Even though Tool have only released four LPs and one EP over the band's 30-year existence, their body of work is still overwhelming in its sonic density and challenging themes. Where does one even begin with frontman Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor?
As fans gear up for the new album, and absorb the explosive new title track that just dropped Wednesday (Aug. 7), let us be your guide to the raging, obsidian world of Tool, sharing key songs and cheat sheets for one of modern rock’s most distinguished acts.
Opiate (EP), 1992
The key songs: “Sweat,” “Opiate”
The vibe: An unrefined, grunge-adjacent introduction from a band with room to grow
Listening now to Opiate, Tool’s first properly recorded album after two years of performing around its native Los Angeles, the six-song EP is nearly indistinguishable from the day’s grunge and metal moments. It’s a jagged and uniformly aggressive effort that toes the line between Pearl Jam’s patented crunch and Pantera’s heaving riffage, revealing only glimpses of Tool’s later evolution: Keenan’s breathless verses on “Sweat” and the sonic deconstruction that takes place across the eight-minute title track, which appears to unpack Karl Marx’s dissenting view of religion.
“Opiate” closes on a terrifically frantic drum solo from Carey before revealing the band’s first secret song, “The Gaping Lotus Experience.” Beyond those two tracks, the album hasn’t aged nearly as well as the rest of the Tool discography, as every member of the group was clearly still honing his respective craft. Dive in if you’re a Tool completist, but all others shouldn’t feel guilty passing on Opiate nearly 30 years later.
The key songs: “Sober,” “Prison Sex”
The vibe: An imposing, emotional touchstone of modern heavy metal
Undertow, the band’s propulsive debut LP, was the first Tool release to grab the rock world by its collar and propose a new blueprint for alternative metal, where the music could be at once harrowing, emotional and technically complex, all the while forging a sound its listeners could obsess over and play on loop. Undertow unleashed Tool’s first two truly sensational singles in the self-depreciating creeper “Sober” and groove-tastic banger “Prison Sex.”
The itch for experimental music begins to be scratched on Undertow, as punk stalwart Henry Rollins delivers a spoken-word section on “Bottom” that explores mental fragility. Meanwhile, the nearly 15-minute closer “Disgustipated" not only mocks further organized religion, but includes seven minutes of ambient sound before a final monologue depicts some sort of mental collapse, which may or may not have resulted in murder. Still, Undertow is largely a chugging hard-rock album -- Alice In Chains is likely the easiest comparison -- with inklings that something stranger was lurking in the tall grass.
The key songs: “Ænema,” “Stinkfist,” “Forty Six and 2”
The vibe: An electrifying, albeit exhausting, analysis of metal’s boundary lines
Ænima was Tool’s first true endeavor into the opaque, mad-scientist alt-metal with which the band would become forever associated, and due to its singularity, the Grammy-nominated record is revered by many fans as the group’s quintessential release. That being said, Tool perhaps should have quit while they were ahead with this 77-minute odyssey, which leaves a gratuitous taste following “Third Eye,” the nearly 14-minute album closer spliced with bits from the deeply sardonic late comedian Bill Hicks, to whom the album is dedicated.
The first nine tracks, just before “Die Eier von Satan” -- a literal cookie recipe read in fervent German, as though leading a military rally -- are largely bulletproof. The assailing lead single and album opener, “Stinkfist” (which MTV would only refer to as “Track #1” when playing the unnerving stop-motion music video) is an intimidatory hard-rock triumph, not unlike the drop-tuned jams that would appear on Deftones’ beloved Around The Fur LP a year later.
Ænima maintains its caustic lane early on with pounders “H” and “Forty Six and 2,” before the interludes begin to muck things up. The menace of “Message for Harry Manback,” a supposed real-life answering machine message left by an uninvited Italian houseguest of Keenan’s, threatening violence against its recipient, is certainly jarring, but did that really need to make the record? Moreover, could they have not lopped off “Ions,” which is little more than four minutes of electrical current sounds? Of course, the back-half of the album finds its saving grace with the set's seething, Grammy-winning title track, which likely remains the most recognizable cut from this impressive yet imperfect beast of a sophomore effort.
