“Play faster!” – “Listen slower!” a love affair with Tool - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #200

Who would have predicted that two and a bit years ago this blog would still be ignored by everyone (excepting random abuse hurled our way) and I'd be staring down the barrel of writing my two-hundredth piece? Well, me, I figured my life wouldn't have much moved on. So I've brought you some very bitter things about Tool.

Maynard James Keenan
Photo: Paul Bergen
When I was a teenager, in the mid-noughties, we piggybacked the gen-x sense of nihilism and self-awareness by liking Bill Hicks, and listening to Nirvana and Tool. I hope to grow out of these interests, and have become more self-critical of them; but many of my contemporaries have not. That’s the biggest problem with Tool and a lot of the other nineties nostalgia properties, their chief theme of kicking away from the Regan eighties is doubly irrelevant in the post Bush/Blair world and to the UK mindset. These same revolutionary acts such as Bill Hicks are frequently ruined by their fans. Tool are a fascinating band with reliably interesting music derailed by idiot fans. When I say idiot fans, make no mistake, I mean tier-one simpletons. The sort of people who profess to love Fight Club seemingly without understanding the point of that book. People who on the one hand appreciate the multiple layers of the excellent H. and on the other say without irony “hey, we should all think for ourselves, like Bill Hicks told us to”. Opinion on Tool’s music is neatly divided, between these sort of non-sentient morons who blindly defend the liner note image of a cow licking its rectum, and the sort of semi-critical non-tribal homo sapiens who might appreciate some of the things Tool do but are far put off by the former camp to actually try them out.

First coming into my awareness with harder, heavier Nirvana riffs, and on the nose comments guaranteed to put the shits up even the most liberal of parents, a debut EP littered with phrases like “throw that Bob Marley wannabe motherfucker out of here!” The stop start reflective songs hinted at something musically, emotionally and philosophically deeper than anything I’d heard up to that point. They didn’t really resonate as a Great Band until I was loaned a copy of their 2006 album 10,000 Days (along with a copy of Pure Reason Revolution’s the Dark Third, which is still the Best Record Ever Made Ever), which revealed over a decade of nudging the mainstream had mellowed out Tool’s creative elements as well as deepening them. Maynard’s crystalline vocal fractures into pieces throughout, and the nihilistic lyrics are crafted to shatter into your subconscious, always peaking on a resonant word, just Vicarious features peaks on “monster”, “blood” and “watch things die”. Musically it occupies a place somewhere between rock and metal, but not the same place grunge did. It was an album that landed Hiroshima-style in my consciousness. I’d been exposed to very little difficult music up to that point, and the Tool album was infinitely replayable, as all their albums turned out to be. Each song and moment seems deeply meditated upon, even the blatant mis-steps have been mulled and considered and weighed against the rest of the record until a sort of karmatic balance presents itself. There is a richness in feeling that emerges from Tool albums effortlessly, and it helps that they’re insanely overproduced. Their albums sit poised like a sword balanced on a point, the emphasis within them not necessarily balanced but utterly level.

After exploring all the band’s full-length recordings (there are four) a labyrinthine self-referential philosophical structure emerges. Each album has a tangible theme, and they also correlate. Broadly, Undertow is their angriest album, and the closest to their contemporaries in terms of theme and sound. It orients itself around detachment and nihilism, in the broadest sense. Describing events and mind sets of depression and a feeling of release in destructive behaviour, as well as the frustration and anger of teenage angst. The band chart a clear course towards a more detached, thoughtful perspective as their career progresses, the name Tool refers to the band using the music as a ‘tool’ to therapeutically and vicariously deal with their troubles and anxieties, and as their discography testifies, it has been working.

