Complete Guide: Tool

Complete Guide: Tool

An introduction to the enigmatic legends’ complex back catalogue...

Tool are the biggest band you’ve never heard of.

They headline massive festivals whenever they feel like it and sell out stadium tours within minutes. They drop a guitar rehearsal video on Instagram and set certain circles of the internet aflame. Drop their name in casual conversation with a fan then watch in rising perturbation as their eyes bulge, their tongue slides greasily over their lips and a state of hushed reverence descends upon them.

But if, like most millennials, you grew up in the brave new world of digital downloads and streaming then there is a decent chance that you’ve not listened to a single note of their music before.

Not only have Tool never licensed their music for streaming services, they’ve never even allowed it to become available via digital download sites like iTunes and Amazon.

Never, that is, until now. Last week the band’s official Twitter account began posting the artwork of their old records, beginning with 1992’s ‘Opiate’ EP on 22nd July and continuing day by day until they reached 2006’s ‘10,000 Days’ in an apparent build up to a big announcement (Tool neither know nor care to find out what a press release is).

The next day singer James Maynard Keenan appeared on The Joe Rogan Podcast to officially announce that a) the 13 year wait for new music is over and ‘Fear Inoculum’ will be released on August 30th and b) their back catalogue was made available to stream and download digitally on August 2nd.

(A few Tool fans insisted that the announcement took place exactly 10,000 days after the release of their debut EP. The fact that this milestone actually occurred a few days earlier proves that the only thing the members of Tool enjoy more than leaving Easter eggs for their fans is sadistically torturing them like a rock dominatrix.)

So, if you are one of the many individuals who never had their CDs burnt onto your laptop by a gushing friend, or who liked the odd song on the radio but couldn’t be bothered to follow through and scour YouTube (where their full albums were easily available until last week), maybe now is the right time to let yourself fall in love with one of the most beguiling, baffling and, ultimately, rewarding acts ever to make music.

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'Opiate' EP (1992)

Technically the band’s first release was an EP called ‘72826’ (pauses to push up oversized glasses). However, given that fewer than 1000 copies of this were ever circulated, you can join the less insufferable majority in considering ‘Opiate’ to be Tool’s debut proper.

Due to its comparatively thin production and the odd way it switches between studio and live recordings, ‘Opiate’ is really a record you are better served coming back to after checking out a few of their later releases. That being said, it’s still an impressive first effort that would see the young band mentioned in the same breath as contemporary progressive alt-rockers like Helmet, Prong and Rollins Band. 

To this day standout tracks ‘Part Of Me’ and ‘Opiate’ make it onto live setlists and never sound out of place next to their younger, mightier brethren.

The basic Tool sound is all here: Keenan’s supple voice gliding over the strange, slippery grooves with odd time signatures cooked up by guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Dan Carey and bassist Paul D’Amour (who would later be replaced by Justin Chancellor from British band Peach).

Now all they had to do was demonstrate just how far this core formula could be stretched…

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'Undertow' (1993)

If you are new to Tool but already dig the dark, twisted grunge of early-90s bands like Melvins and Alice In Chains, this is your entry point. ‘Undertow’, with its blend of nihilistic lyrics, chuggy Soundgarden psychedelia and percussive bass guitar licks, is probably the only Tool album to actually sound ‘of its time’.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this might be what makes it such a perfect record for a beginner to start with. Though it can be bleak and sarcastic in places, it never feels alien or unknowable (a criticism that some have directed at subsequent releases).

As any salivating, half-crazed fan will tell you, just like their name (useful DIY implement/spiritual faculty for self-betterment/slang for ‘idiot’), Tool’s lyrics can be interpreted on a number of levels.

‘Prison Sex’ is a classic example of this: on the surface it’s about being sexually abused by a family member, dig a little deeper and you realise it’s about institutionalised abuse in the Church, dig even deeper and you realise Keenan is using child abuse as an allegory for the cyclical way parents pass on their own religious hang-ups to their children.

Shit like this is why Tool fans are often considered to be the Rick & Morty fans of music. But you actually enjoy Rick & Morty, don’t you? So there’s no need worry about it.

