Tool are an art-metal band, although neither half of that descriptor quite approximates the group’s sound. Combining challenging musical textures with metal’s ferocious gloom-and-doom mindset, Tool became one of the most celebrated hard rock bands of the last two decades, famous as much for their cutting-edge videos as they were for their powerfully introspective lyrics and the coiled menace of their songs. Considering the extensive amount of time between their albums, each new Tool release is understandably treated as a major event by the group’s large fan base.
Tool formed in Los Angeles in 1991. Frontman Maynard James Keenan teamed up with guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Paul D’Amour and soon got to work on an EP, Opiate. Released in 1992, Opiate hinted at the mammoth vitriol and self-loathing of Tool’s future albums, especially on tracks like “Cold and Ugly.” But Opiate’s seven songs were just a warm-up for the darkness to come.
A Dark Debut:
suggested that Tool were "just" a metal band, their first full-length record, 1993's Undertow
, argued that they were determined to push the genre into new directions. The hits "Sober" and "Prison Sex" were unafraid to confront difficult topics -- such as child abuse -- and Keenan's raging, vaguely inhuman singing style articulated pain in unsettling ways. Aiding the band's reputation were a series of stop-motion videos overseen by guitarist Adam Jones that captured the tension within the songs. Undertow
went platinum in less than a year, making them one of the most prominent new metal bands of the '90s.
Getting Weirder and More Ambitious:
Depending on your perspective, Tool's next album, 1996's Aenima, was either where the group went off the deep end or where they secured their place as a trailblazing art-rock group. Exploring labyrinthine arrangements, Aenima still managed to grab radio listeners with the propulsive single "Stinkfist." Bolstered by new bassist Justin Chancellor, who replaced Paul D'Amour, Tool envisioned Aenima as a complete listening experience that included instrumental segues between tracks. Shockingly, the band's aspirations didn't hurt Aenima commercial prospects -- in fact, it remains Tool's bestselling record.
A Long Wait Before the Next Album:
Before Tool released their next record, Keenan took some time off to focus on another project, A Perfect Circle. But in 2001, Tool finally returned with Lateralus, an even more complicated and engrossing record than Aenima. With seven of the album's 13 tracks around seven minutes or longer, Lateralus stood in stark opposition to the melodic nu-metal that was popular at the time, challenging audiences while still remaining a potent act on the rock charts. The single "Schism" was emblematic of Tool's winning strategy -- take an extraordinarily intricate arrangement and somehow still make it accessible to the masses.
Still Going Strong:
Keenan worked on two more albums with A Perfect Circle before reconvening Tool for 2006’s 10,000 Days. If it didn’t quite break any new ground, 10,000 Days simply reiterated all of the band’s old strengths, and with “The Pot” and “Vicarious” they demonstrated that they could keep transfixing mainstream and modern-rock audiences. Some would forever dismiss Tool as a bunch of pretentious art-metal weirdoes, but their reputation as one of the most critically respected hard rock groups is without question.
Danny Carey - drums
Justin Chancellor - bass
Maynard James Keenan - vocals
Adam Jones - guitar
Essential Tool Album:Undertow
It may be impossible to describe the impact that Undertow
had at the time of its release in 1993. Searching, angry, liberating and scary, Tool's full-length debut emerged during a period in rock music when Seattle bands like Nirvana
and Pearl Jam
were expressing alienation through grunge riffs, inspiring lots of copycat artists. Undertow
expressed alienation, too, but the album's imposing waves of misery and dread seemed to come from an entirely different planet than grunge, providing a startling counterpoint to the trendy sounds of the era. Maynard James Keenan kicked off the album with these words: "I don't want to be hostile/I don't want to be dismal/And I don't want to rot in an apathetic existence." Over the length of Tool's career, he's been plenty hostile and dismal, but his artistic drive has been anything but apathetic.
(EP) (1992) Undertow
(2001) 10,000 Days