Welcome to the primer you never knew you needed for the band called Tool.
Tool is the most famous band you’ve never heard of, or perhaps you’ve heard of but you can’t name a single song of. Tool are just days away from releasing their first album in 13 years. This primer is intended to be your cheat sheet, a beginner’s guide, a sketch of a roadmap so you won’t embarrass yourself around the proverbial water cooler.
If you are looking for some objective information about Tool, look elsewhere. Coz this is what you’re getting:
Tool are the best band ever to have existed on this little round rock, fact.
Tool is, and for my whole adult life have been, so important to me that I generally don’t even like to talk about them. They are like the sun. So vital, so essential to life, so powerful that I can’t even look directly at it without wincing.
I know I’m mental but it’s not just me. I’m not proud of it but Tool fans are kinda like Deadheads or Phish fans – I actually am not familiar with either of those bands music but I know their fans are fuckin nuts. It’s like if you love em, you REALLY love em. That’s kinda like Tool fans, which is probably why I don’t actually have many friends who even know of the band. (Not a diss by the way – we are amazing. It’s just…have you ever seen the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry dates himself? “It’s too much Kramer, I can’t take it!”)
Tool fans are so demented that instead of rejoicing their first recorded new music in 13 years some of them, like this wonderful maniac, are saying that they wish the band would instead disappear so that we can keep them sacred evermore and not have to share them with all those smiley glad-hands with hidden agendas.
And the thing is, I GET IT. Tool is just too good, we don’t deserve Tool.
So. If you’re not scared off already, here is a quick (ha!) snapshot of who Tool are and why this Friday, August 30, 2019, is going to be nothing short of a Holy Day for millions around the world.
WHAT IS A TOOL?
Tool is a band that formed in Los Angeles, USA, in 1990.
Ahhh the 90s, that golden era of everything that was great.
Tool consist of:
Adam Jones: Guitar
Danny Carey: Drums
Justin Chancellor: Bass
Maynard James Keenan: Vocals
The only change during Tool’s lifespan has been Paul D’Amour, who was the bassist from 1990 and was featured on the band’s first two releases. He left in 1995, was replaced by Justin Chancellor (an Englishman, the only foreigner in the band), and the line up has been consistent since then.
Tool play heavy but melodic music, sometimes described as progressive rock, and are known for their veryyyyy longgggg song lengths. Also: Danny Carey’s unbelievably complicated drum rhythms; Adam Jones’ layered and slow-build soundscape-y guitar playing; Justin Chancellor’s beefy bass tone; Maynard’s beautiful and soaring and soothing and unmistakable croon.
To date they have release 4 full-length studio albums and one EP, and they’ve toured a bunch. Their live show is better than anything you have ever seen and is nothing short of a religious experience. I told you this was a subjective primer, yeh? I’ve seen them dozens of times and have followed them to various countries and I am certainly not the only Tool fan to have done that.
Tool are known for dark and experimental music videos and artwork that accompany their releases and their live shows. They are also known for being mysterious and not really playing the “game”. There are minimal press shots of them, they’ve never given many interviews, and until literally this month you could not access any of their music online.
When Tool finally did release their music on digital platforms this month all five of their releases instantly went into the iTunes top ten albums. Their songs also took over all 10 of the top 10 spots of the Billboard Rock Digital Songs Sales chart. I’m not really sure what those things are, but it should give you an indication of just how big of a deal they are.
So back to 1990. The band came together in Los Angeles through mutual friends, one of which was Tom Morello. You may know Tom Morello as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, or perhaps as my favorite guitarist of all time. Tom was actually in a band with Adam, which blows my tiny mind.
LA was pretty fertile ground at that time. Tool came up playing loads of shows and eventually got signed to Zoo Entertainment (now defunct) who released their EP Opiate in March 1992.
OPIATE EP, 1992
Opiate is a 6-track EP, and the title of course refers to that great Marx quote about religion being the opiate of the masses. Religion is a major theme for Tool, who in you could say are a massively anti-organised religion and at the same time deeply spiritual band. The title track is is pretty unambiguous if you want to read the lyrics.
This is the track listing for Opiate:
- Part of Me
- Cold and Ugly
Opiate, what to say about Opiate. In comparison with later Tool releases Opiate is pretty straighforward in terms of song structure and lyrics. It’s fucking great, it’s fucking heavy.
