The Guide to Getting Into Tool, Rock's Most Lovable Pseudo-Intellectuals
Outsider art, psych-prog flourishes, and faux-deep philosophy mark their confusing and endearing catalog. Here's where to start.
A wise man named Homer Simpson once laid on a couch, cigar in his mouth, smug look upon his face and coined an immortal slogan for the self-satisfied: "Everyone's stupid but me." It has been a useful phrase to cling to as a longtime fan of Tool, the polarizing polymaths who've spent the last 29 years making some of hard rock’s most superficially challenging songs.
To outsiders their music is a strange proposition, combining outsider art, psych-prog flourishes, and faux-deep philosophizing—something like swirling together the Cliffnotes to Brave New World, a VHS of Fight Club, and five sheets of acid in a test tube. But Tool have inspired one of rock music’s most cultishly devoted fanbases. All this with only only four albums to their name.
On a given Tool album you’ll hear intricate polyrhythms and mathematically guided time signatures, tribal beats to make your third eye wet, and easter eggs which have led Tool fans to learn about the Fibonacci Sequence, ayahuasca journeys, and extra-dimensional beings. You know, the kind of stuff that makes everyone stupid, except for you. It’s no wonder that their fifth record, apparently just completed, has been called “the most hotly anticipated heavy-metal record ever.”
The band first met at the tail end of the eighties, when a gentle and jaded singer named Maynard James Keenan met with special effects artist and guitarist Adam Jones. Keenan was fresh off a stint in the army that cemented his cynicism and opened his eyes to the inequalities shaping the United States at the time.
“Ninety percent of my friends in the army were either gays or lesbian,” Keenan says in Joel McGiver’s biography: Unleashed: The Story of Tool. “Most of them kept getting called in and interrogated. I actually had a contract marriage with a lesbian so she could maintain her status.”
Keenan’s military service became fuel for his angst, and provided the evidence and experience to back his misanthropic views of the world. Couple that with Generation X ennui and their LA base (the band’s home for decades, despite writing songs about how much they hated it), and by the time Keenan and Jones met with drummer Danny Carey and bassist Paul D’Amour, Tool became a dour band that reflected the angsty spirit of the early nineties.
But something set them apart from their downcast peers. Throughout their career, Tool have always positioned themselves as intellectuals. Their references to Karl Marx and Carl Jung, and their acrobatic lead singer made them appeal to headier types than their grunge peers.
Keenan’s called some of their followers “insufferable people,” so consider them proto- Rick and Morty fans. What’s frustrating about Tool’s fandom is that band does seem to harbor some of the pseudo-intellectualism to which their fans cling, and yet the songs rip enough that their music is still compelling anyway.
Most abandon the adolescent tendencies which Tool still espouse—arrogance, solipsism, know-it-allness—sometime into their twenties. Go to a yard sale somewhere in suburban America and no doubt you’ll find abandoned teenagehoods in boxed copies of Machine Head, Staind, Puddle of Mudd albums. But Tool cling on with bloody claws.
Why is it then, that for all of their obnoxiousness, and all of our good sense, that fans who should have long outgrown them still stick with Tool? Maybe it’s their unchecked bravado, their ability to make you feel as though you’re in on a secret—you, The Chosen One. Or maybe they’re just actually that good.
Still, it’s been over 12 years since Tool’s last album, and grown-ass people who should know better (me) are still using incognito mode to Google “when’s the next Tool album out” everyday. This guide is not only an attempt to drag you down with me, but to understand why.
(You won't see Tool's music in user-friendly playlist format like you're used to seeing in Noisey's guide series. In fact, you may have trouble finding it online at all because they're some of the last holdouts in the Great Streaming wars. Which is on brand, to be honest.)
So you want to get into: Grungy Tool?
When Tool released their first professional EP Opiate, back in 1992, the band were positioned as though the industry was against them. “Things really shouldn’t have worked out for Tool, but against all odds, they did,” so goes the opening line to McGiver’s biography. But that really wasn’t the case. Much of rock music history can be explained away by its swinging pendulum effect. The ding of the spectacle rock—the flamboyant displays of hair metal and glam metal which focuses its attention on the band’s image and their adoring female fans. The dong of sincerity rock—anti-establishment bands with a deliberately unkempt image, who are made to be admired for their forthrightness. By the time Tool came around, rock music had largely fallen into the latter camp.
