TOOL is a band I have wanted to write about. A general essay on the band, in its totality, has been waiting in the wings of my mind and within my writing bingo book for some time now. It feels necessary, given how important their music is to me and has been for many years. As a consequence, I have been seriously re-engaging with their albums over the past couple weeks. Not so daunting a task, after all they only have 5 full albums + 1 EP:
However, each of these albums present rich works of heavy / experimental / progressive / post-metal glory. Musically, lyrically, artistically, there is enough contained within these LPs for a lifetime of listening. Or analysis, if one would be inclined to do so. Therein lies one of my problems.
I am not sure how to write about music. How to analyze it. How to critique it. With words written or spoken.
Even after mindfully listening to every one of their songs, I have had a hard time thinking of how I would want to structure a deep dive into TOOL. In the case of art that is in any way important to me, this is a rarity. For practically all of the films, books, anime, games that I wish to critically engage with in the form of a written, stream-of-consciousness style essay upon their themes and ideas, the words come easy. I know exactly what it is I want to say, and I say it. The plan – the structure – for the main thrust of the writing falls into place after brainstorming borne of a sincere re-engagement with the piece. Nuances and insights come in the process of the writing, as spices to be sprinkled into the pot. Usually I have jotted exhaustive notes which help me to stay on track, to provide the scaffolding and connective tissue of the ideas I am most interested in speaking upon.
This is not really the case for TOOL. Or for any music I like for that matter. I think I understand what draws to me to certain styles of music or bands or albums, but articulating that is a different matter. For TOOL, after listening to everything again, I have some themes to superficially discuss but no overarching structure beyond the chronological progression of their albums; I have no byline to encapsulate the band’s sound into concise comprehension.
My too-succinct notations upon each of TOOL’s albums:
- Opiate (EP)(1992) ~ raging at religion, media, the restrictive and boring bounds of our culture
- Undertow (1993) ~ heavy metal restlessness / desperation / angst about the psychological traumas of addiction, to drugs or other social or metaphysical toxins
- Ænima (1996) ~ metal as mystic rage, apocalyptic musings of simultaneous resignation and hope – passionately, ruthlessly hunting for some kind of spiritual sense – they find it in drugs, humor, music, Bill Hicks
- Lateralus (2001) ~ synthesis of the rage and angst with an edge of spiritual awakening – order/chaos balancing – mathematical, polyrhythmic riffs amidst primal roars – music as a “monolithic puzzlebox”
- 10,000 Days (2006) ~ cultural commentary, both modern and ancient, on the chaotic and corrupting mediascape and on the eternal war of Mankind with itself
- Fear Inoculum (2019) ~ patient, perforce jams about fear and its potential elixirs, humanity’s collective ‘spirit’, the light and the dark within our psyches, within nature
I think the foundation of the reason I have hard time writing seriously and voluminously about music is the fact that I literally don’t have the words for it. Music transcends them, sure. But I also have built up no repetitive process of describing music, or playing it (I am no musician, long ago a clarinet player, a sight-reading choir boy). Obviously lyrics are much easier to write about than the style and sound of music itself. But lyrics are almost never the reason I get into music. I enjoy music for its sound; I come back to albums because of the feelings and emotions and moods the instrumentation produces within me. I listen for the guitar and the drums and the bass and keys and the beats and the solos. I look to be mesmerized, to lose myself within the noise and the vibration of it all at once washing over me. In most bands, the singer is undoubtedly important, and I love Maynard’s voice. But for me, when it comes to the consistent, return-listenership of any music, it is about the sound coming together, the ensemble of the rhythms and the riffs progressing into something beautiful, something meaningful outside of what words can generate. Voice as a layer to the sound remains significant to this formula; lyrics will always be secondary. For TOOL, as for any band or non-hip hop artist.
I believe, in general, more than any other art or subject, I do not have the necessary mental and linguistic … tools (heh) to write about music well.
