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The Top 20 Tool Tracks

August 30, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter

It’s Tool time!

Today is the day. Thirteen years have passed since the release of the opinion splitting 10,000 Days, but at long last the world’s most fascinating, illusive, emotional vulnerable and mind bogglingly complex prog-metal band are back with a brand new album.

Who knows what Fear Inoculum will have in store for us, but one thing is certain, something must have lit a fire under Maynard James Keenan to drag him away from the vineyard. (Stranger still, he’s been spotted front and center stage at Download Festival commanding crowds like, you know, a proper inhibition-free rock and roll star)

So let’s celebrate the return, not just of Maynard, but Adam Jones, Danny Carey and Justin Chancellor by counting down Tool’s top 20 tracks (Disclaimer: we’ll be excluding “Fear Inoculum” until we’ve had the chance to hear it in its proper context).

20. Vicarious (2006)

10,000 Days was a huge disappointment for me personally. I don’t think it’s a bad record by any means, but I vividly remember racing to the record store with my best mates in tow the second my lectures finished to buy the brand new Tool album. We dropped into a pub on the way back (The Cherry Tree, if you were wondering) and the barman, so excited to see the album in the flesh, asked if he could put it on the soundsystem (after playing with the whacky glasses and examining the packaging). Suffice to say it didn’t float the punters’ boat that day, in fact it rather depressed the once excitable landlord.

This is not intended to be a burial of album, nor am I one of those people that complains that 10,000 Days sounds like A Perfect Circle infestation of Tool’s core sound: it is simply my opportunity to hold my hands up and say I have a complex relationship with this record.

Luckily, whatever its flaws (and it is beloved by many), 10,000 Days certainly starts with one hell of a slow-burning bang. The percussion on “Vicarious” has this wonderful tribal quality and the guitar work stabs and bludgeons as if played by Norman Bates rather than Adam Jones.  Maynard, for his part, rages against the unholy influence of modern media (“stare like a junkie into the TV”). The control of pace proves particularly powerful as the rhythm saunters and scurries with sardonic precision.

19. Eulogy (1996)

“He had a lot to say, he had a lot of nothing to say”. I can’t lie, for what is supposed to be a savage assault on a person Tool have little respect for (likely L. Ron Hubbard), that’s quite the epitaph. I wouldn’t mind seeing that gem on my gravestone. In all seriousness, this assault on those would seek to mislead the easily led (or simply those who are desperate and in need) is as beautiful as it is vindictive. Adam Jones is in fine fettle, sliding and chugging seamless through a host of dynamically contrasting tonal moods with a natural elegance not often found in metal circles.

18. Opiate (1992)

“Opiate” is Tool’s blistering assault on unthinking theism in all its forms. Of course, the track is more than just an anti-religious screed, it is a rallying cry against unquestioning allegiance and the wilful manipulation of others in the name of faith: “Choices always were a problem for you/What you need is someone strong to guide you”. Sure, it’s condescending, but “Opiate” is designed to make people sit up and snap out of it.

17. The Grudge (1996)

“Just let it go”, it never really helps does it? Whether you’re the one offering those words of wisdom or you find yourself on the receiving end, everyone knows that it is far easier said than done. “The Grudge” snaps Tool’s streak of thrill-a-minute album openers with a thoughtful, lurching assault on our refusal to grow and move on (“Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity”). Boldly, Tool reflect this stubbornness in the music itself and, as such, “The Grudge” is strangely consistent for a Tool arrangement – luckily, the virtuosity of Maynard and Carey more than compensates for the lack of gear changes.

16. Swamp Song (1993)

“You’re dancing in quicksand”. “Swamp Song” is often viewed as a cathartic lashing out at an unthinking and stubborn friend who is ruining their own and other’s lives, but in the context of Undertow it is a masterful act of self-flagellation. The album is riddled with tales of addiction and abuse, “Swamp Song” is the counter balance, a chance to scream at the insanity of it all.  “The bog is thick and easy to get lost in, ‘cause you’re a stupid, belligerent fucker”.

15. Third Eye (1996)

Tool really had to deliver on this one. Not only was Ænima’s 14 minute closer the band’s boldest and unashamedly proggy statement up to that point, it was also a defence of one of the band’s core philosophies: psychedelic drugs offer a key to artistry (and self destruction). Opening with a clip of comedian Bill Hicks in his pomp, “Third Eye” flows, soars and lulls seductively: offering torment and tedium alongside mind-bending beauty and muscular musicality. In “Third Eye” Tool captured the terrifying and enlivening experience of narcotic dependence perfectly.

