Tool is a rock band of seemingly inexplicable commercial success that formed in LA during the late Eighties. Over the years, the band has mainly involved five musicians: Danny Carey (drummer), Adam Jones (guitarist), Paul D’Amour (former bassist), Justin Chancellor (current bassist) and Maynard James Keenan (lyricist, singer). Tool appropriates a lot from the Progressive music of my father’s era—the layered soundscaping and symphonic structures you hear in Rush, Pink Floyd and King Crimson—and shares the snarling tones of its contemporary, Nirvana. Since its formation, Tool has made one mediocre EP and four LPs honing an esoteric and novel aesthetic. Lately, there have been murmurs that the band could release a new album this year, just over a decade since their last. It’s good timing, because what began as fans’ grumpy capitulation to the lengthy “artistic process” has now become a frenzy of speculation on the arrival date, as if the album were some kind of mothership. A typical fan comment on a forum dedicated to Tool reads: “Words can’t explain how god damn excited I am to hear new Tool music. The time is almost upon us.”
I always knew Tool’s reputation for having a fanatical cult following, but never saw much evidence of it. In paranoid moods, however, I fear I cannot see the outlines of this cult because I am inside of it. After all, at any mention of Tool or music of same drifting past, I will talk you up. I will bore you with emphatic distinctions between Tool and the dreck with which it’s marketed: no, you may not compare Tool with Breaking Benjamin; Chevelle is an unwitting parody; and similarities with the Nine Inch Nails are grossly overstated. I will decode lyrics. I will make lofty comparisons. If you happened to dislike a particular song, I will explain how you failed to understand it.
Whatever draws my cult—if it must be called that—to Tool, it does not seem to be charisma in the traditional sense. Especially in their early years, Tool made a sport of mocking and fooling their most devoted fans. A song on their second album, “Die Eier Von Satan,” is a rally led by a Hitlerian figure inciting the crowd to fervent cheers. It would arouse the horrors of dogmatic obedience and the importance of independent thinking, except that the English translation of the lyrics reveals only a recipe for hash cookies. Just before the launch of the third album, the band released a track list of an album entitled “Systema Encéphale.” Later they admitted it was a hoax. Keenan in particular has been known to literally bleat at his audience, or to recruit gullible crowds to take the “non-conformist oath.” Famously, he performed a Judo takedown of a fan that climbed on stage and rushed the singer with open arms. (A shirtless Keenan sat patiently on his back until security arrived.)
These antics were meant to subvert any notion of Tool as “the thinking person’s metal band,” as one music journalist has described them. This worked on those who already disliked Tool—undermining the “serious artist” image was simply part of the pretension—but had the opposite effect on those who worshiped them. Undermining the “serious artist” image made them seem incomparably more serious. We worshiped harder.
Like true Tool fans, my brother and I ironized our own passion for the band. We dreaded being categorized with the clam-baked mallrat of suburban shopping centers wearing an unwashed hoodie with Tool’s trademark symbol—a wrench in the unmistakable shape of a phallus. But in the privacy provided by our headphones, we knew the music of Tool to be unlike any other. Our conversations commonly betrayed how much it made us feel.
The essential Tool song contains a catharsis. In “10,000 Days,” an unbelieving son pays tribute to his mother for her resolute devotion to God (“Who could deny you were the one who illuminated / your little piece of the divine?”). Then, after she dies, he summons God and demands recognition in her place (“It’s time now / my time now / give me my wings.”) Finally, exhausted, he realizes and fulfills her purpose. (“It’s time for you to bring me home.”)
Tool’s patient compositions tick, plod then surge. Their defining characteristic is in the dynamics: the drums’ subtle murmurs swell into a furious complexity; unintelligible whispers become bloodshot screams. The rage and torment in the music is washed in distortion, as lava steams and cools at seawater. There is a visceral quality to a Tool song—an exhausting yet gratifying wrestle. Jones’s guitar evokes languish, torpor and tedium: marches up sand dunes; trudges through tar and mires. Their imagery typically focuses on human anatomy. But rather than fragmenting or mutilating the body, their lyrics trust (“listen to my muscle memory”) and revere it (“this body holding me/be my reminder that I am not alone”).
Keenan once defined the band’s name in a very literal sense: Tool was a “big dick,” “wrench,” “shovel,” “match” and “blotter of acid.” He implored the band’s listeners to “use us.” And for years I’ve wondered: what should Tool be used for?
What I thought of Tool’s music was always adjacent to what I thought about the possibility of an authentic spirituality. I grew up in New York’s suburbs, when the popular music of the Nineties appealed to its listeners as a crude therapy: a despondent voice, a distorted guitar, lyrics of alienation, depression, fury. They described and amplified what we already felt, and at deafening volume. (I remember watching a likeminded friend fall asleep to Limp Bizkit like it was a lullaby.)
But there was something graver beneath the clichéd angst and melodrama in the successful heavy rock of that decade. You could hear a fixation on both death and the futility of life: Slipknot (“The other side holds no secret / but this side is done, I don’t need it”); Chevelle (“I wonder what’s next / nothing”); Radiohead (“I can feel death / can see its beady eyes”); Alice in Chains (“I feel so alone / gonna end up a big ole pile of them bones”). Keenan admired Alice in Chains and Nine Inch Nails. The latter group’s only steady artist (Trent Reznor) could plainly articulate the spiritual needs of the young demographic these bands were often marketed to:
(Hey God) I think you owe me a great big apology
(Hey God) Can this world really be as sad as it seems
I’m on my hands and knees, I want so much to believe
Millennials have been characterized by their waning faith in certain American institutions and enterprises. Particularly, this generation has exhibited little interest in the culture’s spiritual traditions, or even in the New Age substitutes that sprung up to take their place but ultimately proved little match for the authority of modern science. Although often noted and occasionally explained, I’ve seen few accounts of what it was like to live with the sense of “lostness” that suffused that generation.
