Tool: The Most Impressive and Interesting Band of the Modern Era

An essay...

It’s too often been said that modern day music lacks a lot of profound and interesting listening available. The likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and countless other “sell-outpop stars have, as some might see it, ruined the music industry and destroyed music as an art form. For the most part I would totally agree, of course there are exceptions to everything. Most commonly, in this era of art, a band with such amazing talent and undeniable integrity remains unfound or disregarded for the unpopular genre of music that they choose to play. One such band is Tool, who has – certainly more often than not – been the target of great injustice. The band is more than just some “hardcore heavy metal band”, a preconception that likely originated from their earlier albums. But as will be explained later, even their earlier releases were really quite innovative for their time. Nevertheless, this is still even a minor reference to their almost indescribable talent. Extraordinary music usually comes from extraordinary musicians, and this is still true with Tool; each member has their own amazing abilities as composers. They write music that can even sometimes be called “beautiful”, but also that which would impress even the most musically inclined. Although more than just the music itself, they put into their songs lyrical allusions and philosophies that can be so rewarding to those who are paying attention and can learn to appreciate them. And even beyond the music all together, the artwork of much-respected modern artists lines their album covers, promotional material, and even the stage on which they perform for sold out venues. They are one of the most all around remarkable bands of modern times, but simply aren’t given the credit that they deserve.

Tool have definitely had an impact on many people (musically and emotionally), and certainly not just on fans and average listeners. In an interview with Robert Fripp, guitarist for 70’s progressive rock band King Crimson (KC), he denied Tool’s much assumed influence from his band, but did say “Tool are more comfortable being Tool than King Crimson is comfortable being King Crimson.” This really says a lot coming from the man who has been working with such a worldly influential band such as King Crimson for more than three decades and has worked with such incredible artists such as Brian Eno and Andy Summers, not to mention the members KC members Trey Gunn and Adrian Belew who have fame in their own right. Tool hasn’t been along for quite thirty years, but they have seen relatively more experience in the music industry than most modern artists. With their first album (rather, an E.P.), ‘Opiate’ (which did take it’s name from the famous Karl Marx quote) released in April of 1992, they slowly began to release albums over the years: ‘Undertow’ in April of 1993, ‘Ænima’ in October of 1996, ‘Salival’ in December of 2000, and their latest release ‘Lateralus’ in May of 2001. By the time of their latest release they had been performing up to 88-city tours of sold out stadiums and venues, and are still in the process of recording yet another album as of summer of 2004.
More than just the band as a whole, each of the members has their own further musical background as well. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan, during his break with Tool, found himself doing equally large tours with the new and highly publicized band, A Perfect Circle, who’s first release came out in 2000, followed by yet another release only three years later. As well, in 2003, released was the soundtrack for the box-office hit movie Underworld in which Keenan contributed tracks with another band, under the name of Puscifer, and even did a track with the well-known David Bowie.
Before Paul D’Amour had left the band, current Tool bassist Justin Chancellor had played with a lesser-known band called Peach, who released an album in the early 90’s (and a re-release in February of 2000). Often unknown, guitarist Adam Jones also did various projects with the guitarist from the early 90’s rock band, The Melvins before doing special effects work for movies such as Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2. Danny Carey, drummer, is also fairly well known amongst close fans for his further work with such infamous bands as Green Jelly, and the side project Pigmy Love Circus, not to mention his personally dedicated work with his drum clinics.

With great musical background and experience also comes technically impressive music. However, it’s obvious that Tool does not just use their musical ability simply to write music to confuse or merely show off their skill. Though for those who aren’t so musically talented, there is a lot that can be missed from Tool’s talent to write amazing songs. As such, a number of their songs come along way from the simplistic songs we are so accustomed to hearing. For the majority musicians of the modern day (and certainly not just the aforementioned Britney Spears), most sings are simply written in 4/4 (‘standard’) or 3/4 time signatures. For those not so familiar with music theory, these are the straightforward songs where you can count the beats of a song with your foot in sets of three or four (in case of 3/4 time: 3 beats per measure and quarter note for each beat). In the case of Tool, this is always the case. They have chosen to sometimes challenge the everyday listener, the musician who follows along, and even themselves with incredibly intricate riffs and measures. But why bother doing this? It’s more than just something to strive to write complex music, but it really gives a whole different feeling to the song and opens up endless doors for further creation.
A lot of their use of unconventional time signatures mostly comes from the talent of the drummer, Danny Carey, who, arguably, is one of the best drummers you can find today. One such example of these is in the song ‘Forty-Six & 2’ (album: Ænima) where in the song Carey breaks into a solo where he repeatedly plays in 7/4 time followed by a bar of 8/4 every fourth measure. This, like the rest of the examples, is no easy task for any composer. Most musicians find it hard to write a song in anything other than 4/4, not to mention play elaborate solos switching from one odd time signature to another. Even in their early albums, where often their music wouldn’t be considered to be as exploratory, they still managed to write such overwhelmingly impressive songs. In one such case of the song ‘Intolerance’ (Undertow), a difficult transition from standard 4/4 time into 13/16 is made throughout the song. As they matured as a band, the beautiful rhythms they create with these songs become more evident and really add to the emotions they try to convey. Another fine example is from the song ‘Schism’ (Lateralus) in which Carey and Chancellor play synchronized in a compound time of 12/8 (5/8 + 7/8) during the verse and then transition into the pre-chorus of a compound 13/8 time (6/8 + 7/8). All these numbers could really mean nothing to the music amateur, but their elaborateness becomes even more obvious when you simply try and tap your foot along with the song. The most acknowledged of these changes in time is in the song ‘Lateralus’ (Lateralus) in which the intro begins the track with a simple 4/4 time, but the rest of the song changes constantly between 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8 times. This is undeniably impressive.

