band, both lyrical (from drugs to spirituality) and musical (Tool’s iconic time signatures). If you have other favorites, we hope that you’ll share them in the comments below.


Censorship

“Hush” from Opiate (1992)

“When we started out,” guitarist Adam Jones said on the 21st anniversary of Tool’s 1992 Opiate EP, “the record company said that we had to pick our heaviest songs, because that’s the impact — you’re metal and that’s really important.” This corporate curation is a big reason why the early efforts — Opiate and the debut LP, Undertow — are Tool’s most straightforward, spilling over with smash-and-thrash bangers. But while the band took a while to find its footing musically, in terms of lyrical content, Tool arrived fully formed. At first blush, “Hush” seems like a very direct critique of censorship: “I can’t say what I want to/ Even if I’m just kidding.” But this is a band that loves ambiguity, even when the songs are only two minutes and change. “People tell me what to say/ What to think and what to play” is almost the end of the song, but Keenan mutters, “Just kidding,” three more times. So people aren’t telling him what to say, think, and play? Do these final words negate everything that came before or merely emphasis that the band shouldn’t be taken seriously? Both? Neither? Something else entirely? There is no answer; the questions are the point.


Not Being Sober

“Sober” from Undertow (1993)

The song that broke Tool into the mainstream. According to guitarist Adam Jones (a much more illuminating interview than Keenan), “Sober” is “based on a guy we know who is at his artistic best when he’s loaded. A lot of people give him shit for that. I don’t tell people to do or not do drugs. You can do what you want, but you have to take responsibility for what happens. If you become addicted and a junkie, well, that’s your fault.” And for all of that, “Sober” really shouldn’t work. The main hook is an ungrammatical double negative. Doesn’t matter. It’s another song about the joys of being high and the perils of addiction. Doesn’t matter. The lyrics are Keenan at his most unintelligible: “Waiting like a stalking butler/ Who upon the finger rests/ Murder now the path called “must we”/ Just because the son has come.” Doesn’t matter. When the melody is so catchy and raw, it doesn’t matter if the song isn’t proper grammar, original, or if it even makes sense. This is a pure howl from the darkness so irresistible that one cannot help but howl right back.


Interludes

“Mantra” from Lateralus (2001)

As music grows in complexity, it makes more demands on the listener’s concentration. Tool seem to be aware of this, and as their music has become more complex, the band have taken steps to help our concentration out. From the angry voicemail of “Harry Manback” and the cookie recipe of “Di Eier von Satan” through the ritual chanting of “Lipan Conjuring”, these strange intermissions rarely get played during live shows, but they are an important part of the album experience, preventing the crunchy guitars from running together and making it easier to really hear each song. “Mantra” is the sound of Keenan doing what cat lovers around the world are guilty of doing on an almost daily basis, which is hugging the cat a little too hard. The resulting meow was captured by a microphone before being slowed down and modulated. If it sounds like inhuman anger and panic, that’s because it is.


Secrets Part 1

“Lateralus” from Lateralus (2001)

The next number in the Fibbonacci sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers. Start with the number 1. Nothing comes before it, so 1+0=1. Now the sequence is 1, 1. The next number in the sequence is 1+1=2. If you continue in this manner, you’ll get 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. Now, count the syllables of the lyrics in the song “Lateralus”: “Black… Then… White are… All I see… In my infancy… Red and yellow then came to be…” 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. Now: the time signature of the chorus changes from 9/8 to 8/8 to 7/8. For this reason, the song was originally called 9-8-7. 987 is the 16th digit of the Fibonacci sequence. Crazy, right? Now, does knowing this make the song any more interesting to listen to? I don’t know, but it certainly makes the song more interesting to talk about. Tool have a long history of burying Easter Eggs and hidden meanings within songs (more on this later). The practical consequence of this isn’t musical but professional: Easter Eggs encourage conversation and reward obsessive fans for their obsessiveness. This is one of the reasons that Tool have built one of the most fervent fan bases in the world.


Comedian Bill Hicks

“Ænema” from Ænima (1996)

“The comedy of hate. Join me!” Before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, Bill Hicks’ observations about politics, violence, drugs, and mysticism influenced the young band Tool, who cited him as an “inspiration” in the liner notes of Undertow. Hicks introduced Tool at Lollapalooza in 1993, where he asked the thousands of assembled fans to stand still and look for his lost contact lens. His influence on stand-up comedy runs deep; his influence on Tool is most dearly felt on Ænima, which was dedicated to his memory.

This comedy set about Arizona Bay, and the “cool serenity” that will be left when an earthquake drops California into the ocean, is the clear inspiration for the song “Ænema”. Note the spelling change between the title, Ænima, and the song. Both are portmanteaus of “anima,” the Jungian term for a man’s inner feminine identity, and “enema,” which is the process of cleaning out an ass with water. The spelling of the song title places more of an emphasis on the latter. “Learn to swim,” Keenan growls to the residents of Los Angeles; the promise of the song is that the waters of the Pacific Ocean are going to flush the shit away.