The key songs: “Schism,” “Parabola,” “Reflection”
The vibe: A deeply challenging yet highly rewarding plunge down the prog-rock rabbit hole
If you found Ænima’s turbid themes too dense to reckon in ‘96, you were doubly frustrated in ‘01 by Lateralus, a deep-space galaxy of sonic fluctuation borne out of a four-year dispute with the band’s management, Volcano Entertainment. Lateralus, which at just under 79 minutes barely squeezes onto a single CD, was Tool’s great migration away from the crunching alternative metal of previous releases and into a nebulous progressive rock expanse previously occupied by King Crimson and Pink Floyd, but never with such indelible gloom.
The album contains the band’s best-known single, the Grammy-winning rouser “Schism” -- famous for its galloping bass line and almost comically complex time signature changes -- but beyond Keenan’s familiar “I know the pieces fit …” lyric, Lateralus was never an album designed for immediate public consumption. Diehard fans will recall how the labyrinthian title track incorporates the mathematical Fibonacci number sequence into its time signature, which is far too convoluted to explain here, but a banner example of the higher plane of scientific and philosophical thinking the band had attempted to access while writing this record.
Sonically, there is a pronounced shift in the arrangements of Lateralus; Carey’s methodical drumming and Justin Chancellor’s jigsawed bass lines were brought to the fore while Jones’ guitars and, most noticeably, Keenan’s sharp wails were left in the back, creating a haunting effect. Near the end of the record, three songs -- “Disposition,” “Reflection,” and “Triad” -- combine for a hypnotic, psychedelic dark-rock suite that lasts more than 20 minutes with little lyrical interference. As a listener, it’s a trip like few others in modern rock, especially once you lock into the terrific, cycling melody of the middle tune.
Lateralus closes with an unsettling recording of a “former Area 51 employee” desperately calling into a radio program to breathlessly detail his experience with alien life -- one final moment to provoke greater thought and boost Tool to mythic status among its faithful.
10,000 Days, 2006
The key songs: “The Pot,” “Vicarious,” “10,000 Days (Wings, Pt 2)”
The vibe: A gorgeous recording that falls short of the sonic expansion found on past works
By the time 10,000 Days was released in 2006, Tool had become massive in the rock world, due not only to the critical and commercial success of Lateralus -- the group's first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 -- but the intensity and technical prowess of its live performances. With that, anticipation was at an all-time high for the band’s fourth LP, which again nearly hit the 80-minute mark, and once again showcased Tool’s virtuosity within the classic four-piece rock band medium -- as well as marking a return of sorts to its originally caustic hard-rock sound. The album’s most popular single, the addicting rager “The Pot,” was the group’s most accessible song since “Sober,” and a blazing jam called “Jambi” prominently featured a talkbox guitar effect that sounded a little like... dare we say Bon Jovi?
10,000 Days was likely Tool’s least-acclaimed project upon release, with critics wondering if the relentlessly lengthy tracks and aesthetic convolutions had left one of rock’s most dynamic acts eating its own tail. There is certainly some merit to such an argument: 10,000 Days does, at times, feel so consciously like a Tool album that it lacks the “what’s coming next” wonderment of previous releases. But like Lateralus and Ænima before it, the album is brilliantly composed and an exceedingly dense listen, worthy of gradual unpacking, even if it takes ages to achieve whatever celestial enlightenment Keenan was searching for. Lucky for Tool fans, the band gave its fans a cool 13 years to wrestle with the 11-minute banger “Rosetta Stoned” and cryptic closer “Viginti Tres,” -- which, when perfectly laid over “Wings For Marie” and the title track all at once creates its own secret 11-minute song, because of course it does.
But now, after all this time, fans finally have a new tune to dissect: the 10-minute Fear Inoculum title track, released Wednesday, Aug. 7, which features a sparkling instrumental build led by Carey before Keenan’s vibrant vocal comes in, cresting to a whisper of the “bless this immunity” refrain. The Tool subreddits and message boards are surely lighting up!