Tool is a band that has a special place in every metal fan’s heart. Now, that place varies, depending on the fan—some people wear their respect for the band on their sleeves (quite literally in many cases), while others view Tool as just another pretentious “experimental” band, completely overrated, with not enough albums to match their huge popularity.
I will admit here that I am of the former. One of the first albums I ever bought was 10,000 Days. My first metal concert was a Tool show, way back in 2009. The shirt I bought at that show has been worn so much over the last seven years that there’s almost nothing left of it. I can’t even decide which album of theirs I like better. I am, unabashedly, a Tool fan.
And while I’m not too happy about the band’s lack of new material, I’ve still got to give props to Tool for not only still being a relevant band despite not having released anything in a decade, but also comporting themselves through the last 26 years with uncompromising artistic integrity. They do what they want, when they want, how they want to do it—something that a lot of artists with similar popularity do not have.
Today, we will cover the band’s discography, and learn how the band’s sound has progressed over the years. Let’s hop in, shall we?
Opiate (EP) (1992, Zoo Entertainment)
It’s nearly redundant to say that Tool is not your normal rock band, in sound, vision, and attitude, and Opiate is no different, but this is perhaps the closest the band ever gets to a “mainstream” sound. It’s also probably the heaviest sound the band has had in their catalog (with exceptions to parts of Ænima, perhaps). Tracks like “Sweat” have a bit more of the traditional verse-verse-chorus structure, and Maynard James Keenan’s vocals are probably at their most “rock;” he has more simple yells than the softer and clearer vocals he starts to display on later records.
However, Opiate is still pretty great. The instrumentation is pristine; despite the band’s inexperience at this point, Adam Jones, Danny Carey, and Paul D’Amour are incredibly tight, and one can feel the musical chemistry the band has as a cohesive unit.
And, let’s not forget: this EP grooves. It’s basically made to mosh to.
Undertow (1993, Zoo Entertainment)
The band’s debut album doesn’t deviate much from Opiate in terms of sound, but it does deviate nonetheless. Songs are stretched out just a little longer, and the ideas that Adam Jones comes up with on guitar are given more time to progress. Maynard gives us all he can with his vocals, whether it’s the tremolo-infused verses in “Intolerance” or the bluesy tinge his voice takes on “Prison Sex.” “4 Degrees” is a little bit of foreshadowing for the growing “mystical” sound the band explores more heavily on albums like Lateralus and 10,000 Days, what with the sitar-like effects Jones uses on the song’s beginning.
Undertow’s release almost immediately launched the band into kings of the metal underground, but not without controversy—this time being the depiction of nudes throughout the liner notes and some rather disturbing, Nine Inch Nails-esque photos of the band. (The band eventually changed the cover and liner notes for some releases, with a note included on why and where to mail to get the original cover.) No matter what, though, this much was obvious: Tool had arrived.
Ænima (1996, Zoo Entertainment)
I would argue that Ænima is where Tool really came into their own. Not that Undertow or Opiate were ripoffs—in fact, they were pretty original considering the other music being released at the same time—but the sound we traditionally associate to Tool really begins here. The addition of Justin Chancellor on bass (replacing original bassist Paul D’Amour) brings some fantastic grooves into the mix, lending to some awesome riffage on songs like “Forty-Six & 2.”
The title track “Ænema”—which actually won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1998—is, like Undertow’s “4 Degrees”, a harbinger for things to come in Tool’s future discography, both lyrically and musically. The song extensively utilizes hemiola (a change in emphasis in meter—best explained here) a significant beginning of compositional experimentation for the band, while the lyrics are heavily indebted to late comedian Bill Hicks’s “Arizona Bay,” which describes, among other things, a hope for the bloated and elitist Southern California to eventually break off from the mainland and fall into the ocean. (Hicks is also given a significant nod in the album’s liner notes, and is heavily sampled in the beginning of Ænima’s final track “Third Eye”)
Lateralus (2001, Volcano Entertainment)
While Undertow andÆnima featured beefy, heavy guitars and sounds, Tool stripped most of that away in Lateralus to make room for a softer, more progressive edge. The mystical sounds that some of Ænima‘s songs had are back, and in even denser amounts. “Aeon Blue Apocalypse” sounds like the opening hymn of some occult ritual, and “Schism” is like the main sermon of the same ritual.
Lateralus is also a progression of the musical complexity that is now synonymous with Tool’s music. “Schism” has an incredible amount of metrical change, using 5/4, 5/8, 7/8, 6/8, and 2/4 time signatures throughout its six minutes, and even the album’s title track finds Keenan singing lyrics that syllabically correlate to a Fibonacci sequence.
Interesting also is the so-called “Holy Gift:” a reassembling of the album’s tracks by fans to follow the Fibonacci sequence. (While I personally don’t see much of a difference, it’s nonetheless an interesting idea, and definitely worth checking out if you’re so inclined.)
10,000 Days (2006, Volcano Entertainment)
While the name of the album—the time (10,000 days) that it takes for Saturn to orbit the Sun—is interesting, Tool’s latest output is pretty much another version of Lateralus. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad album, though; tracks like “The Pot” and “Jambi” are incredibly catchy and interesting to listen to. Maynard’s vocals—particularly in “The Pot”—are clearer than ever, and spookier/more mystical than ever.
What brings this album together, though, is the art it comes with. While art direction in the past is usually credited to guitarist Adam Jones (and, indeed, he does have an art direction credit in 10,000 Days), psychedelic painter Alex Grey had a significant part to play in the visual style of this album, using his signature approach that often combines spirituality and technical anatomy in interesting ways. (Grey also provided art for Lateralus, though his input was notably less.) This collaboration provides what might be the coolest album packaging to date, with stereoscopic lenses embedded into the packaging, allowing fans to view the album’s art in 3D.
At this point, it’d be naive to say that Tool is going to release another album this year. It would be fantastic for that to happen, but considering that it’s been almost a decade since 10,000 Days, it’s really impossible to tell. Could the band come through with their own Chinese Democracy (though, hopefully not as shitty)? Maybe. For the mean time, though, we can enjoy what Tool has released so far—albums that consistently make you think and wonder with each listen.