Another thing that Opiate introduced was the silly sense of humour that the band have always had. This is something that probably surprises casual Tool observers – their music, their videos, their whole schtick is pretty heavy and hardly puts you in mind of a joke band like Blink 182. However, they are very funny, especially during this era. The “hidden track” at the end of Opiate is ‘The Gaping Lotus Experience’ and it is a kind of parody of a Doors type song:
“I had a friend once he took some ecstacy,
Tried to marry me and everyone in the room,
He was sort of loving, kind of caring,
Kind of tried to fuck my lazy-boy”
Anyway, it’s very silly. They are very silly.
UNDERTOW LP, 1993
Just one year later, in 1993, came Tool’s first full length album Undertow.
What a difference a year makes. Here you can hear all of the elements of a fully formed Tool. Long layered songs, cryptic lyrics, soundscapes, concept tracks, dark themes – all things that are hallmarks of Tool to this day. It was recorded at the famous Sound City studio in California.
- Prison Sex
- Crawl Away
- Swamp Song
The album was commercially successful, selling over 2 million copies in the US alone, with ‘Sober’ being the primary single. Even after all this time, it’s still the song that many people know the band for. In Australia, it made the Hottest 100 which is a proper mainstream big deal.
The stop motion video for the song features clay models made by guitarist Adam Jones, who worked in Hollywood special effects before joining Tool. As well as being one of the most innovative guitarists of his time he is the Art Director for Tool.
Personally, ‘Sober’ is now one of my least favourite Tool songs in the same way ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ is one of my least favourite Nirvana songs. I’ve heard it so much I can’t even hear it any more, it’s like it cancels itself out.
Anyhow. ‘Prison Sex’ is the other single from Undertow, and to date probably the highest charting song to feature ever the line, “shit, blood and cum on my hands”.
In all seriousness though, if you are so inclined to read the lyrics and to watch the video (also featuring models made by Adam Jones) it is a very thinly veiled exploration of abuse, and escaping the cycle of abuse. It’s stunning.
Part of the reason the band gave for their very distinctive videos is the fact that they weren’t interested in being front and centre, in being celebrities.
In Maynard James Keenan’s biography ‘A Perfect Union of Contrary Things’, Matt Marshall who was the A & R guy at Zoo when Tool got signed had this to say:
“The best marketing a record company can do is be as invisible as you can and let the artwork and imagery and music speak directly to the fans. To do that full package as well as Tool did right from the beginning is rare.”
Amen. Other things to note about Undertow.
- It features a spoken word performance from Henry Rollins on the song ‘Bottom’, still one of my faves.
- The liner notes include a reference to the comedian – let’s be honest, prophet – Bill Hicks, who was a huge influence on the band and was still alive at that point.
- Adam Jones designed the artwork for the album, which included some “dark” imagery which resulted in the album being pulled from some retailers like Kmart and Walmart. The censored version featured a barcode as the cover and included the following note:
See, silly humour.
This is the thing about Tool, they are very very rabbit hole-able. If you are a geek you can get REALLY geeky about Tool. I wouldn’t say I’m in the top percentile of geekiness – I’m not into knowing the names of their wives or finding the hidden sacred geometry in their songs for example. I have an ex who was, it got scary. But I do have many interests that came from Tool. Especially being that I was, and so many of us were, at such an impressionable age when they came up that we were taking in things like a sponge. As much as I learned about the Zapatista uprising from Rage Against the Machine, or the Armenian Genocide from System of a Down, I learned a bunch of stuff about Timothy Leary, about Bill Hicks, about Carl Jung, from Tool.
Oh Damn. This is when shit gets really, really real.
After Undertow bassist Paul D’Amour decided to leave the band, as he wanted to be a guitarist instead. They replaced him with Justin Chancellor and locked in the lineup that still exists to date.
And then they released Ænima, my favourite record of all time.
The best record of all time.
- Useful Idiot
- Forty-Six & 2
- Message to Harry Manback
- Hooker with a Penis
- Die Eier Von Satan
- Cesaro Summability
- (-) Ions
- Third Eye
It’s a dense album that should be listened to as a whole. I know in 2019 that seems like a very old fashioned way to go about listening to music but this record is over 20 years old, so just do me a favor and listen to the whole goddamned thing in order, in one sitting. It’s not a concept record, exactly, but it’s definitely a journey.
I was 12 years old when this record came out. It changed my life. Those are formative years, and it is no exaggeration to say that this album was a huge part of my formation.
In terms of what the title means, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
‘The title Ænima is a combination of the words ‘anima‘ (Latin for ‘soul’ and associated with the ideas of “life force”, and a term often used by psychologist Carl Jung) and ‘enema‘, the medical procedure involving the injection of fluids into the rectum.’
Again, there’s that combination of the serious with the scatological, the dark humour, the intriguing grossness.