In 1992, when Tool’s Opiate EP was released, the entire rock landscape had completely shifted. The year started with Nirvana’s Nevermind symbolically knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the Billboard Top 200 Chart, which marked grunge’s transformation from a local scene to an international influence. Opiate lay somewhere between the grunge sound that was in vogue, and the brazen heavy metal which was steadily going out of fashion.
The EP’s opener “Sweat” startles with a stanky, tritonal riff, and is tethered down by a swampy bassline. It’s the grunge trope that the band managed to refine on their next LP, Undertow, particularly on track “Prison Sex,” which turned grunge into gunk and horror. On it, Keenan sings a disturbing diatribe on intergenerational trauma and abuse, twisting the biblical golden rule: “I do unto others what has been done to me,” while Jones slaps his low E string against the pickups, causing that signature swampy sound.
While much of Tool’s output in the nineties was observably grunge—the half-screaming, half-swooning Cobainesque vocals; the plain, ugly anger; the anti-disestablishment title of their first LP (Opiate refers to that Marx quotation which college guys recite like girl scouts)—the band’s sound was too widely-inspired—there were hints of King Crimson, Black Flag, and Meshuggah early on in their career—to be associated with only one scene or genre. And that was so very grunge of them. What wasn’t so rock ‘n’ roll were the droves of record execs desperate to hire them.
Playlist: “Sweat” / “Prison Sex” / “Stinkfist” / “Intolerance” / “Swamp Song”
So you want to get into: Aggro Tool?
“Someone get that Bob Marley fucking wannabe out of here,” says Keenan to a cheering, obsequious crowd on the first of Opiate’s live tracks, “Cold and Ugly”. From as soon as they got them, Tool have always hated their fans. “[You play] heavy music, and your record company, which has never owned an album like anything you’re doing, immediately markets you to the obviously stinky kid with the dreadlocks and the BO and the urine on his shoes,” Keenan told AV Club in 2006.
The band also hate “religion” and “the government” and “the industry.” Also, retro anything, tattoos, insecure actresses, Prozac, L Ron Hubbard. It’s probably why they attracted a fanbase of suburban white boys who yell at their parents and wank into the bathroom flannel, in the first place. Needlessly angry, frustratingly privileged young metalheads describe both Tool’s fans and their contemporaries, and the band’s jejune angst inspired a wave of aggro metal from the late nineties into the aughts.
Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst told MTV in 1998 that Tool was one of his favorite bands. “You can hear the influence of Maynard in the [Limp Bizkit] song 'Nobody Loves Me' in the middle, in the break-down in the middle. I actually copied the way he sings," he said. While on Deftones’
2000 album White Pony, Chino Moreno sings about being abducted by aliens and riding around with Keenan, solidifying the singer’s increasingly legendary status.
The band’s unfriendly, “feel free to like us, but just know that we fucking hate you” tone was immediately evident on the treble heavy Opiate. “[when we first came out] we were products of that fucking Reagan thing, we were pissed off and bummed out,” Carey said in an interview with Kerrang in 2006. That insipid, pissed-off-with-politics sentiment came forth again for the release of their fourth album, 10,000 Days. Around that time, Carey referred to Bush as the worst president the United States had ever had. “We’re frustrated, and that’s the reason it’s a little heavier this time,” he said about 10,000 Days in the same interview.
Tracks like “Jambi” in particular showcase a satisfyingly simple aggro strategy—a dexterous bassline, pummeling drums tuned down to the pitch of the moody guitars, and a grimy riff. It’s a heaviness which is inspired most patently by Swedish extreme metalheads Meshuggah—a late career influence that made Tool’s music even more labyrinthine But prior to 10,000 Days, their aggro-ness was more direct, less self-serious. And, uh, better.
Some of their best moments in this vein are on Ænima. On that record, Keenan talks directly to a fan who claims the band has sold out. “I sold my soul to make a record dipshit, and you bought one,” he bites back.
Playlist: “Sober” / “Flood” / “Hush” / “The Grudge” / “Jambi” / “Hooker With A Penis”
So you want to get into: Proggy Tool?
After three albums, Tool aimed for immortality. And no strand of rock could accommodate that mission more than prog rock. It was called “Hated, dated, sonically superannuated,” and not to mention, probably “the whitest music ever,” in The Atlantic. But prog, the epoch that Jon Anderson of Yes once called a “higher art form,” suited Tool just fine. It’s no coincidence that Tool’s proggiest output came out the year they toured with some of the genre’s forebears, King Crimson. “We want our albums to last,” Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp said in the seventies, during the prog boom.
