It was always going to end this way. Since the first utterance of the words “A Band A Day” I’ve known where it would all lead – to the greatest band of all time: Tool. So strong is my adoration of this band, and so deep their importance to me for over twenty years, that they’re an intrinsic part of who I am.
Part of Tool’s draw is that they’ve managed to achieve mainstream success while never compromising and frequently thumbing their nose at the normal way of doing things. Their singles are too long for comfortable radio play (yet any rock radio station worth their salt knows they can’t ignore Tool) and, as they’ve continued to grow over the decades, they’ve moved further and further from standard song structures with clear verses and chorus. And yet, people from all backgrounds and walks of life find their way to this band and adore them.
They also don’t churn out music videos for marketing purposes. Instead, they produce an occasional music video that is deeply complex, visually extraordinary, and easy to become lost in attempted interpretations thereof. But the music videos are just one part of another facet of Tool that sets them in a league of their own – the artistry.
The broader artistic elements beyond the music itself are a fundamental part of Tool. From their music videos, the their album packaging, to their increasingly grandiose live performances, Tool have always utilised visual mediums to enhance the listening experience. Through collaborations with artists such as Alex Grey and Chet Zar, Tool have established a strong visual style, but it is guitarist Adam Jones who remains the main artistic visionary within the band.
Jones is Tool’s guitarist, music video director, primary song writer, and beyond. I firmly believe it is Jones’ perfectionism that is the main cause of Tool’s lengthy writing periods, but without it Tool would not be Tool. His guitar tone is instantly recognisable and his signature playing style is a huge part of Tool’s sound.
Meanwhile, Tool also boasts a world class rhythm section. Danny Carey is routinely mentioned as one of the rock world’s drumming greats. Watching him perform live, sitting behind his fortress of a drum kit, adorned with samplers, gongs, and countless cymbals, is a sight to behold. Like Jones, Carey’s sound is so unique and iconic that a Tool song can be identified by a single tom hit.
The “new guy” of the quarter, Justin Chancellor took over bass duties from Paul D’Amour in 1995. It is immediately evident that he was the perfect fit because, like his three band mates, he too has a very recognisable and distinctive sound and play style. Chancellor’s bass lines are often far more prominent in the compositions than is standard for rock music, often leading the song for a passage with intricate riffs and complex melodies.
I know I’ve touched on it in my posts about both Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, but here of all places it certainly bears repeating: as far as I am concerned, Maynard James Keenan is the greatest vocalist of all time. His voice is without equal, and for me nobody has ever even come close. The way he presents it in the context of Tool, I think is part of what makes it so special. Especially on later albums, MJK opts for a ‘less is more’ approach, often taking a step back to let the music tell the story. In this way, the vocals are used much more like another instrument than the element – in moderation and as needed. This means that when Keenan returns to the foray after an instrumental passage, there’s considerable weight to it, because it feels carefully calculated and considered.
And that sentiment really applies to every aspect of Tool’s music. By the time we reach their 2019 opus, ‘Fear Inoculum’, it’s quite easy to understand the lengthy 13 year wait. Because while other, external factors (eg. legal battles and injuries) were also behind the substantial period between albums, every single note, beat, sample, and pause on that album feels like it comes with a world of intent. It’s an album that has clearly been meticulously crafted and tinkered with near-endlessly with an aim to have everything be exactly how they want it. The end results speak for themselves, mind you. That album is an 11/10.
This is what, to me, makes Tool so very special. Separately, all four of them are absolute masters of their craft. My own personal opinion (biased as it may be) is that each of them are among the very greatest at what they do. But even objectively, they all regularly are ranked in various publications’ lists of best guitarist, drummer etc. But the real magic with Tool is that, somehow, unbelievably talented as the four of them are alone, together they are on another level entirely.
I’ve now said all of this without even touching on what Tool sound like. But where do I even begin? Tool’s music has matured immensely since 1992’s ‘Opiate’, but even then they demonstrated a remarkable talent. What started out with that EP as a punchy, aggressive alt metal sound (somewhat fitting the eta but already quiet distinct) made its first step towards the future with Tool’s debut full length, ‘Undertow’. On this album, the band’s sound began showing early signs of where they would inevitably end up – dark and multilayered lyrical themes, a hypnotic rhythm, and and increasingly progressive compositions.
Their followup, however, was the world-breaker. In 1996, Tool released ‘Ænima’, an album I consider one of the most personally important ever released. With it, Tool stepped further from the muddied 90s alt metal sound towards a more intense, polished, and even beautiful sound. The album further demonstrated the band’s refusal to follow mainstream norms, both thematically (confronting metaphors, apocalyptic anthems, and eulogies all part of the experience) and by beginning to move further away from mainstream rock music. The songs became longer, and the band started playing around a little with the structure of songs.
‘Ænima’ was of course followed in 2001 by ‘Lateralus’. Further excess from me here when I tell you that ‘Lateralus’ is my favourite album of all time. But it really is. It has been for 20 years. This was the album where Tool, now a bonafide arena band with a global fanbase, shed all remaining ties to mainstream expectations. The songs were leviathan, labyrinthine, masterpieces. No longer concerned with palatable runtimes for radio play, the second single for the album was released as a 2-song music video clocking in at over 9 minutes. The themes on ‘Lateralus’ are heady and almost impenetrable, but the overall message seems to be one of positivity – especially when you compare this album to the aggression of its predecessors – and about personal growth, learning from experiences, and ‘embracing the random’.
These concepts, as well as musical growth, carried over to the next album, ‘10,000 Days’. This album opened with a reminder that, should they choose to, Tool are more than capable of a big rock hit. ‘Vicarious’ is a masterful track, complete with singable verses and a catchy chorus, that also delivers a poignant critique on humanity’s fascination with watching the tragedy of others (in the media and beyond). But the band very quickly remind us that they do not dwell on catchy, familiarly structured rock songs, with the two-part ‘Wings for Marie (Pt 1)’ and ‘10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)’. Serving as a beautiful piece about the passing of Keenan’s mother, as well as his conflicting feelings about her religion (and religion in general), the near-18 minute magnum opus is perhaps Tool’s finest hour. As an musically incredible journey, with Maynard’s most beautiful vocal performance, and some incredibly powerful lyrics, Wings parts 1 and 2 perfectly encapsulate everything incredible about Tool.
Much has been said about what followed – a thirteen wait for a new album that some pessimists believed would never come, or simply would never live up to the hype (which, after thirteen years, had reached extraordinary levels).
With 13 years between albums, it was kind of terrifying. What if it was not the same? Or what if that feeling I got from ‘10,000 Days’ wasn’t just there from the start? What if it took a decade of my own bullshit and I could not see that looking back? Or what if it was on their end, and the magic was just gone? These are things I’d been thinking about for years. Literally, years. But, as I mentioned earlier in this post, my worries were wasted.
‘Fear Inoculum’ is a triumph, a masterwork, and a near-unapproachable work of retrospective/introspective beauty.
Put simply, Tool are the reason I love music as much as I do. The powerful frisson I get from their music is the catalyst for my love of music. It’s the why. And so it stands to reason, with that musical love driving me to want to write about bands every fucking day for a whole year, without Tool there would be no ABAD. So, of course, it ends with them.
And now it really does end… for now. Thank you for reading my poorly-formed ramblings for the last 365 days. Music has always helped me through difficult periods, and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to get lost in it for 2021.
Happy New Year. Here’s hoping 2022 is better.
❤️ 𝚊 𝚋𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚊 𝚍𝚊𝚢.