I read Pitchfork music reviews (who don’t necessarily hold TOOL in the same reverent air as someone like me) and am continuously astounded by the craft of writing tight, descriptive and insightful critiques upon albums and artists. Clearly composed of music industry experts with a wide array of knowledge and experience, their critical analyses wield labels and genres to contextualize music and elucidate opinions that I didn’t even know existed. But while I admire it, music reviews certainly don’t add much to my experience of an album. It rarely changes my mind on music that I have listened to and don’t like, while it adds small additions to the appreciation of music I already like. As for its negative reflections of music that I do enjoy, it’s easy to ignore in consideration of the sounds already flowing so beneficently through my ears. It is for these reasons, and for what I believe to be the unique experiencing of music itself, that I do not value music reviews as highly as I do film or game reviews.
I believe more than any other form of art, the appreciation of music happens unconsciously. When you listen to music, you just know. In general, assigning quantifying numbers to judge art has never fully sat right with me, even while I see its clarifying utility-driven presence within the consumer media landscape to convey what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ within the myriad releases every year in music, games, and cinema. Review scores provide an efficient way for uninitiated listeners to find music and begin to cultivate their own tastemaking processes, eventually forging their own opinions. That’s fine with me. I see the purpose, and I do use review scores myself to help contextualize experiences. At any rate, in any given review, the number matters so much less than the words underneath it.
I am not here to assign a number 1 through 10 to the TOOL albums. I am here to give them some words. And regardless of everything said thus far regarding my inarticulations and critical difficulties concerning music and words, I feel as though I should do this. This music is too important to me for me to not write about it. And the fact that I have no idea how I am going to do this makes it feel like even more valuable of an experience to go ahead and try.
There are a few other bands and artists I would want to write long-form pieces on (and plan to!) But there is a reason I will start with TOOL. The earliest days of my conscious search for music began with metal. Past all of the classic rock of my parents and the radioplay pop and punk of my early adolescence, I personally sought out music that I could really sink my teeth into. For whatever it was worth, for whatever reason, I wanted to listen to music that would get my blood pumping. I wanted to find music that I could listen to again and again, without hating it in the end. For me, metal filled this role. I first found Metallica via the radio, as an introduction. I discovered Dream Theater years later, via a group of friends getting into prog rock. These bands, and bands like them, providenced my metal fandom with a diverse mix of sounds to reflect the genre.
My introduction to TOOL came not too long after. Lateralus was the first of their albums I ever listened to. It was the metal I knew, but different, ascended past all formulae and expectation. Something new. Something transcendent.
The best way to describe my love of metal is perhaps that it is impossible to ignore. It’s loud. It’s bombastic. It’s primal, complex, heavy. It is powerful. Weighted with electrifying riffs and blasting drums, metal emphasizes instrumentation first and foremost. And its players push their equipment to its limits, often including the vocalist and their voice. Listening to metal isn’t just about tapping into rage and aggression; it’s about passion. It’s about the adrenaline rush of hearing something so forceful in its sound that it makes you want to bang your head alongside it. It is a style of music utterly committed. Committed to the crashing sounds of a drum kit fully utilized, the returning chug of a sick guitar riff, the deep-burning bass underlying the whole wall of sound, the finale solo to draw the fiery showcase to fade-to-black satisfying denouement.
Metal is a genre that believes in something. This is why I love it. Of its myriad sub-genres, I favor progressive metal for its unconventionality and experimentation. Like the prog rock of the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Genesis, Jethro Tull), prog metal provides similarly unpredictable, oddly time-signatured and overall more chaotically structured tracks, more akin to jazz than to conventional rock. Complexity and depth – ‘something to sink one’s teeth into’ – was the name of the game. Bands like Dream Theater and TOOL required repeated listens to fully gain a comprehensive appreciation of. Anyone familiar with this music implicitly understands that it is meant to be listened to in the form of albums and not just singular songs.
Of course, metal was never the only kind of music I listened to, it was just my favorite. As I’ve grown older, I have drifted between genres and styles; many of my formerly favorite bands I no longer listen to so often. I fear this must happen to everyone. It’s not even that now I don’t like Dream Theater or Porcupine Tree or Rush, it’s just that I no longer feel like listening to them. When I do, they still rock… But it’s not the same. There’s lesser staying power. One hypothesis I have for this has to do with time, and the simple fact that I have less of it now (as a ‘working’ adult) then I did then (as a high school student). Prog, metal, 10+ minute songs – it all requires time to digest. Time I no longer have as much of.