Not all of these changes of time are there simply “just because”, as some might see it. Especially in the abovementioned song ‘Lateralus’, the numbers 9, 8, and 7 have a special purpose and meaning. As part of Tool’s “philosophy”, they often introduce different themes and allusions into their music. This song is the perfect example of this.
In ‘Lateralus’ they’ve chosen to incorporate a fairly well known mathematical sequence, the Fibonacci sequence, into the song’s lyrics and music. This sequence works such that each number is the sum of the previous two numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 11, 19, and so forth. Since the number 987 appears much later in this sequence, it was used to set up the time signatures throughout the song, as stated earlier. As well, Keenan also sings using this same sequence of numbers, going up and down throughout the series, by changing the number of syllables in each line of the verse. This example verse is a perfect case in point, showing the line separation and use of syllables in brackets:

(1) Black
(1) Then
(2) White are
(3) All I see
(5) In my infancy
(8) Red and yellow then came to be
(5) Reaching out to me
(3) Lets me see

But they certainly don’t limit themselves to the mysteries of math, by no means. In their song ‘Forty-Six & 2’ there are also allusions to the theories of psychologist Carl Jung and his concepts of the shadow and anima symbolic archetypes, singing “My shadow / change is coming / now is my time / listen to my muscle memory / contemplate what I’ve been clinging to / forty-six and two are just ahead of me.” But mainly the song takes mention to the teachings of Drunvalo Melchizadek whose theory works on the basis that humans’ perception of reality and state of consciousness depends on the number of chromosomes of each cell. Supposedly, when we go through evolution to 48 chromosomes (we currently have 46), we will enter into the ‘christ-consciousness’ level of existence. This probably reads to be a bit far-fetched, but it’s certainly interesting. To incorporate these seemingly obscure concepts into the music is pure genius.
Dozens of other allusions can be found, spread throughout other songs. ‘The Grudge’ (Lateralus) is about forgiveness and refers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letters and also to the outdated imaginary art/science of alchemy in which he sings, metaphorically, “give away the stone / let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.” In the forlornly titled song, ‘Disgustipated’ (Undertow), the band makes a humble commentary to L. Ron Hubbard’s religion/cult/pseudo-psychotherapy practice, Scientology, by referring to its members and contributors as followers, and more bluntly, “sheep”. To get away from their more arguable references, one of the more obvious ones is from the song ‘Third Eye’ (Ænima) in which the song is based on the concept of the real “third eye” (better known scientifically as the pineal gland) which located in the middle of the brain, almost perfectly inline between the eyes. It is often theorized, but not yet proven, that this gland is able to perceive different levels of light, and that it can have a noticeable affect on sleep patterns, and while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. It is believe the group was introduced to this theory by a close friend of theirs, comedian Bill Hicks, whom died soon before the release of the album. To show their respects, small clips of Hicks’ comedy routines are forever embedded in the introductions of the fifteen-minute masterpiece.

While referring to the certainly controversial works of a comedian who was a known drug user may not be the best way to prove their artistic integrity, Tool relies on visual art, not only auditory, to also influence the sentiment they are always trying to convey. Maynard, Adam, Justin, and especially Danny have always had an interest in sacred geometry. In one of their purchasable wall posters, one painting (‘Pneuma I’) of the incredibly talented Ramiro Rodriguez is lined underneath a faintly traced Flower of Life, which could be found on walls of Egyptian temples. As well, they often prominently display other sacred geometric patterns on stage (including on Danny Carey’s drum kits) of Toroids and Metatron’s Cube, which both have their significance in mathematics and in nature, as well as adding to the atmosphere of the music.
Where other bands also fail to promote visual aesthetics to add to their music, Tool uses the creations of several modern artists. The most outstanding contributor is Alex Grey, who supplied all of the paintings that were used for the cover artwork of the Lateralus album and even a fairly lengthy computer animation for the end of their ‘Parabola’ (Lateralus) music video. Music videos, like the one mentioned above, have always been Tool’s definite visual high point. Though they are often criticized for their outright unusual nature, they all fit perfectly with, as mentioned several times before, the emotion and atmosphere of the incredible music. In the second paragraph it was mentioned that guitarist Adam Jones did special effects work for big name Hollywood movies, so it would seem like a perfect transition that he would go on to direct all but one of their music videos: (in reverse chronological order) ‘Parabol/Parabola’, ‘Schism’, ‘Ænima’, ‘Stinkfist’, ‘Prisonsex’, and ‘Hush’. They are often created from the experiences and visuals that Adam receives through dreams, and as well, it’s been thought, during drug use.

Though admittedly Tool’s underrated – even “terrible” – reputation comes from their highly criticized earlier releases, somewhat tasteless song titles, and just general “weird” nature, there’s no reason why they should ever be forgotten. They offer more to modern music than can be seen in any other band or musician of today. They carry with them years of musical experience, they have an unbelievable talent for writing beautifully intricate songs, they offer lyrical and musical allusions to interest those who are paying attention, and they supplement their work with the exquisite artwork of other artists throughout their concerts and album covers. Tool is truly more than just an ordinary band. They are more than another group of people looking for pop-stardom in the modern age of – pardon the cliché – “sell outs”. This essay by no means reflects all of the ideas of the band in any form. They are so incredibly impressive, talented, and interested but are often not given a chance.