It’s difficult to describe the music of Ænima, so I’m not going to.
I will say there is something so substantial about Tool, so immersive, that they really can make other so many other bands just seem like a bunch of clowns. I’ve never really been into drugs much, but I truly think what people look for in drugs – especially psychedelics – is what I can get when I listen to Tool sometimes. It’s expanded my mind and my heart and made me a deeper and more sensitive person. Or maybe it spoke to me because I already had those qualities? I’ve never come across any other art that expresses my experience of being more than Tool does.
The physical package of Ænima is absolutely brilliant too, back when tactile products were a big deal. If you have a chance to check it out I urge you to.
Something else I appreciated about Tool from a young age was the focus on their music and not the band members. Around this time a Tool website was started called Toolshed. It only stopped being updated a few years ago. This was where lots of Tool rumours, discussion, information was shared in a pre-social media time. I mostly would check it out to see tour dates, and also set lists from other tour dates. I never really entered into the debates about the meaning of songs, or dug too deep into knowing about the band members and their personal lives. It’s kind of a machista world, and besides I’ve never really cared to be honest, it’s all about the music with Tool.
The humour of Ænima is black. ‘Die Eier Von Satan’ is a sounclip of an angry man yelling in German to a rowdy crowd; it sounds like a Nazi rally. It’s actually someone reciting the recipe for hash cookies called “The Balls of Satan”. I loved, and still love, the song ‘Hooker With a Penis’ because it addresses the absurdity of the concept of “selling out”. I feel like in 2019 we’re kind of living in a post-sellout world, but back in the 90s it was a really big deal.
The lyrics are ridiculous and the song also really fuckin rocks, so you should really enjoy it and also read the words in this convenient karaoke-style video below.
It’s only short! For a Tool song….
At the same time ‘Eulogy’, ‘Pushit’, and ‘Third Eye’ are some of the most transporting songs ever written. ‘H’ and ‘Jimmy’ some of the most beautiful. ‘Stinkfist’ and ‘Ænima’ some of the most powerful.
So Ænima was a big-ass hit and also got them nominated for some Grammys – one of which they won: ‘Best Metal Performance’. Which gets at the heart of one of the most important things about Tool – they are impossible to define. Metal is not it. Progressive rock is getting closer but is still not it.
Bands sounds like Tool, not the other way around.
This era also brought in what would become a fairly regular stream of legal issues, something that to be honest I’ve never paid much attention to. If you care you can read some discussion about it here.
Fun fact – when my mum rescued a dog and asked me to name it I suggested Maynard, naturally, but she couldn’t pronounce it. So I suggested Jimmy, after the song on this record, and Maynard’s real name. He looks like like a Jimmy doncha think?
Post-Ænima was also when A Perfect Circle was born, Maynard’s side project band with Billy Howerdel and a rotating cast of other members. A Perfect Circle are a mellower and more radio-friendly project than Tool, and really showcases Maynard’s voice in a very different way. Their first record, Mer de Noms, is very very beautiful and very romantic and worth a listen if you’ve never indulged. They are really great and I was definitely a huge fan at one point, but I’ve always found it difficult to REALLY get into them, knowing what Maynard is REALLY capable of. Similar to how I feel about Audioslave. Anyway, that’s me. They are still going and released their latest record in 2017. I saw them most recently last year in London, it was a great show.
Back to Tool.
So this is a primer, I’ve gotta cover all the major stuff. Salival is a live, outtakes and videos release – something of a collectors item really. Beautiful packaging, all of their videos to date on DVD, a sort of weird collection of songs. As well as live versions of songs including ‘Pushit’ and ‘Third Eye’, there is one song that really makes Salival essential for me. Their cover of the Led Zepellin song ‘No Quarter’ is still one of my favourite songs of all time. ALL TIME.
This is a good opportunity to take a break, take a breather and listen to this whole song, in the dark if possible.
If you’re still with me well done. This takes us right up to……
To be honest, if Tool retired after Ænima I would not have been that mad. I will be listening to that album until I die and will never be bored of it. But, no! They had more amazingness up their sleeves.
I present you, Lateralus.
- The Grudge
- Eon Blue Apocalypse
- The Patient
- Ticks & Leeches
- Faaip de Oiad
If there’s a hard and heavy beauty to Ænima, there is something a little brighter, more spiritual about Lateralus. This record marks their relationship with the artist Alex Grey, whose visuals just match the music so perfectly it’s now hard to imagine a Tool before them.
If you saw Tool perform at any point after releasing Lateralus their Alex Grey visuals were unforgettable and an integral part of the experience.
