Both ride-or-die devotees and snarky detractors are celebrating the release of Fear Inoculum, the first new album by Tool in 13 years. From their origins in the early-’90s alt-rock scene that earned them the tag of “art metal” to their decidedly more sophisticated—and sometimes impenetrable—progressive-rock redesign, Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor and Danny Carey have enjoyed a career solely based on whatever chemistry was going on when the four of them walked into their rehearsal space.
We mention both sides of the Tool argument because it’s not that often that listeners’ attitudes toward them go straight down the middle. How such a polarizing band have been able to exist for decades is based on their attitude of doing what they want, when they want, from release dates to the embracing of technology.
There are a million bands whose fans will tell you how hard they can “rock out, dude,” an ability that’s about as special as remembering the steps of basic personal hygiene. Most Tool fans come to their favorite group for the journey and the sonic texture, from Keenan’s vocals to the shapeshifting vistas his band members lay out. So get your psychic passports out as we revisit some of these places.
6. Opiate (1992)
CHECK OUT: “Part Of Me”
The band’s first release, a six-song mini-LP, feels like a snapshot of the time period, a Venn diagram of Jane’s Addiction’s psychedelic metal and Helmet’s riff-consciousness circa Strap It On. The big discovery is Keenan’s vocal prowess, which is loud, proud and clear with no fear, devoid of both Cobain-esque roughness or de la Rocha-ish yell lectures. Not something to be derided, but a launch point for a group nobody 300 miles outside of L.A. city limits were expected to worship anytime soon.
5. Undertow (1993)
CHECK OUT: “Prison Sex”
The band’s first full-length release appealed to listeners who somehow made the shift of replacing their dead cassette copies of Diary Of A Madman and Appetite For Destruction with Louder Than Love and Nevermind. Much of Undertow doesn’t feel like metal (“Bottom” is still quite cool), but the band are starting a strain of weighty rock music devoid of the cultural/commercial signifiers at the time.
4. 10,000 Days (2006)
CHECK OUT: “The Pot”
The record that showed up 10 years after the release of the game-changing Ænima doesn’t adequately convey the head-swiveling characteristics of that album nor does it take you to weird phrenological spaces the way Lateralus does. There are some respites here worthy of respect (“Wings For Marie (Pt. 1)”) and some drivers (“The Pot,” “Rosetta Stoned”), but the album doesn’t have the captivating resonance that has marked the mind-movie aspects of Tool’s later output.
3. Ænima (1996)
CHECK OUT: “Stinkfist”
Lots of changes here, with Chancellor replacing Paul D’Amour on bass and the band collectively delivering far more menace than anything they previously committed to tape. Most fans would put this at the top of the list because of its mix of average length rave-ups (“Stinkfist,” “Hooker With A Penis”), full-blown sonic adventures (the 13-minute-plus paen to higher consciousness, “Third Eye”) and weird asides (“Message To Harry Manback,” “Die Eier Von Satan”).
Assuming you actually know somebody completely unfamiliar with Tool, Ænima remains the essential gateway drug, encapsulating where they’ve been and where they would go next. Hardline: If you own any of Tool’s later records and not this one, you’re doing it all wrong, and there’s at least a million fans who will tell you that.
2. Lateralus (2001)
CHECK OUT: “Ticks & Leeches”
If Ænima was the bridge that allowed the band to leave alt-rock convention to explore longer songs, the follow-up was truly the next destination. Much like John Travolta slamming that syringe into Uma Thurman’s heart in Pulp Fiction, Lateralus gives the entire progressive-rock genre the rescue it has needed since its late ’70s slide.
The sonic shifts of “The Grudge” (with Keenan’s first words, “Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity/Calculate what we will or will not tolerate” sounding like an articulated battle plan) was what we needed to hear on commercial radio. The 11-minute “Reflection” could’ve been born out of prolonged exposure to Japan co-founder David Sylvian’s later works, while “Ticks & Leeches” is both misanthropic intention and (quite possibly) a metalcore vocal manual. And if you can’t feel the catatonic tension of the former Area 51 employee getting caught in a tractor beam on the closing “Faaip De Oiad,” you must be part of the conspiracy.
1. Fear Inoculum (2019)
CHECK OUT: “7empest”
Here we are in 2019 wondering what the hell is going to happen to us as a nation, as a civilization, possibly as a species. By giving less of a shit about calendars than most of us, Tool were able to create an album that maintains their brooding darkness in a way that makes many of us feel like we’re trapped in one of their songs.
With Pink Floyd retired to the gilded palace of history and King Crimson defining “entertainment” as nine guys soloing after each other constantly, Tool have proven themselves to be leaders in the continued evolution of progressive rock. Every other person typing their praises this month is taken by the majesty that is “7empest” (and rightfully so), but it’s moments like the leadoff title track that embrace motifs and textures that wouldn’t be out of place on albums by such mainstays as Dead Can Dance or Coil. Anybody who can amplify the real human condition to a world splashing around in a pop sewer is something to hold close to your heart.
(Oh yeah, one more thing: If this were a Top 10 list of individual tracks, the 11-minute “L.A.M.C.” from Salival, the 2000 CD/DVD set companion of stray tracks and live versions, would be on here.)