14. Bottom (1993)

It kind of blows my mind that this is an Adam Jones riff, every time “Bottom” kicks in I can’t help but think that a KISS anthem has invaded my Tool record – and I absolutely love the sensation. Of course Maynard, Henry Rollins and a gut wrenching seven-minute runtime soon does away with even the slightest suggestion of Tool releasing a pop-rock banger. In fact, by the three minute mark, the band are dwelling in the depths and experimenting with a series of guitar sounds that verge on the alien and abstract.

Now it must be said that the spoken word section varies from the cringeworthy (“In order to survive you, I must first survive myself”) to the bracingly vulnerable (“My soul must be iron, cause my fear is naked. I’m naked and fearless and my fear is naked”). It is certain to put some listeners off, but it builds to an explosive crescendo with Maynard screaming that he’s “dead inside” and that “hatred keeps him alive” as the scorching central riff returns to for one last heroic gallop.

13. H. (1996)

It’s so tempting to view Ænima as an expansive record. The moment when Tool melted minds and embraced infinite horizons – and that’s undeniably true – but it also saw the band retreat from the extremes towards something more humane. On “H.” Maynard confronts the anxiety of fatherhood as he is forced to encounter the demons of his own childhood. He was the victim of abuse and now he is a father – his pain is simultaneously softened by a newer (more positive) experience and also brought flooding back to the forefront of his mind. How can he possibly silence the ache of old as he raises a young son? Instrumentally Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor and Danny Carey show masterful restraint, allowing their vocalist to shine as they stew before unleashing a ferocious maelstrom designed to reflect the conflict and torment playing out in Maynard’s psyche.

12. Wings For Marie/10,000 Days (2006)

10,000 Days is a tribute to Maynard’s mother, Judith Marie Gridley, who was left paralysed following a brain aneurysm in his youth and went on to live for another 27 years (aka 10,000 Days). The album is a document to her suffering, strength and faith – a faith that her son does not share. It is fitting then, that the album’s undoubted high is a two part-suite where Maynard pays tribute to his mother’s mental and emotional fortitude. Reflecting in the wake of such tragedy, Maynard wonder: “Yet it was you who prayed for me. So what have I done, to be a son to an angel?”

The play of words is heart-breaking – what has he done to be worthy of such a wonderful mother and, considering their shared suffering, what has he done to be left alone now, with an angel for a mother. The track’s second half is full of venom in the face of sycophants and glad handers wishing him well and attempting to share his pain, but the vitriol soon subsides.

Both soulfully subdued pieces start with angry, even petulant rejection and admonishment, but end in acceptance.

“Wings For Marie” is an incredible personal and private offering, but in its final bridge it offers a profound and truly universal reflection on motherhood:

“You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence: Judith Marie, unconditional one”.

11. Stinkfist (1996)

“Intolerence” had set an incredibly high standard for album openers, so sophomore effort Ænima had open with one hell of a bang: enter “Stinkfist”. Tool hadn’t yet departed into a universe of their own making, but “Stinkfist’s” glorious rhythms, tempo changes and slippery songwriting structure marked a definitive break with their 90s contemporaries. “I’m not a burden anyone should bear”. Maynard’s writing was gaining a subtle soothing depth, just as the band were discovering that long winding diminuendos could be just as effective as the most visceral and cathartic crescendos.

10. Pushit (1996)

Tool are wilfully over the top. Their music is often long, intricate and confounding. Equally, Maynard’s lyrics can be brutal, preposterous and extreme. But they are not a caricature. At their best, the band are capable of tackling the most harrowing of subject matter with a haunting sensitivity. “Pushit” deals with domestic abuse, the type that ravaged Maynard’s childhood and, far from being an outpouring or raw rage or an excuse for a visceral instrumental work out, the track instead reflects on the way the abuser torments and co-opts his victims. What’s remarkable is that “Pushit” can go from its iconic opening line (“Remember I will always love you, as I claw your fucking throat away”) to its strangely, but believable subdued revelation: “I’m alive when you’re touching me, alive when you’re shoving me down/But I’d trade it all, for just a little peace of mind”.

In another band’s hands “Pushit” could have been a explosive revenge fantasy – a work of pure fetishization – instead, Tool created a nuanced reflection of being wholeheartedly in love with a monster.

9. Intolerance (1993)

“Intolerance”, the opening track on Tool’s debut album and the band’s defacto introduction to the world at large, was, if anything, surprisingly typical of its era. It signposted a move away from grunge and towards the outsider mindset that would ultimately define the 90s alternative movement. “Intolerance” could sit comfortable on shelves between Soundgarden and Prong (at times it even verges on driving rock), but that’s not to say the track is run of the mill, far from it. Tool’s seething rage and rich rhythmic discipline shines through, “Intolerance” might be a conventional rock song, but it’s not just any rock song. It’s a glorious psychological snapping in the face of systemic injustice.