And yet, even as time spirals away, and these days I find myself listening to more Hayley Williams than Opeth, and more Hiroyuki Sawano than Pink Floyd, TOOL holds a special place amongst prog, and metal, and all my former faves. Even as they fade into my past, TOOL stays strangely prominent within the pantheon of my mind. Even as I go for long bouts without listening to them, I hold an eventual return to their aural holds in my heart and mind with anticipatory grin and wistful expectation. TOOL has long survived my listening patterns, and my notion of them as one of the 🐐’s only holds truer over time.
What makes them so special? Is it their sound? Their lyrics? Is it the distinct style and conception of each their albums? Might it be they have so few, with years of accumulating work and passion poured into them, that they always struck a homerun with every release, even their long-awaited Fear Inoculum… Some of all the above no doubt. But I think it goes beyond any of that. Most of all, to me, TOOL’s condition – as a band, as notes, sounds, vibrations within my memory, as a concept taking the whole of their audiovisual experience into account – is secured from that earlier descriptor.
TOOL is transcendent.
Truly, TOOL is a complete audiovisual experience. Their album cover art and the design of the CD inlays (The 10,000 Days CD had these magnifying-glass 3D spectacles come with it), in addition to the production of their intricate music videos using sets, costumes, makeup, animation and the consistent tinge of body horror, all differentiate them as a band in what they are trying to accomplish with their music. Guitarist Adam Jones, also a sculptor and film special effects designer, was the creator of the visuals within these spellbinding music videos. Using his music as an avenue to tap into other areas of creative resource, and vice versa, Jones and the other band members of TOOL (all active within other bands as well) draw from everywhere to make their art. Friends and collaborator with painter Alex Grey, his transcendent psychedelic art of infinite-eyed godheads and meaty intergalactic lords provides a foundational touchstone for the look of TOOL, and thus the feel of their music’s telos. Something more. Perhaps even to some, a bit much…
In these ways, TOOL takes a multifaceted approach to the delivery and spectacle behind the making of music – and performing it live (I’ve seen TOOL live twice, in 2014 and 2019, and each time their lights and effects show was among the best I’ve ever seen) – and I can think of few bands or artists that can compare in this regard, especially in the realm of metal. The tableau of stimuli surrounding their albums and performances – importantly, not as a sale but as an extension of their expression – are much more akin to pop music or glam rock, or superstar individual artists like David Bowie.
With their music itself, TOOL manages to orchestrate a complex yet passionate instrumentation into each of their songs – using conventional masteries to deliver killer hooks anyone would find ‘catchy’ (Sober, Stinkfist, Schism) while also defining the best of their work with discordantly progressive structures (Lateralus), constructing long-as-hell emotional journey jam sessions (Pushit, Disposition+Reflection, 10,000 Days Pt. 1+2, Pneuma) with no returning chorus (7empest) or all one building chorus (Disgustipated). Balancing their avant-garde-ian tendency to subvert the customs of genre with their talent for writing traditionally attractive rock riffs, instrumentally and lyrically, it’s relatively easy to see how TOOL found their popularity.
The core for the band’s sound and polyrhythmic power comes from their drummer, Danny Carey, who, more than any other member within the group, is considered a god within the rock and metal drumming community. The drums, along with the more-than-audible principal presence of the bassline (a rarity within metal), present a unique reverse-engineering of what a metal sound typically sources from, with lead guitar and rhythm guitar dual-shredding taking precedence in most other bands. TOOL’s bass, by bassist Justin Chancellor, the 1996 replacement for former bassist Paul D’Amour, is always strong, playing a key role and even driving some of its own tracks, if only because he is holding it down as one of two total guitars. In TOOL, the drums and the bass carry the water of their sound, and this makes all the difference.