Changing Time Signatures

“Schism” from Lateralus (2001)

If you consider Tool to belong to the genre of metal (debatable), then “Schism” is possibly the greatest metal song about the trauma of a dying relationship. The lyrics are all about regret and frustration: “I know the pieces fit/ Cause I watched them fall away.” But the true delight (apart from Justin Chancellor’s iconic bass riff) is the movement of the music. In a perfect marriage of content and form, the song’s wild, alternating time signatures serve as a metaphor for the inability of two lovers to get on the same page. The song veers from 5/4 time into a more standard 4/4, occasionally detouring to six or seven beats per measure. This erratic movement is presented so smoothly that a casual music fan may not notice unless they were trying to tap their toes to the beat. Tool is occasionally dismissed as an experimental band, as if the experiments were for the sake of experimentation. “Schism” shows how these techniques are secondary, used in service of a greater idea.


Social Commentary

“Vicarious” from 10,000 Days (2006)

Once or twice per album, Maynard James Keenan likes to cast his gaze across the broad swath of the American public, and he has very rarely been impressed by what he’s seen. Some of these songs contain lyrics so on-the-nose that they come across less as satire and more as a crotchety crank complaining about the kids these days. But at his best — and “Vicarious” is among the best of this kind of song — Keenan holds a cracked mirror up to society. The opening image of eyes glued to a glowing rectangle is pretty standard stuff, but Keenan flips the script by suggesting that this is a good thing. “‘Cause I/ Need to watch things die/ From a distance/ Vicariously I/ Live while the whole world dies/ You all need it, too, don’t lie.” It’s a compelling idea, driven home by Danny Carey’s thunderous drums: We all have violent tendencies that will be dealt with, healthfully or unhealthfully, one way or another.


Theosophy

“Third Eye” from Ænima (1996)

The concept of a Third Eye, capable of perception beyond ordinary sight, comes to us from certain Eastern spiritual traditions and is often associated with a chakra in the forehead or crown. Keenan is a serious student of ancient religions and is himself something of a philosopher: It’s the kind of philosophy where mystical psychoanalyst Carl Jung is given equal weight as comedian Bill Hicks. As you might imagine, this type of spirituality isn’t often found on platinum-selling rock records, and while it might have been more common in the 1970s, by the mid-’90s it caused Tool to stand out. “Third Eye” opens with two Bill Hicks quotes about drugs before venturing off on a 14-minute psychedelic adventure. By the time Keenan screams again and again “Prying open my third eye!”, it’s clear that this spiritual experience is more painful than pleasant.


Secrets Part II

The “Hidden” Song from 10,000 Days (2006)

Tool love including secret tracks at the end of their albums, hiding them behind minutes of silence. The “secret” song on 10,000 Days is not one of these; rather, it’s an Easter Egg so well hidden that it may not even exist. The same obsessive message-board culture that discovered how “Lateralus” is written to the Fibonacci sequence “discovered” this song, but fair warning: some assembly required. Fans wishing to hear it need only create their own track where “Viginti Tres” and “Wings for Marie” play back to back and then play that new track at the same time as “10,000 Days (Wings for Marie Pt. 2.)”

What would compel a person to do this? Well, “Viginti Tres” is 5:02 long, and “Wings for Marie” is 6:11. Add those two lengths and you get 11:13, the length of title-track “10,000 Days”. Coincidence? Probably. The resulting “song” isn’t terrible, but it’s not some mind-blowing revelation either, and I can’t find any evidence that it was ever played live. It’s been suggested that the lyrics of “Wings for Marie” and “10,000 Days” alternate and combine to form totally new lyrics, but these “new” lyrics sure sound a lot like the old lyrics smushed together. You may think it’s cheating to include this song on the list, but we’re not doing “Tool’s Best Songs”; we’re doing an introduction to Tool, and I can’t think of a better introduction to the obsessive fan culture surrounding this band than a song that may exist purely in the minds of those fans.


Sexual Violation

“Prison Sex” from Undertow (1993)

As far as I’m aware, the story behind this song has never been officially confirmed, and I don’t want to give the impression that something definitely did or did not happen. Many songs that sound autobiographical turn out to be about someone else. Having said that, “Prison Sex” is pretty clearly about child abuse, and as Keenan has made no secret about his hatred for his stepfather, many fans have made an assumption that the song and the stepfather are connected. It doesn’t matter. There are facts, and then there is the truth, and the truth of this song is so viscerally powerful that it stands up regardless of the facts. Tool returned to these ideas several more times, especially on Ænima. Besides the cleansing of the title track, “Jimmy” is a song about getting over abuse and a kind of sequel to “Prison Sex”; and “Stinkfist” is among Tool’s most thematically complex songs. Tool moved away from these kinds of tracks on later albums, as the music became more about ideas and less about raw feelings. But time hasn’t dulled those feelings, and more than two decades later, “Prison Sex” is still as raw as an exposed nerve.

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