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'Ænima' (1996)

If you’ve recently discovered King Crimson’s discography on Spotify and are after something a little more mind-expanding, ‘Ænima’ might be the better starting point for you. Hell, it ends on ‘Third Eye’, a 14-minute prog epic that starts with the voice of Bill Hicks espousing the merits of taking drugs and goes on to mimic the thoughts and feelings of a particularly intense acid trip.

As well as finishing with their longest song, Ænima begins with Tool’s ‘biggest’ song. ‘Stinkfist’ is probably the most popular radio hit you’ll hear about sticking your hand up someone else’s bum... 

(except this is Tool we’re talking about, so the fisting interpretation is just the, ahem, bottom level of meaning. It’s also about how desensitisation pushes people to chase increasingly extreme sensations [level 2] and the scene in Stargate where Jeff Bridges puts his hand through a wormhole into a new galaxy [level 3]. Sorry, I’ll stop now.)

One frequently forgotten fact about Tool is their capacity for fun. Nowhere is this clearer than on ‘Die Eier von Satan’ (‘The Eggs of Satan’), in which a harsh German voice shouts orders over an industrial backing that turn out to be nothing more than a recipe for hash cookies.

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'Lateralus' (2001)

What can be said about ‘Lateralus’ that has not been said a million times before? Yes, the title track’s vocal pattern syllabically follows the Fibonacci Sequence. Yes, there really are 47 time signature changes in ‘Schism’.

Yes, that ending is the famous recording from Art Bell's Coast to Coast radio show in which a caller claiming to be an employee of Area 51 was cut off mysteriously. These and a hundred other factors come together to make ‘Lateralus’ one of the richest, endlessly fascinating albums of this millennium.

It’s a bottomless treasure trove that continually unveils itself over the course of decades rather than mere minutes. It’s also a terrible entry point for any Tool novice, like starting The Silmarillion before you’ve even read The Hobbit.

Sure the 10/8 gallop of opener ‘The Grudge’ is instantaneous to a degree, but you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve already got a taste for Dan Carey’s polyrhythmic genius; the ‘Disposition/Reflection/Triad’ suite is stunning once you appreciate Tool’s prog chops, but will bore the socks off an uninitiated listener; and you’ll get a hell of a lot more out of the under-appreciated ‘The Patient’ once you start decoding Keenan’s lyrics for yourself.

File this one under ‘Return to Later. Preferably With A Joint’.

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'10,000 Days' (2006)

Perhaps Tool’s most divisive album, ‘10,000 Days’ is a schizophrenic affair. It features some of their most accessible tracks (‘Vicarious’, ‘The Pot’) alongside some of their oddest experiments (‘Viginti Trees’, ‘Lipan Conjuring’).

There’s an undeniable playfulness to alien abduction fable ‘Rosetta Stoned’, yet it also contains their deepest and most personal material to date. 10,000 days is reportedly the length of time Keenan’s mother Judith spent paralysed after suffering a brain haemorrhage in 1976 (she died in 2003) and is also the subject of the two-part ‘Wings’ requiem.

This epic meditation on faith, death and justice is delivered with aching honesty from Keenan, injecting a healthy dose of humanity into the band’s increasingly ethereal sound. But, no matter how much private anguish Keenan pours into it, this is bassist Justin Chancellor’s album through and through.

If you play bass, no matter how badly, this is the place to start with Tool. Whether it’s his deft harmonics on ‘Right In Two’, the echoing, stadium-filling plucking on ‘Jambi’ or the off-kilter funk of ‘The Pot’, Chancellor constantly leads the charge throughout the record while the rest of the band fall in behind him.

Equal parts angry and playful, heavy and delicate, opaque and open-hearted, ‘10,000 Days’ would have been a fine swan song for one most contrary groups on the planet. But now the world is finally getting a follow up in ‘Fear Inoculum’, all while a whole new generation gets to discover their totemic discography for the first time.

There has never been a better time to join the Tool train, so open up your third eye and get ready for the trip of a lifetime.

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Tool's back catalogue is on streaming services now.

Words: Josh Gray

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