Lyrically, TOOL deals with a variety of topics, concepts, emotions. But one can find some obvious themes – drugs, media, relationships, the supernatural, conspiracy theories, evolution, the Jungian shadow, etc. Beyond such darkly comic ‘we-live-in-a-society’ commentaries raging against the state or the conditions of our culture as could be found with any number of rock and metal bands, TOOL digs deeper. They are interested in the human condition through the lense of the psyche: how do we view the prospect of our soul, instinctively or intellectually, and whether there is an inner, immortal spirit to pair with this meaty fleshy exterior? What do these compulsory beliefs, accepting or rejecting such transcendent themes to our existence here, do to our psychology as we make our way through an imperfect, suffering-laden world trying to make positive relations with one another?
Specifically on drugs, more than a vice to be wielded solely as a coping mechanism, TOOL conceives them as a powerful device to attain higher consciousness. Nothing new to the psychedelic science community, returning from altered states with knowledge and inspiration, or just a damn good story to tell, are part and parcel of the TOOL mythos.
Influenced by Jungian mythology and the Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, and undergirded by a general cynicism of American culture and the cults of institutionalized religion, their lyrics ultimately seek out an open-minded understanding of an altogether different kind of spirituality. It comprises metaphysics shorn of institution or the corruptions of material goals, individuated by a person’s unique self-explorations of their consciousness and the potential revelations therein. They stress such introspection via music, drugs, artistic endeavor – i.e. passionate engagement with your own consciousness of some kind or another. Humanity’s long-time collective conceiving of a yearned-for ‘spirituality’ – or simply a belief that there is something sacred, something greater to our mortal little meat-monkey self here on Earth – through this transient existence is the driving force of much of their lyrics and sound, and the metaphysical struggles they cover in their music. They speak from their own experiences, both as psychonauts and as artists no doubt captured by the inner creative demiurge. And they do it with at least as much humor as self-serious candor.
A very simple lyrical analysis on every TOOL song and their dominant theme, to my eye
TOOL’s whole personality as a band may always be defined by the foundational joke of their name, a penis joke. The spiritualistic strivings and the psychoanalytical thresh of the core of their music are matched with their superficial “sex joke” track names like Prison Sex, Stinkfist, Hooker with a Penis (which deal with sexual abuse as a child, the desensitization of pleasure in the modern world, and the concept of ‘selling out’ in the modern music industry, respectively). They sing about aliens and conspiracies, implicate ‘chakra’ as a key to conscious ascension, repeatedly speak on a general ‘all-is-one‘ pseudospirituality, and then turn around and throw onto one of their albums a hashish recipe being screamed in terrifying German before a cheering mass crowd.
The humor comes from lead singer and lyricist Maynard James Keenan, a known jester/edgelord. But this is part of the balance. In some ways, they are in on the prospective jokes of their own content and ‘message,’ if that’s what they’d even call it. They edge toward some kind of spiritual understanding via a string of poetic words or a mathematical set of chords, and then retreat into the zany story of a metaphorical bed-shitting deadheaded ‘chosen one’ who forgot the secret of the universe that the aliens gifted him… They aren’t telling anyone to do anything – What do we know, we’re just as much a group of immature deviants as we are ‘artists’, and btw we were high when we made all of this – They are just delivering expression. Passion. Stories. Images and words and sounds from their minds / bodies / souls and into our ears. Their music, like any, is a communication. Whether it’s important or not, for meanings to be drawn one way or another, or just made fun with, is always up to the listener. In fact, many of their lyrics are ambiguous and the themes I draw and make meaning from can be extrapolated into many others. They use satire as much as metaphysics – as much as the divine arrangements of notes coming out of their guitars – as means to achieve the ends they do. Those ends are myriad, subjectively secured.
But for those willing to dig into the sound and the fury of TOOL’s full disco, opening their proverbial third eye in the process, sacred treasures may be found…
TOOL’s throughlines in their sound and lyrics, as I see them:
1) of psychological individuation via art and the expansion of consciousness, via psychedelics or relationships; and
2) the prospect of the development of spirituality within your mortal life here beyond a named God or instituted religious dogma
– are both profound and nevertheless (or ‘therefore’) easy fodder for derision today.