That was prog’s intention—to keep listeners perpetually deciphering the concept-heavy, information-packed songs; to have fans prostrate themselves to musicians who liked to think of themselves as drifting towards the gods rather than being anchored down to a local scene. And that being made to last, to appear timeless and transcendent, is the barefaced intention of Tool’s 2001 album Lateralus.
It’s not like they hadn’t been appropriating the tropes from your dad’s record collection before then. They had. Around 1994, the band made a conscious effort to turn their show into a spectacle á la Pink Floyd, with lights and lasers and shit. They’d also embraced extravagance and created vast, unrushed soundscapes comparable to the likes of Styx and King Crimson, with tracks like “Parabol” and “Pushit” on their previous album, Ænima.
What makes Tool so appealing to a superficially ambitious audience is that they appropriate the fun parts of prog—the odd instruments (you’ll hear a fair amount of didgeridoo samples on Lateralus); the intricate and oscillating compositions (Lateralus’ title track plays around with a time signature based on Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio)—but without the intellectual complexity. It’s also what drew engineer David Bottrill, who influenced much of Lateralus’ prog sound, towards the band. “Their style is still powerful; it has mystery but it still invites you in,” he told Ice Magazine in 2001. “Whereas prog is all about musicianship, it’s all about the esotericness of the piece. It pushes people away a bit more; you have to be studied to understand it. You don’t have to be studied to understand Tool.”
Keenan has insisted that their songs “are not commercials, they are not three-minute jingles, they're not as easy to get into—this is more like presenting a film," and by doing so he enforced the idea that his band’s CDs were still worth buying. It’s also of no coincidence that around the time of the CDs decline, the band’s drummer, Danny Carey, and his taste for the occult came forth. In particular, Carey brought a fascination with sacred geometry so #deep that it affected the band’s image, and became the basis for their following albums’ artwork.
In 2000, they released a limited edition CD/DVD boxset of live, proggier versions of previous songs—“Pushit” being a clear standout—and made the album’s packaging a part of the experience. Designed by their longtime collaborator, Alex Grey, the artwork is displayed on a translucent slipcase (making it unreplicatable), and features the body of a macrocosmic being with outstretched arms. It’s a tactic they repeated again with Lateralus and 10,000 Days, to similar effect. And no, just to be clear—Tool aren’t on Spotify.
Playlist: “The Patient” / “Reflection” /‘Lateralus” / “Rosetta Stoned” / “Pushit” / “Schism” / “Right in Two”
So you want to get into: Soft Tool?
The draw towards Tool, in each of their iterations—grunge, aggro, prog—is that they provide a certain touch of softness and femininity that their peers have never exercised to quite the same degree. Their bait and switch between rage and lenity was showcased early on, with moments on Opiate like in its title track, which has Keenan seesawing between soft cooing and screaming.
“I do have a more open nature than most of my so-called peers,” Keenan added in the Warp interview, “Most hard-rock or hard-alternative bands have a very masculine, linear approach, while I think there’s more of a feminine balance to our point of view.” Keenan learned from the likes of Prince and Bowie—you cannot become a rock icon without a feminine side. And he made sure that his band exposed theirs.
They departed drastically from their strictly heavy sound with third album, Ænima. Metal’s always been a genre tailored to men, anyhow. It’s music to go to war to—you must be man enough to survive the physical assault of the mosh pit; you must be angry and sanctimonious enough, too. But Ænima became a way for the band to expunge that masculinity, by using masculine means. In Jungian psychology, (and Tool were big fans of Jung) the “anima” refers to the feminine inner self, but Tool bastardized the term so that it became a dirty double-entendre—“anima” becomes Ænima—which sounds a lot more like the thing you put up your ass to get rid of its contents.
And maybe Ænima really was the band’s enema. By the time their fifth and last album, 10,000 Days came around, the band were practicing an entirely vulnerable softness. “Wings For Marie,” part one and two, still startle with their tenderness. As a tribute to his late mother, Keenan sings “So what have I done / To be a son to an angel?” It’s a jarring moment of sincerity, following a career full of trolling, pranking, mocking.
Playlist: “Opiate” / “Wings For Marie (pt.1 and 2)” / “H” / “4°”
Emma Madden is a writer based in London. She'll explain spirals and shit to you on Twitter.