“Sober,” “Prison Sex,” “Stinkfist”
Who Are They?
Progressive metal titans widely considered to be the “thinking person’s metal band.”
In the ‘80s, the members of what would later become Tool were on very different paths. Guitarist Adam Jones and original bassist Paul D’Amour were looking to enter the film industry while Maynard James Keenan was remodeling pet stores in Michigan. Maynard and Adam met through a mutual friend in 1989, and after being thoroughly impressed by Maynard’s singing voice, Adam proposed they start a band together.
(Fun fact: According to Maynard, the name Tool means this: “Tool is exactly what is sounds like: It’s a big dick. It’s a wrench. We are […] your tool; use us as a catalyst in your process of finding out whatever it is you need to find out, or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.”)
After playing a few shows in Los Angeles and being signed to label Zoo Entertainment, Tool released its first EP, Opiate, in 1992. The band has since claimed that Opiate included the six “hardest sounding” songs they had written up to that point.
The video for single "Hush" was actually a statement against the PMRC and its advocacy of music censorship. It was basically a big “fuck you” to Tipper Gore and friends in the form of Tool performing naked with Parental Advisory signs over their naughty bits.
(Fun fact: The band only appears in two videos: “Hush” and “Sober.” Though “Sober” is largely a stop motion animation video, you can see brief flashes of the band at the very beginning.)
The band’s first full-length album, Undertow, was released in 1993 to critical acclaim. Appearances at Lollapalooza boosted Tool’s success, and “Sober” became a hit single (due in part to the incredible stop motion music video).
Undertow’s second single, “Prison Sex,” ran into a bit of trouble. The song’s lyrics and video (also stop motion) dealt with the tough subject of child abuse, which sparked a healthy amount of controversy. MTV deemed the video too graphic (which is silly since it’s largely metaphoric) and pulled it from rotation.
The band’s second album, Ænima, dropped in 1996 and propelled Tool to the head of the alternative metal scene in the ‘90s.
(Fun fact: Ænima was dedicated to comedian Bill Hicks because Maynard and company felt that Tool and Hicks were “resonating similar concepts.” The song “Third Eye” includes a clip of one of Bill’s performances.)
Where Are They Now?
At the tail end of promotion and touring for Ænima, Maynard joined the band A Perfect Circle, which was founded by Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel. A Perfect Circle was more of an alternative rock venture than a progressive metal one, and found mainstream success with 2000’s Mer de Noms.
Meanwhile, Tool began recording Lateralus, which was released in 2001. Despite its complexity and art rock vibe, the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. "Schism," which has since become Tool’s signature song (along with “Sober”), won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2002.
At the end of the Lateralus tour, Maynard went back to A Perfect Circle to release Thirteenth Step. This prompted fans to believe that Tool was on hiatus.
(Fun fact: On April 1, 2005, the offical Tool site announced that “Maynard has found Jesus” and would no longer be recording with Tool. MTV’s Kurt Loder contacted Maynard for confirmation, but only received a response simply stating, “Heh heh.” It was, in fact, an April Fool’s joke.)
Tool’s fourth studio album, 10,000 Days, was released in 2006 to mixed reviews. After extensive touring, the band took a break and Maynard started yet another side project called Puscifer, which he considers his “creative subconscious.” Puscifer released two studio albums (2007’s “V” Is for Vagina and 2011’s Conditions of My Parole) and toured a large part of the US.
But Why Tool?
Drummer Danny Carey just confirmed that the new album is over halfway finished and may possibly be released this year!
What Does Sam Think?
Tool isn’t your average metal band. Actually, Tool isn’t your average prog metal band either. When I hear “progressive metal,” I think of Dream Theater or Isis. Tool doesn’t sound anything like either of those bands. (But if you seriously want to know more about metal as a whole, check out Justin Silk’s blog. He’s more of an expert than I am.)
This band sounds like one big experiment, except the solution is always the same—no matter what dangerous chemical you throw into the mix, the result will always be perfectly stable.
Once Maynard and friends released two prog metal albums, they decided to change things up with Lateralus. That album has a lot of art rock influence, especially on “Schism.” But does it sound chaotic? No. Does it sound boring? Not a chance. It’s still a metal album, but it’s only heavy in the right places.
Take “Parabol” and “Parabola” for example (these two songs are meant to be heard in immediate succession). “Parabol” is a really delicate track. It sets the scene for “Parabola,” which is much heavier. But “Parabola” actually ends with a droning guitar riff that almost echoes the tranquility of “Parabol.” They kind of answer each other. I know that sounds way too complicated for a metal song, but that’s what Tool is all about.
And you can’t talk about Tool without mentioning the music videos. If you’ve never seen a Tool video before, stop what you’re doing and watch one. I’ve got links to them all over this post, so there’s no excuse not to check one out (and don’t let the lengths scare you away). Yeah, they’re pretty surreal and at times a little frightening, but they’re some of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen. And I always find some meaning in them (but perhaps not the band’s intended meaning).
My favorite video is probably "Parabola," followed closely by “Prison Sex.” The imagery in “Prison Sex” is a bit easier to grasp since we already know it’s about child abuse. “Parabola” is a little tougher to explain, so I’ll just let you explore that yourself.
But if Tool isn’t your cup of tea, you have two other Maynard Keenan side projects to choose from. If you like modern rock with an art rock edge, give A Perfect Circle a try—it’s the more accessible project, in my opinion.
If you want to get weird, try Puscifer. That project is a nice mix of ambient, post-industrial, trip-hop and comedy rock. Not as chaotic as you’d think, though. (Also, I just really want to share this cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with you.)
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.