I was raised in a thoroughly unconvincing Catholicism. The religion that would eventually lose coherence for my mother was an alien myth to me. Perhaps the only interesting fact of my teenage move to irreligiosity was the extremity of my slide; from bored Christianity straight into a firm nihilism. There had been nothing in the culture to slow me, nothing to grab hold of. The defining feature of the secular culture of the Nineties, for me, was the lack of a language to deny a meaningless existence. Our only bulwark was a stigma against reciting the juvenile logic of the pessimist, the phrases so often used in the rock of my adolescence: In the end, it doesn’t even matter. These ideas, it seemed, were relegated to an often manipulative and artless commercial music, which, regardless, captivated me. Alone in my car, I would sing the lyrics as though they were a denunciation of the parents, or God, who brought me into a world of such vacuity:
The universe is hostile,
devour to survive.
So it is, so it’s always been.
Vicariously I live while the whole world dies.
Much better you than I.
These were such strange sounds to hear. The guitarist had found chromatic chords that somehow sounded vampyric. The bass was mixed up front, threateningly, and it traded violent polyrhythms with the drums. The song’s time signature was some archaic fraction—hardly friendly to foot tapping. The music was insistently loud. The song, titled “Vicarious” from Tool’s album 10,000 Days, inextricably linked its nihilism (“devour to survive”) to a shared sado-voyeuristic urge in society (“we all feed on tragedy”). The totalizing meaninglessness of our existence was no longer an immutable condition but rather an expression of a culture whose idea of the universe reflected nothing that transcended its idea of itself. If one changed, so would the other.
Especially in Maynard Keenan’s late career, it became clear he believed that art and religion are developed expressions of our survival instinct (cf. Sarah Jensen’s biography of Keenan, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things). Departing from the Darwinian speculation—eagerly received by our culture—that life’s overarching meaning is an artifact of a blind drive toward procreation, Keenan suggests that the meaning we seek must, by virtue of our need for it, be real. You are thirsty precisely because thirst corresponds to the existence of water. A credible interpretation of Keenan’s lyrics, then, is that they chart an escape from the things he cannot survive.
When Keenan was eleven his mother, Judith, suffered an aneurysm that left her “half-paralyzed, half-blind and unable to respond when Jim [Keenan] tried to talk with her.” (The son of “10,000 Days” and his deceased mother are the same.) In his twenties, Keenan began to recover “hazy memories” of being sexually abused by his stepfather, according to Jensen’s biography. The creeping shade of neglected trauma is a theme that continually emerges in songs like “Pushit” and “Prison Sex.”
Traumatic experiences like Keenan’s have a way of forcing us to confront our spiritual predicament; particularly because his are exactly the kind of experiences nihilist writers often employ as metaphysical metaphors. The trauma of being raped as a child or the horror of watching your paralyzed mother approach her demise become manifestations of the unspeakable truth of the world. But in Tool’s art, human experience belongs to a greater cosmic purpose. This is rarely made explicit in their music, but it’s also hard to miss (their popular song “Forty-six & 2” refers to our chromosomes and the enlightening pair we have yet to gain.) In their songs, religious concepts are generalized into ideals. Terms—“temple,” “divinity,” “holy,” “martyr” and “eternal”—are evacuated of any meanings specific to any practice or faith. The music evokes an unearthly plane, with clocklike rhythms, astral harmonies and wailing melodies. The lyrics of Tool’s popular song “Schism” intimate how we corrupted our religious project with the very passions it inspired:
There was a time that the pieces fit
but I watched them fall away,
mildewed and smoldering,
strangled by our coveting.
In Keenan’s view, we seek communion by triangulating on a shared understanding of the divine. When love or brotherhood disintegrates (“between supposed lovers / between supposed brothers”) then we are further removed from the sacred:
Cold silence has
a tendency to
sense of compassion.
The malice that organized religions often create between human beings is angrily imprecated in their music. In Tool, there are no competing spiritualities; just one that we must keep in precarious suspension. “Schism” concludes in a rhythmic maelstrom, whirling around Keenan’s voice, insistently repeating the same words: “I know the pieces fit!”
Keenan has always believed that “music is a higher form of language,” by which he means that the primacy of music can summon profound feelings in us that will never be verbally explicated.1 Ideas like the one above (“the pieces fit”) are foremost expressed on a musical register, and thus felt in our emotional depths. Concepts are subject to doubt, feelings are not. The bridge of “Schism” features two guitars synchronized on a mesmerizing melody, which expresses the theme of human love as communion with the divine more completely than the lyrics ever could.
Any attempt to articulate the religious instinct takes the risk of congealing into dogma, but Keenan’s music manifests less as an elaborate metaphysic than a disposition toward the world, a kind of exploratory religious impulse. This is conveyed in what is among fans Tool’s most beloved song, “Lateralus”:
I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral
of our divinity and still be a human.
This is a song whose first notes have been known to send concertgoers into a numinous frenzy. It is a prayer siphoned of scripture and ideology, the baby in the holy bathwater.
Most of the heavier rock of the Nineties was unavoidably puerile; the solipsistic preoccupation with the self that hurts was its hallmark (as Reznor, again, aptly expresses: “There is no you / there is only me”.) But it laid bare its culture’s logic, and so served to initiate its young listeners into their spiritual predicament. What made Tool distinct was that they went a step beyond merely expressing this predicament: they showed that the assumption of nihilism was no more persuasive than the assumption of meaning.