I think they were then (90s-early 2000s), too, even within California. But they are especially today, in 2020. Modernity is secular, and cynically ‘postmodern‘, and decidedly ironic, self-aware. At its core, our culture, I think, is simply nihilistic. No one believes in anything anymore. And, the way I see it, it’s mostly for good reason. The world’s supernatural, immaterial enchantment might have been stripped away in the course of The Enlightenment, but our 21st century hopes for a better material tomorrow are fast dwindling here today as well…
Due to *in an utterly deadened voice borne of zombie-like repetition* political polarization, corruption of every form of promising new technology into surveillance and war machinery, global austerity and inequality, systemic racial injustice, looming climate disaster – we have seemingly reached a point of no return, or very many of them, and an apocalypse-now assault of hopeless regression unto every field of the human species’ social fabric is burning away our hearts and minds. Simply, there is little evidence to undergird a positive vision of the future. And what else is ‘faith’ but such a hopeful vision of a better tomorrow? Just as the rationalists and burgeoning scientists of former eras finally decided the lack of observable proof warranted a reversal upon our collective conception of God and all the traditions that came with such faith, good or bad, and that new avenues for structuring our psychology and our society were desperately needed – just the same, the modern man nihilistically closes his consciousness off to many a possibility as a rational reaction to the world he sees and experiences everyday. We must be able to laugh at the absurdity of it all, continuing on, lest we cry, and thus stop. Under these conditions, depression becomes normalized, repressed; the moral rot at the core of society, monetized. And so on, and so on.
‘It – my environment, the external world – is utterly nihilistic in action, in every effect, day after day things get worse – and so I am only conforming to the evidence of my worldly logical faculties by becoming a nihilist myself.’ Or as is the case with the neonazis and the modern deep-state/Illuminati/lizard people conspiracy theorists, in such a disenchanted environment, in a wild west of information overload to dictate opinions and worldviews from, people collectively choose dead or newfangled ideologies to follow in faithful embrace, borne simply of their pathological self-interests or intrigues. The late-kap neolib consumer of 2020, more than any previous last man of former generations, simply has a bigger menu of opiates to cast their identity into, and dig against all Others for the sake of, with an unmistakably pseudo-religious zeal.
Today, reality is a choice. Collectively or individually, we have to choose. The nihilist, thusly, is simply a Man lacking in imagination (likely as a consequence of their lacking in hope). In the sense that the modern man is tasked with developing his own ethos on how to live, we have to make our own God. Though the true modern believer may still have faith in the ‘old’ God, no part of his style of believing is the same as it was in that ancient, vanquished world of shadows and spirits around every corner. My point is that everything is different now, more broken down, more metaphysically challenging to grapple some kind of foundational belief system unto. This is why we retreat onto the Internet, into atomized tribes, prejudices, pathological self-interests. There are no gods worth believing in; and there are fewer and fewer ‘heroes’, fewer and fewer people we can trust.
No, TOOL is no God. But their music and its underlying message, to my heart and mind, can be seen as an avenue to find the avenue to forge a new way of life – a tool to build a new god for a new world. Make music, make art. Expand your mind, live your own way, speak on your struggles, your addictions and failings, and your explorations unto new grounds. Try. And in so doing, try to find something to believe in. Such theorizations recall my earlier point about metal as a genre, and the fact that it, most refreshingly, believes in something. TOOL’s musical mythos imagines a world of passionate journeys and deeper truths behind the truth and meaningful communications Man to Man, and Man to God… or just The Infinite Spiral of the Universe.
And yes, I know the things TOOL is saying and is trying to communicate via their music, are not entirely novel. But they are important. And they are delivered in style. It’s all wrapped up within an impassioned, larger-than-life sphere of soundful thrums and beats and rhythms that will absolutely kick your ass, physically and metaphysically. And, to me, that fuckin’ owns.
