I love Tool. I listen to them constantly, at top volume. During particularly awesome parts of certain songs, I pump my fist in the air. In the solitude of my workplace, I sing along (when I can figure out what the guy is saying).
Man, they are a great band.
Yet when I tell otherwise intelligent, music-loving folk how much I love Tool, I’m invariably faced with a sickened, disbelieving sneer, which is closely followed by, “You’re not serious, right? Tool suck.”
I am serious. They do not suck; they are awesome. Maybe I can’t convince you to like Tool. The music is generally spooky, pummeling, angry, and intense. If that’s not the kind of stuff you have a tolerance for, it probably won’t interest you. So let’s set aside questions of taste. I assert that culturally, Tool are interesting as hell: They have done everything that a band should not do if it wants to become huge, but they’ve become huge anyway.
Tool’s first record came out in those heady days of the early ’90s. (By the way, all dates and figures in this article are both  made up and  totally accurate.) At the time, they seemed like nothing more than another flavor of the month, a major-label-backed conglomeration of metal/grunge/hard rock/Ministry-style industrial badassity, tailor-made for the burgeoning tattoo, goatee, and piercing set. In retrospect, this was the foundation of the loathsome “nu-metal” genre, which currently provides us all with a brand of excrement that—ah, it’s too depressing to get into it. I can see why people would blame Tool for that. I can see why their name would conjure a sneer. But look, it’s over a decade later. They have become one of the biggest rock acts on the planet. Every album they put out still goes platinum. And their music has become more complicated, difficult, and downright weirder with each record. It seems like the bigger they get, the more they use that power to do exactly what they want, regardless of any commercial factors.
Take their first “hit” song, 1993’s “Sober”: mumbled, nearly inaudible lyrics. Empty, creepy music that explodes every once in a while. Pretty good, actually. But what flawless marketing strategy was deployed to promote the thing? The band’s guitarist made a Brothers Quay–inspired stop-motion video. It looked about as much like a proper rock video as a sock looks like a duck. It had no footage of the band. In fact, Tool have generally stayed away from images of themselves, maintaining a steely and purposeful distance from the personality cult. Everyone who pays attention pretty much knows what the White Stripes or OutKast look like. But I’m a fan, and I doubt that I could pick any one of the members of Tool out of a crowd. Isn’t cultivating anonymity a rotten idea if you want to get famous? Here’s another idea: Write a song that features the words fuck and shit no less than 20 times over the course of six and a half minutes. Now release the profanity-filled track as a single (“Aenima,” from the 1996 record of the same name). Yet that song became ubiquitous on commercial radio. How? I have no earthly idea.
Oh yeah—why not make the packaging on each record increasingly expensive and elaborate, to the degree that the cost per unit must surely be 10 times higher than normal? That’s a sure way to increase your profit margin. (For those of you who have not seen the new Tool CD, 10,000 Days, well, you’re probably not going to: It’s so goofy and unwieldy that many record stores can’t even put it out on the floor. I will lay good money that this is the single most expensive, elaborate CD package ever released by a major band.) I mean, why do this? The “kids” would buy the damn thing if it came wrapped in a peed-on Kinko’s file folder.
Finally, to ensure your success, you’ll only want to release an album every four years or so.
I list all this to illustrate the fact that 90 percent of what these guys do flies directly in the face of common music industry practices of how to sell tons of product. Why would they do this? The fact that a band this persnickety, contrary, and uncompromising has weaseled its way into the mainstream, making virtually zero concessions to “the biz” while managing to sell millions of records in a market filled with much “easier” and more palatable music is amazing, any way you cut it.
Take another band lauded as uncompromising, expansive artists who fearlessly follow their particular muse wherever it might take them, economics and sales be damned: Radiohead. Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much agree with that assessment; what’s interesting to me is that to the intelligent, adult music lover–nerd, Radiohead are viewed as torchbearers, while Tool (who behave in the exact same way) are viewed as subliterate kid metal for morons. Huh?
Like Radiohead, Tool have carved out their own language, and with each new recording they seem to expand upon that language, just like any talented band does. Also, like Radiohead, they have transcended whatever genre label they are tagged with—they aren’t quite “metal,” “prog” doesn’t cut the mustard, “hard rock” is too vague, and “pop” is just plain wrong, although all those elements are in the mix. The basic Tool sound consists of complicated, semi-metallic guitar; an über-complex rhythm section; and a million parts and time signatures—but within that framework, each song moves forward, pushing against the one before it. ( 10,000 Days contains a song for singer Maynard James Keenan’s mother that is—actually, it’s very sweet and touching. I’m not kidding.) If pressed into a corner, I wouldn’t even call these things “songs” anymore. I hate this word, but they seem more like “compositions”—pieces of music where (over the course of eight or so minutes) phrases, themes, melodies, riffs, and structures all look for some kind of resolution. They are meticulously crafted; every note, gulp (how Maynard wrestles melodies and hooks out of such a crazy-assed structure is absolutely beyond me), and double-kick drum seems carved out of stone, with no individual personality straying from the job of making it work. And I’ll be damned if they don’t make it work more often than not.
They rock like hell. And if you cannot enjoy the simple, joyous act of rocking like hell, you will not like them. But this is a band that moves by its own lights, and whether or not you care to rock with them probably won’t make a damn bit of difference. It hasn’t so far. A lot of bands sound like Tool these days, but nobody sounds more like Tool than they do.
It’s funny, though. I wonder if that’s the same sneer that was on faces when another hugely successful band was making astounding records with ridiculous packaging and 10-minute songs that got played all over the FM dial—a band that the rock intelligentsia thought was utter shit but all the kids loved. Now, I ain’t saying that Tool are the Led Zeppelin of the aughties. Nobody is Led Zeppelin; that’s for sure. They were a great band.
But nobody elseis Tool, right now, and in my humble opinion, that’s for sure as well.
Zak Sally is formerly of the band Low, which, to put it mildly, sound nothing whatsoever like Tool. Tool play Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey, on October 6 and Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York, October 7.