‘Schism’ is probably the most well known song from this album but definitely not my favourite. That would be sister songs ‘Parabol’ / ‘Parabola’, which features a long build up that is so very satisfying when it kicks in at the start of the second song. Or is it ‘Lateralus’, that perfect song modelled on the Fibonacci sequence, which crescendoes into an explosion of “SPIRAL OUT”?
I give up trying to explain Tool’s music, here you go. Wait for that Alex Grey mind-melting at the end:
Lateralus, again, was a massive hit. Critical as well as commercial. There’s all the intensity of Tool on this record but maybe a little less of the visceral, dark, scary, or scatological. This album lives more in the heart than in the gut.
Fun fact – I got a tattoo on my wrist about 10 years ago that is a riff on the Alex Grey vajra from the inside of the Lateralus CD cover.
Meanwhile in the background Maynard was working on some other stuff, including a side project called Puscifer and making wine in Arizona. More on that soon.
10, 000 DAYS, 2006
It’s only in writing this that I’m realizing that 10, 000 Days is probably my favourite Tool record after Ænima. At this point it kind of felt like Tool had grown up with me; they had outlived so many of their grunge ‘peers’ who came up at the same time, and had left behind the nu-metal bullshit that myself and so many others got sucked into. Tool were a seminal band who were still kicking ass. The only other band I have ever thought could be considered their peers in that sense is Radiohead.
10, 000 Days is astonishing.
3. Wings for Marie (Part 1)
4. 10, 000 Days
5. The Pot
6. Lipan Conjuring
7. Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann)
8. Rosetta Stoned
10. Right in Two
11. Viginti Tres
The reason for the name of the album is that 10, 000 days is the number of days that passed between when Maynard’s mother Judith (who pops up on APC’s first brilliant single) experienced a stroke which paralyzed her when he was 11 years on (featured in the song Jimmy), and when she died in 2003.
I know I said before that I’m not a mega Tool researcher and I don’t care to know about their personal lives, but for me this autobiographical info has made these songs all the more poignant. And sad, and beautiful.
Especially the twin songs ‘Wing For Marie’ / ’10, 000 Days’ which I find so emotional to listen to every damn time. THIS is why I can’t listen to Tool around civilians!
Having said that, you certainly don’t need to know this info to experience 10, 000 Days.
‘The Pot’ is gleefully heavy, borderline cock-rock, while personal favourite ‘Rosetta Stoned’ is an absurd trip. ‘Right in Two’ is for me lyrically the modern version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Gets me every time.
This was also a time when Tool, and especially Maynard, were in the mainstream limelight a lot more than before.
In 2007 Maynard’s side project Puscifer released its first record and in 2009 the band played their first show. Puscifer is more than a band – it’s comedy, it’s a clothing brand, it’s a shop in Jerome, Arizona, where Maynard lives. I don’t really get it but I’m sure Maynard doesn’t mind that.
Over the years Maynard also developed a vineyard project, which eventually grew into a full-blown wine brand – Caduceus Cellars. The cool thing about Maynard’s wine is that it’s made in Arizona, not an area traditionally known for it’s wines. A really entertaining documentary came in 2010 out about Maynard’s vineyard that is well worth a watch. As a massive mezcal geek I can relate to so much of the wine discussion around terrior and connection to the earth and a specific place.
Anyhow, back to TOOL.
Another amazing thing that happened post-10, 000 Days is this episode which was happily captured on video: Maynard tackles a fan who rushed the stage and doesn’t skip a beat. He’s a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu.
Watch the whole thing if you have time, or skip to minute 4 for the action:
And then……we waited. 13 years to be exact 🙂
FEAR INOCULUM, 2019
13 years, and so much has happened! Personally, I moved 9 times across 7 countries over those years. I well and truly left my 20s, changed jobs many times, and many of my friends have since gotten married and had babies. The world is a different place entirely than it was in 2006. I have a bunch more wrinkles and grey hairs and I guess you do too.
And yet, Tool are still around. It’s brought up a lot of emotion, listening to Tool again, but it’s real nice to have them back. The new single, title track ‘Fear Inoculum‘ has been available for a few weeks and happily I love it. It usually takes me awhile to get into Tool tracks but this one I am into already.
The new record comes out officially this Friday, though it has already been leaked online. I’m gonna wait, I’m old fashioned like that. I’m not going to listen to it with anyone, or read any reviews. This is my thing, and my relationship with Tool has outlasted many others.
I hope you will listen to Tool, if you so please, and I hope you enjoy it.
Consider yourself primed.
I’ll see you on the other side.