8. Forty Six & 2 (1996)

Jungian philosophy? Sacred geometry? Chromosomal evolution? Honestly, who on earth cares? The brilliance of “Forty Six & 2” is entirely lost if you focus on its cryptic title, instead just lie back and get swept away with the tide. This is Tool at their tightest. The grooves are luscious and their palette remains refreshingly raw – so Just give in to the hypnotic swirls already.

7. Undertow (1993)

The power of “Undertow” lies in its seduction. The verse is pure allure. Maynard doesn’t moralize; instead he lays out the beckoning allure of drug addiction. This is a siren call whose grip is only broken by the incredible violence of the chorus. Tool scream and thrash to escape the “Undertow”, which proves a fitting metaphor, because for many addicts addiction isn’t harrowing, it’s a delight that subsumes their entire existence ever so subtly – like being dragged out to sea by powerful currents that can so easily pass undetected (control is merely an illusion).

6. Schism (2001)

Tool can chop it up with the best of them. Their time changes are the stuff of legend (check out Carey’s phenomenal drumming on “Rosetta Stoned”), but they don’t make martyrs of themselves in the name of needless complexity. “Schism” showcases the band’s ability to revel in the beauty of simplicity. Having stumbled upon gorgeously downcast riff and a simple, but effective hook, the band let “Schism” breathe, mutating slowly and sensually. The result is one of alternative rocks great mood pieces, an ode to atmosphere, space and subtlety.

5. Sober (1993)

We tend to think of Tool as such a severe musical force that it’s easy to forget that the track that brought them to global attention was actually built on an instrumental perfect pitched for sentimental sports films and grand action squences. That dynamic slow building, high soaring, guitar driven intro was made for the widest of screens. Of course Tool have no interest in pandering rock and all the portentous build up is in the service of a deeply personal tragedy. “Sober” tells the tale of a musician who can only function under the influence and who eventually comes face to face with the haunting realisation that he might be utterly worthless without his alcoholic/narcotic crutch.

4. Laterlus (2001)

This should be an abject failure. The links between music and math have been overstated to a farcical degree and Tool’s replication of the Fibonacci Sequence in music should be an exercise in pendency, but of course its anything but. In fact, what should be a masterbatory time-signature-shifting flex proves to be a moving and tenderly observed ode to a cripplingly over-analytical mind. “Laterlus” is a song for those of us who simply cannot get of our own heads. In this light, Maynard’s personal reflections fit perfectly alongside the band’s rigorous and obsessive strictures. On paper “Laterlus” should be a work to be admired rather than embraced, but the opposite of true. Tool seek escape and freedom, but are trapped by the rigors of logic – and there’s something deeply touching in that sentiment.

3. Prison Sex (1993)

In 1993 “Prison Sex” was a revelation. Not only because of its brutalistic imagery (a prisoner finding a subconscious escape as he’s sodomised, embracing a contorted slave master logic), but because it showed the world you could combine Eddie Vedder’s po-faced severity with a selection of rich and deliciously dark bass grooves. “Prison Sex” was depraved and depressing, but it was also seductive as it creeped and crashed about. By the time Maynard screams, ”I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this shit, blood and cum on my hands”, “Prison Sex” had cemented itself as a macabre masterpiece within the modern rock cannon.

2. Ænima (1996)

Tool are a rollicking, rip snorting rock and roll band. It’s worth saying out loud because discussions of their music tends to be so wonky, interpretative and technically obsessed that we forget to mention just how savagely they rock. “Ænima” is a blistering broadside on L.A. culture from the top down. No one is safe. From insecure actresses and trust-fund-babies to fickle metal fans and fake gangsta wannabes, artifice in all its forms  is scrutinized by Manyard’s eye and savaged by his tongue. The venom is delicious,  as is the glorious – and utterly Californian – riff that introduces this snarling rejection of a vapid follow-first culture: “here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A./The only way to fix it is to flush it all away”.

Say what you like, he certainly doesn’t mince his words.

1. Parabol/Parabola (2001)

Tool’s rejection of organised religion and distrust of blind faith on “Opiate” should not be taken as a rejection of spirituality. In fact, like many of those who reject scripture, Tool choose to embrace the beauty and complexity of life itself. The subdued “Parabol” and the rip-roaring “Parabola” are both celebrations of the moment (of existence and the corporea)l – which is something of a shock, considering how many truly horrifying episodes Maynard has had to endure in his relatively short life. This miracle of life and existence is fleshed out, principally, by Danny Carey’s mind bogglingly brilliant percussion. It’s one thing to make drumming sound intricate and immense, it’s another to make the crash and smash of the kit sound so beautiful and strangely uplifting.

“Celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing”. No artist has earned the right to belt out those words more fervently than Maynard James Keenan.”Parabol”/”Parabola” is his glorious moment of release and the philosophical underpinnings of his psychological survival.

article topics :

Tool, David Hayter