Lazily dubbed as ‘grunge’ by their peers, and the subject of the ‘what is heavy metal’ debate, musically Tool’s structure has more in common with the rock inflections of grunge than the hyperspeed riffs of metal, but are much more varied and articulate than their grunge peers. Ænima is their second album and a clear departure. Travelling into weirder sonic realms, and leaving behind a lot of the anger (except for the out of place one-time hit Hooker With a Penis, which is rage-filled), Ænima has more in common with an art-house interpretation of the Melvins’ style than anything Pearl Jam ever did. The songs on Ænima also highlighted Tool’s searing (and scatological) sense of humour, which is a defining feature of everything that follows. Stinkfist explores the emotional implications of fisting, while the title track rails against the L.A. freak scene, and how it would be better for everyone if the San Andreas fault were to crack and the city of angels sank into the Pacific.

The longest hiatus yet saw in the new millennium, and a change for Tool. The melody and softness explored between heavy grunge-inflected riffs in Ænima is now front-and-centre, and the bit-part soundbite songs have for the most part disappeared. Lateralus is their deepest, most consistent and most meditative, in which the downtime as the throbbing strings wind down and the drumskins vibrate to a restful repose become the centrepiece of the music in which Tool do all their thinking. It also contains Ticks and Leeches, their heaviest track. The band have reached new heights of maturity, humour that was black before is now utterly pitch and lyrics have taken on a more universal and scene-setting mood. Tool are at their most detached, like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, while their previous output was like being jostled at a live show.

This perceptible and gradual sea-change has led to 10,000 Days. Despite approaching eight years old it is their most recent album, with the growly intonations from Maynard at this point completely evolved into an almost monklike prayer, Danny Carey’s drum hits have gone from Tysonesque sucker punches to delicate backwoods grumblings. The ambiance and richness of the record is augmented with increased use of effects, the thunder echoing behind the instruments in the title track is a notable example. There are religious themes, for the first time; previously no overt criticism of religion had been present in Tool’s work, but the epic Wings for Marie (of which the title track is a part) climaxes with a zenith of sound and a clash of imagery: “you’re the only one who can hold your head up high/shake your fist at the gates saying/”I’ve come home now””, climaxing in the repeating phrase “give me my wings”. It’s the most visceral Tool moment. Seemingly a song inspired by Maynard’s recently passed mother, who was a devout believer rejected by her church. Before Wings for Marie is cold, the Pot leads in bravely with vocals rather than instruments in which Tool take a broad swipe at hypocrisy and judgement. The highlight has to be Rosetta Stoned, a hilarious Bill Hicksian (in the best sense, not the Alex Jones conspiracy sense) voyage of a loser dropout whose drug experience coincides with a vision from a divine extra-terrestrial entity. I have an affinity for all Tool albums, but I find that of all their rich, deep works, 10,000 Days is their richest and deepest. Not the gigantic leap any of their previous records were from the previous, but more of a steady incremental evolution of the form.

Their last record feels like a long time ago, and it’s hard to believe a new Tool record (rumoured to be in the works) could provide the same sense of continuum that their discography to date cements. It’s easy to get carried away with my praise for Tool. Their sophomoric humour hamstrings their genuine insights (many of which are very funny) and their continued (though subdued) thudding heaviness probably limits their mass appeal. I feel only dread for a new Tool record, not only does it have a tangible musical legacy to continue, but like the latest (shit) Black Sabbath record, in the minds of their more idiotic fans it has to inexplicably restore them to the early nineties mindset to which the early Tool records restore them; where life was simpler and the angst was more definable. And when it doesn’t, because it can’t, expect a fan backlash. I know Maynard still has it, from a series of excellent appearances on podcasts (the WTFPod interview is particularly insightful and funny), his Pucifer work, and a frequently brilliant wine columnin the Phoenix New Times; and I know that the world of today needs a Tool record. It’ll give us an insight into what a beautiful world this could have been if it could just have been kept out of the hands of awful gutless album-a-year bumgazers like Mumford and Cunts.

Sorry, I don’t know where that came from, they just came on the radio and I’m filling with hate and rage right now.

Written under extreme duress by Steven.

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