No news concerning the prog-metal titans Tool is ever read at face value these days. Us rabid fans are always digging through every announcement or scrap of new information for some kind of subtext or clues as to what the future holds for the band. So, yesterday’s revelation that Tool would be venturing to Europe next summer for a run of shows that includes headlining arena shows and spots on major festivals like Rock Am Ring and the Download Festival in Donington became speculation that the group might soon release the long-awaited follow up to their 2006 album 10,000 Days.
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With this news fresh in our minds, we decided to celebrate the greatness that already resides in Tool’s relatively slim discography (only four albums!) and pluck out the 10 tracks that we think best represent the quartet’s conceptual genius and wicked sense of humor, as well as the pure muscle they put into each song.
When Tool emerged on the music scene in the early ‘90s with their debut EP Opiate, they were encouraged by their record label to choose only their heaviest tunes for maximum impact. That may have helped to tamp down the band’s experimental side, but songs like this one prove that even as they attempted to bludgeon listeners with power chords and blast beats, they can still be slinky and daring with song structure.
Released in the heat of peak CD era, Tool’s 1993 debut full-length Undertow found the band stretching their fledgling wings for nearly 70 minutes. The songwriting became more complex while Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics plumbed his psychological depths with sharp acuity. Setting the tone of this album early was this intricate and terrifying tune that plays out like a Rush epic boiled down to four minutes of pumping rhythms and shivering guitar work from Adam Jones.
This might be the closest that Tool ever got to a love song, even if the lyrics are really exploring more physical passion. The Eastern-inspired downward tumble of the music is the perfect match for Keenan’s heated words as it sets a steady roll that builds with fervor as it drives towards a glorious climax of thrusting chords and shouts of “Just like that!”
A masterpiece of controlled anger. Taken from the group’s second album Ænima, this simply named track is a simmer of rolling drums and flickering guitar tones that occasionally gives way to a rolling boil that threatens to spill over and explode. The perfect complement to Keenan trying to keep the demons from his past and his bad habits at bay in the wake of the birth of his first child.
Forty Six & 2
The Internet is flush with Tool fans analysing and overanalysing the lyrics for each song, picking apart Keenan’s dark visions for answers. In the case of this Ænima classic, ‘Forty Six & 2’ could be all about Jungian shadows or the human chromosome or something called the Christ-consciousness grid. Even without peeling back the layers, the song still holds plenty of power in its psych-metal swirl and the piercing shout of Keenan’s cutting through the colorful landscape like a scythe.
Keenan usually reserves the wicked and often bawdy elements of his musical personality for side projects like Puscifer but throughout the Tool discography, little flashes of naughtiness are visible. A perfect example is this ridiculous power ballad that closes out the odds and sods collection Salival. Over a jangling acoustic guitar, Keenan lays on the poetic mumbo jumbo before ending each verse with the perfectly phallic punchline.
The gentle unfurling of this song from Tool’s third album Lateralus carries on for a full two minutes before it is swept aside by a torrent of volume and head-spinning time signatures. You can’t easily dance to it, but that may just be the point as Keenan takes on the persona of his mother, paralyzed and vacillating between frustration and humble acceptance of her unfortunate fate.
The title track to album #3 is perhaps Tool’s crowning conceptual achievement and the song that may have inspired a few dozen other prog metal acts to step up their games. ‘Lateralus’ was apparently based on the Fibonacci numbers, a sequence of integers found in mathematics and nature. It also supposedly provided this song’s structure from syllables per line to the knotty chorus, which shifts time signatures three times. Dizzying and heavy.
A recurring lyrical motif in Tool’s work is Keenan’s hatred of hypocritical behavior and the judgements handed down by people in power. Those come into play with devastating force on this track from what is for now the band’s most recent album, 2006’s 10,000 Days. The music is pure Tool, all chug, grind, and pealing guitar tones, but Keenan goes into a higher register that is surprisingly rich and soulful.
Right In Two
Tool is often at their best when they give themselves room to stretch out and explore how many different textures they can put into one song without the whole thing toppling over. On this 10,000 Days track, that takes the form of Indian percussion breakdowns, an extended ambient coda and some of the meatiest metal the band has ever committed to tape.