Forty Six & 2
I choose to live and to grow
Take and give and to move
Learn and love and to cry
Kill and die and to be
Paranoid and to lie
Hate and fear and to do
What it takes to move through
I choose to live and to lie
Kill and give and to die
Learn and love and to do
What it takes to step through
This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality
Embrace this moment, remember
We are eternal, all this pain is an illusion
Right In Two
Monkey killing monkey killing monkey over pieces of the ground
Silly monkeys, give them thumbs, they make a club and beat their brother down
How they’ve survived so misguided is a mystery
Repugnant is a creature who would squander the ability
To lift an eye to heaven, conscious of his fleeting time here
Reach out and beyond
Wake up, remember
We are born of one breath, one word
We are all one spark, eyes full of wonder
Some of TOOL’s lyrical themes ~ Living in the present moment, growing from experience, transcending traumas and addictions to become a more complete person, grappling with mortality and eternity, dealing in Mankind’s moral dualities and integrating your shadow self, awakening our consciousness to see each other human being as integral, unified components to the whole – the All of humanity as One singular collective, connected powerfully, indestructibly by something like love, etc. etc.
The psychological / spiritualistic “cliches” within TOOL’s music might be just that for many. But cliches are cliches for a reason! There is underlying truth within them. After the irony-poison is sucked away and one opens their mind to try to engage a sincere, dialectic understanding of any given ‘Truth’, in art or history or conversation, there is the raw, profound stuff of life within. That ‘stuff’, when coalesced into theory and praxis, is the life-wayfaring components of a potential, imaginative spirituality – of personal evolution, of belief in progress and self-understanding, of honest communication and relationship-building, of collective cooperation toward some kind of objective good greater than any one person, greater than the myths of yesteryear, greater than ‘the divine redemption of original sin,’ aiming towards a collective human flourishing in a moral world we can be proud of, where our spirit is something real if inexplicable, something eternal and meaningful. This form of spirituality – call it humanism, existentialism, TOOLism, whatever you want – is simply meaning manifested into our existence, our pain and suffering projected suddenly as progressive and not in vain, where a future world of life treated always as an end and not a means is possible, and is on its way through cooperative, creative actions we can observe in the here and now.
Cliches about art and creativity and human relationships as the core of life, such as TOOL centralizes into their music, all posit an originative spirituality that solaces the psyche and passionately dispels nihilism. (Fuck The Man, go find your friends and start a fuckin’ band! … god, if only…😩)
Every TOOL song asks more questions than they answer; they portray experiences and not declarations, or rote philosophy. But every TOOL song also engenders more belief – an expansion of consciousness – than doubt – its retraction – in the listener. And this positively differentiates them to my (third) eye, in all these ways as I am ranting about here.
More than just music, the mythos of TOOL inspires one to learn, of self and other, of One in the All.
Like some life-changing revelation conceived of in a sanguine moment of meditation, interpersonal euphoria, or within an altered state – soon to be forgotten when the high fades – TOOL songs, to me, are a way to return there once more, to the revelation, the feeling, the hope.
My favorite TOOL song is Lateralus. I think it’s their best song, the centerpiece of their best album.
It is not my favorite or what I subjectively consider to be their ‘best’ because of its instrumentation or its ingenious mathematical structuring, or even the lyrics in of themselves. Lateralus, as a singular song, represents the cornerstone of this strange spirituality I am suddenly proselytizing about. As much within the instrumentation as in the lyrics – this spirit of transcendence is present. In what they conceive to be the nature of the universe meeting with the nature of our consciousness – in this lyrical and compositional Fibonacci-borne ‘embracing of the random‘ – we are gifted an articulation in how we might go about following a new, more lateralized, way of looking at life. By wholeheartedly embracing the diffuse, chaotic random – call it the necessary suffering of life, the contradictions, the imperfections, the infinite possibilities – we are tasked with passionately reconciling it and ordering it into a satisfactory whole. By ‘swinging on the spiral‘, we find a better way and ‘may just go where no one’s been‘… And in so doing, in the arduous process of trying to make sense of and beneficently solve the randomness of existence, we are given a meaningful, if yet Sisyphean, task in life. To live this out ourselves over time – and to try our hand at communicating it to others via conversation and art and something like love – is the impassioned stone of our transient heaving upon the cyclical, circular, spiraling hill of our little existence.
Yeah. Something like that.
All that … that is why I love TOOL. That is why I believe in TOOL. And that’s why I’ll never stop listening to them.
Enough talk. Time to listen. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a TOOL song is probably worth a million.
Spiral out, keep going. 🌀 ~