Beauty in Dissonance: A Tool (the band) Starter Kit for Noobs (and Swifties)
Sep 17, 2019   •   Karl R. De Mesa
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Sep 17, 2019   •   Karl R. De Mesa
A few weeks previous, Tool’s fifth studio album Fear Inoculum was released.
Pause for tito metalheads rejoicing yawps and chest thumps.
This was the prog rock band’s long-delayed LP, since 10,000 Days was released 13 years ago, and it’s currently at number one on Billboard’s top 200 chart. Something that has apparently dismayed some Taylor Swift fans, since it dethroned their favorite pop star’s Lover album from that top rank.
Vocalist Maynard James Keenan has poked fun at the situation thus:
— Maynard J Keenan (@mjkeenan) September 7, 2019
While the Swifties being unhappy is beside the point (or icing on the cake for the rascally), Fear Inoculum is the legit first album for a whole new generation, concurrent with their coming of age as well as for their listening pleasure on today’s streaming platforms—since the band also released their whole discography on iTunes, Spotify, and Deezer.
Now that Danny Carey is 58 years old and still hitting the skins like a seven-armed god of drums, while MJK has had success with other highlight projects like A Perfect Circle and Puscifer (and even transitioned into a respectable wine-maker), we thought it fitting to make a brief starter kit of 8 tracks.
Here are our picks from Tool’s sparse discography (to which I’d admit there’s nary an LP you might consider “bad”), ranked from arguably most poppy and easiest-to-get-into, to more complex and nuanced (“but aren’t they all?” I can already hear the Tool Army seething), that should get a beginner prepped for their more difficult, more obfuscated material.
Got your own fave Tool tracks? Let us see your curated playlist in the comments.
Grunge was just reaching its boiling point and punk-pop was about to hit its stride along with it when Undertow, an unabashedly metal album, was released in 1993. The stuttering vocal delivery and the heaviness of the attack was a signal to the rest of the pack that here was metal that was not only poetic and meaningful, but also layered with subtlety just as it was technically masterful. The opening, central riff is likely enshrined in every metal bassist’s heart.
BEST LYRICS: Murder now the path called must we / Just before the son has come / Jesus, won’t you fucking whistle / Something but the past and done?
A killer pummeling track that is just signature Tool opens the Undertow album with this gem. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan spent some time studying at West Point Prep School and the central lyric of “Lie / Cheat / Steal” is a play on the West Point Military Academy’s honor code: “I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The lyrics go on to elaborate how apathy and the ability to let criminal acts go unpunished or unreported makes them party to and guilty of the act, even as he admits the difficulty of being helpless to often stop these occurrences.
BEST LYRICS: Shroud of virtue hung to mask your stigma / As I smile and laugh and dance
Drummer Danny Carey’s obsession with the drumming patterns of Voodoo and Santeria is on full display on this groovy, swaggering number from 2006’s 10,000 Days. Many will claim that this layered and multi-beat song is mostly about getting high or marijuana legalization, but just a bit more digging reveals themes of high horses, moralizing, and hypocrisy. Pot, meet kettle.
BEST LYRICS: Rob the grave to snow the cradle / Then burn the evidence down
The single off of 10,000 Days. 8:46 minutes of no-filler sonic bliss that’s layered with aural delights and details upon repeated listens, this one features some of Maynard’s most direct and grandiose poetry since Aenima’s “Hooker with a Penis.” Confessional and visionary in its tackling of broadcast violence, whether on reality TV or straight news, the twin attacks of Carey’s drums and Justin Chancellor’s bass showcase lockstep synchronicity on another level while MJK’s voice soars like a mad castrati to the fiery crescendo.
BEST LYRICS: (The chorus) I need to watch things die / From a distance / Vicariously, I live / While the whole world dies
2001’s Lateralus arguably launched Tool as a force not only in prog rock but in psychedelic and stoner metal circles too, and many argue (me among them) that if Tool were The Beatles, then this is their Revolver. Could it be a coincidence that they started taking hallucinogens and mind-altering drugs when they made this LP?
The title track off the album, almost 10 minutes long with nary a boring part, is one of the more straightforward tracks that you can mosh to, even as it espouses occult maxims, mathematical axioms (Fibonacci sequence, look it up) melded to song structure, and tripping to a bass that feeds the listener’s gut some chunky lines.
BEST LYRICS: We’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been
Reminiscent of King Crimson and the more experimental era of Pink Floyd, the complex rhythm changes and trippy guitar riffs and chord progressions on this song also permeate the rest of the album. Learning the odd, central guitar riff of this song was certainly a sticking point and the sense of accomplishment that one felt upon nailing the feel and execution was a high in itself.
BEST LYRICS: The poetry that comes from the squaring off between / And the circling is worth it / Finding beauty in the dissonance
Forty Six and Two
Certainly a highlight track of 1996’s Aenima, bassist Justin Chancellor has famously, and tongue-in-cheek at that, told some music publications that he thinks about the iambics of the sentence “pass the peanut, pass the peanut butter” on his bassline here. And there’s a shade of truth to it. One of the most covered and most discussed songs in the Tool discography is about the highest level of human evolution and the yearning for that transcended state. Arguably it’s a level of craft something that many bands, let alone metal bands, take whole careers to get to and sometimes fail altogether, but MJK and co take one too many dabs and launch themselves into space cadet Darwinism inspired by the numbers on the title, referring to the 48 chromosomes: or 46 & 2—with 2 being the sex chromosomes, X and Y. The heavy as hell syncopated end is a buffet delirium of aural goodness.
BEST LYRICS: Soften this old armor / Hoping I can clear the way / By stepping through my shadow / Coming out the other side
Have Tool lived up to the hype and sheer delay or are they repeating themselves and can only make underwhelming shadows of their former tall tree records? That’s a question best left to the next number of years in the Fibonacci sequence, and certainly the esoteric art, the lyrics laden with symbolism, and the grandiose, lenghty playing times will be dissected for years to come.
What struck me with this new album though, is that Tool is markedly more upbeat, optimistic, and decidedly more mature now, rather than bleak and hopeless in their message and introspection. It’s a given that their views were always going to be complex, but now it’s as if they’ve been looking within and finally found some peace, that they actually liked what they’ve seen in there.
My faves off this album are the ludicrously sprawling “7empest” and the call to liberating unification that’s “Pneuma,” but this title track, a chanted abjuration against terror, is a gigantic foot stomp that announces their return. Apparently “Fear Inoculum” is also the first song with a duration longer than 10 minutes that’s ever charted on Billboard’s Hot 100.
BEST LYRICS: Purge me and evacuate / The venom and the fear that binds me
What is you favorite Tool song? Tell us below!
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