MTTN Recommends: Tool (A Semi-Comprehensive Guide)
Think for yourself
Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening,
terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in
this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities, the political, the
religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by
giving us order, rules, regulations, informing, forming in our minds their
view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and
learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness;
chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself.
Think for yourself.
Maynard James Keenan quoting Tim Leary during the intro to their live audio record, ‘Salival’.
Tool is a band whose music can only aptly be described as incredibly abstract and complex; something that’s become synonymous with the progressive rock/metal subgenre. What sets Tool apart is their innovation, art style; and the highly thematic and immensely metaphorical lyrical content.
As a lover of music and humanity in general, I consider it a moral responsibility to introduce to you the incredible gift to mankind that is Tool.
Tool consists of:
Maynard James Keenan (vocals)
Adam Jones (guitars, artwork)
Justin Chancellor (bass)
Danny Carey (drums, percussion)
Lateralus, often cited as their magnum opus, is about opening yourself up to new experiences and embracing the randomness and chaos all about us in life. The title track itself is one of the most beautiful and intricate pieces ever made in the history of music. Huddle up as I blow your mind to smithereens with Tool trivia.
Lateralus, the song, is most famous for the fact that the number of syllables in its verses follow the Fibonacci series. It starts with a slow riff played continuously that eventually builds up to an earth-shattering crescendo and gives way to Maynard’s vocals at about 1:36 in minutes and seconds. This, when converted to the decimal, becomes 1 minute + 0.618ths of a minute. Fun fact: the Golden Ratio ‘phi‘, when rounded off to the fourth decimal becomes 1.618. This also ties it to the Fibonacci sequence as the ratio of one Fibonacci number to its predecessor tends towards the Golden Ratio!
The time signature of the chorus is 9/8, 8/8, 7/8. This may or may not be a coincidence (and knowing Adam Jones and Danny Carey’s love for math and sacred geometry, probably not), but the 16th number of the Fibonacci sequence is 987.
Let all of that sink in for a while. That’s just one song.
Another piece to exemplify their musical style would be Right in Two, off the album 10,000 Days.
Right in Two is a 9-minute masterpiece that mostly follows a time signature of 11/8 with minor changes. It features a mandala solo played by Danny Carey. It speaks of humanity’s innate drive to cause mayhem and its inability to live in harmony without external supervision.
The album itself refers to the amount of time (27 years, approx. 10,000 days) Maynard James Keenan’s mother (Judith Marie) suffered from paralysis and was confined to a wheelchair until she finally breathed her last and “went home” (song: 10,000 days). The song speaks of the utter injustice that a human being as exceptionally good as his mother had to go through 27 years of living hell. It also speaks of the hypocrites who came to mourn her loss despite not having cared for her while she was alive.
Maynard James Keenan has written about his mother and her suffering in two songs of this album (Wings for Marie, 10,000 days) and ‘Judith’, in the album Mer De Noms by another one of his projects (A Perfect Circle) .
Tool love experimenting with their sound, and go to great lengths in that pursuit. Danny Carey underwent training in tabla under Aloke Dutta and delved into traditional Indian music subsequently. Resultantly, their music sounds like a mystical plethora of confused sounds, blent into a singular piece of rich, vibrant, sophisticated and complex music coupled with genius levels of production.
Maynard and Adam’s writing in Tool’s songs is highly cathartic on a lyrical level. They speak of numerous issues in their albums and use highly metaphorical language. Their music has evolved in a rather poetic way over time. Their first album, Undertow, speaks of abuse (“Prison Sex“) and toxic relationships (“Sober“).
Their sophomore effort talks about change; a change from the darker Undertow. It is called Ænima, a portmanteau of enema (rectal evacuation) and the Jungian concept of Anima and Animus. It literally stands for ‘soul enema’. In Ænima we find Maynard venting a lot of angst against modern society (like in the title track based on Bill Hicks’ comedy routine ‘arising bay’) and haranguing the hypocrisy and vacuity of the ‘LA Lifestyle’ and popular elements of American culture.
The song Stinkfist from the same album has lyrics that hint at sodomy on a superficial level in a very tongue-in-cheek way, but upon closer inspection, are actually about human connection.
46&2, also from the same album is again thematically related to the Jungian school of thought, which hypothesizes that the human form will eventually reach a state in which the body would have 2 more than the normal 46 chromosomes, leaving it in an unbalanced, disharmonious and chaotic state.
This chaos is a recurring theme in most of Tool’s albums. They vouch for chaos being the natural order of life and this is reflected in their lyrics, their compositions (one word – polyrhythms) and their production (check out their song Faaip de Oiad. Then look me in the eye and tell me you’re NOT creeped out.)
The art style and lyrical content aside, another reason Tool is so highly revered amongst the Progressive music community is because of their virtuosic, highly intricate and complex compositions. The song Schism from Lateralus, for instance, alters its meter a staggering 47 times!
The droning and dominant 5/8, 7/8 basslines (courtesy of Justin Chancellor) make this hard to spot, so you’ll need to have a really trained ear in music to be able to notice it without prior knowledge of this fact (unlike Dream Theater’s Dance of Eternity, in which they’re not even trying to be remotely subtle about the 130 + time signatures in the song!).
Schism is an interesting piece of music lyrically because it speaks of the dangers of silence,ignorance and believing in a controlled,deterministic outlook. The polyrythms symbolically represent the unrelenting chaos that surrounds us.
To add to that, Tool gave us Parabol/Parabola from Lateralus. One of the most life-affirming songs ever written, this talks about how everything is linked on a molecular level. The same molecules that scattered across the milky way after the big bang are the molecules constituting us. This means we are essentially eternal because matter cannot be destroyed but only transformed. And in this view , all pain and negativity is but an illusion of our psyche. It talks about being alive in this moment and being one with this reality.
All of this barely scratches the surface of the sheer musical genius of Tool, but it should give you a fair idea of who they are and the kind of music they make. Every fan of Tool is an artist in their own way; it takes a certain level of musical understanding and artistic vision to truly comprehend the extent of their brilliance. Definitely give it a shot. It might just be the inspiration you need to pick up an instrument (or an advanced mathematics textbook), or get better at yours.
To conclude it all, here’s Danny Carey playing the outro to Lateralus.
Goosebumps. Every single time.
A shoutout to Suyash Jha – Director of Editors, Scintilla, KMC (Mangaluru) for helping out with the interpretations.
– Rahul Basu for MTTN