Louder Features: A Beginner’s Guide to Tool
Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
This year saw the re-emergence of one of alternative music’s most enigmatic bands to mainstream discourse. Tool have sold over 13 million records in the US alone, have three Grammy Awards to their name and are widely cited by numerous bands a primary influence; and yet are largely unknown outside of the rock and metal world, as well as being completely off the radar of many dedicated fans of heavy music altogether. They are a band who defy expectations and categorisation, as a predominately progressive metal outfit who were nevertheless far more culturally identified with the grunge and alternative rock movement of the early 90’s when the band first made its name. But with the release of Tool’s first studio album for 13 years, 'Fear Inoculum', the addition of the band’s discography to popular streaming platforms and the success of their summer headline slot at Download Festival; there has never been a better time to get to know Tool, so here is your handy beginner’s guide: Tool originally formed in 1990 in Los Angeles, California with a line-up consisting of drummer Danny Carey, bassist Paul D’Armour, guitarist Adam Jones and vocalist Maynard James Keenan (though none of them are actually LA natives). Not originally known to each other, the members met through a series of mutual friends, including Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, who had been in a band with Jones called Electric Sheep in their hometown of Libertyville, Illinois (and indeed, Keenan was originally considered for Rage Against The Machine’s vocalist before Zach De La Rocha got the gig). Thus, four misfits in California formed Tool, and after a couple of years released their first EP Opiate through Zoo Entertainment in March 1992, before following that up a year later with their first LP Undertow. Over the next 15 years until their hiatus, Tool became a force to be reckoned with in alternative music with whom few could compare. They experienced just the one line-up change during this time with Justin Chancellor joining as the band’s bassist in September 1995.
Defying easy genre classification, they established an incredibly dedicated fanbase and received an enormous amount of notoriety and controversy throughout their career. Each member is generally considered a master of his craft within the musical community. Carey is well regarded among drummers for his wide use jazz-inspired techniques in a metal setting; Chancellor is instantly recognisable with his signature bass riffs which allowed the band to indulge further in its proggiest direction; Jones is well-known among guitar enthusiasts for his minimalistic techniques; and Keenan is known for his deeply emotive vocal style, as well as being the type of enigmatic frontman that fans adore (despite Keenan himself repeatedly shunning this attention). Tool also became known for taking their time between album releases; partly because of the complex nature of their songs, partly because of side projects (most notably Keenan’s involvement with A Perfect Circle and Puscifer) and because of various legal disputes with record labels in which the band became embattled. They managed just three releases between the debut LP and their 2008 hiatus (Ænima in 1996, Lateralus in 2001 and 10,000 Days in 2006), though these are nothing compared with the 13 years it then took to put out Fear Inoculum.
What makes fans able to forgive Tool for the lengthy waits between albums is the quality that they bring with each release. Tool’s sound is something of an enigma, often making it easier to simply play a song than describe what they sound like, though this approach runs into the difficulty of finding a track that encapsulates the variety of what Tool can come up with. Though most often categorised as ‘progressive metal’, it is a mistake to think of them in the same vain as the likes of Dream Theater who rose to prominence at around the same time. Though Tool do have the long songs (Fear Inoculum), odd time signatures (Schism) and polyrhythms (Forty-Six & 2) which encapsulate so much of that time of music, they tend to eschew the lengthy solos and the slow builds (albeit these are far more common in their later albums) for a punchier edge to their music which is a large part of the reason why culturally they have often found themselves talked about as more a part of the alt-rock movement of the early 90’s when they first found fame.
Tool are as diverse lyrically and thematically as they are musically. Exploring themes such as addiction (Sober), philosophy (Third Eye), social commentary (Vicarious) and abuse (Prison Sex). The last example is one of many examples of where the band has encountered censorship controversies throughout their history for their use of explicit themes and titles, perhaps the most well-known of which being when MTV refused to use the real title of one of their best known singles ‘Stinkfist’ when they showed the video on their channel (opting instead to refer to it as ‘Track #1’). The music videos themselves have also gained iconic status thanks to guitarist Adam Jones who uses his background in visual arts to create bizarre stop-motion animation videos. The visual arts medium is also prevalent in their live shows where Keenan operates in shadows from a small platform next to Carey’s drums with Jones and Chancellor at either end of the stage so that attention can be focused not on them, but on the light shows and giant screen behind them which showcases Jones’ specially crafted artistic videos alongside the music. It’s safe to say therefore, that there is no-one quite like Tool. Ask anyone who witnessed their amazing comeback performance at Download this year, and they will tell you that this is band you need in your life. So now you know where to start, your Tool experience awaits! Enjoy exploring their back catalogue, and see if you can find that hidden track of theirs...
'Fear Inoculum' is out now via Tool Dissectional, Volcano Entertainment, and RCA Records.
Tool are currently out on a run of US shows- dates and remaining tickets can be found here.