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Tool album guide: where to start with one of heavy music’s weirdest bands

Tool
photo by Travis Shinn

After years of keeping their music off streaming services, Tool have finally added their back catalog to Spotify, Apple Music/iTunes, Amazon Music, Pandora, TIDAL, Google Play, and more. “Our obsession with, and dream of, a world where BetaMax and Laser Disc rule has ended,” said characteristically sarcastic frontman Maynard James Keenan. “Time for us to move on. But never fear. There’s a brand new thing we think you’re really gonna dig. It’s called Digital Downloads and Streaming. Get ready for the future, folks!” All four of their studio albums (Undertow, Ænima, Lateralus, 10,000 Days) and their Opiate EP are available, but not their 1991 demo 72826, which briefly appeared on streaming services last month but quickly disappeared. Their 2000 live/outtakes compilation Salival is also not currently streaming.

Tool’s music was of course still readily available before this via, you know, all the ways you obtained music before like 2015, but it’s still a very exciting and very convenient thing that you can now listen to all of their music from your laptops and smartphones and smart speakers without needing to do anything illegal or rip it off one of those pesky “CDs.” If you’re a Tool fan, there’s a good chance you own all this stuff already anyway. If you’re not, what better time than now to finally dig into the catalog of one of heavy music’s weirdest and most rewarding bands? Especially with their looooooong-awaited new album Fear Inoculum just around the corner (it’s due August 30), it’s a great time to familiarize yourself with or brush up on Tool’s catalog.

If you’ve been hesitant to check out Tool before this, that wouldn’t be too surprising. Like their peers Nine Inch Nails, Tool were frequently misunderstood and wrongly grouped with nu metal or other often-maligned styles of alternative metal. The same year critics were hailing a bunch of post-punk and garage rock impressionists as saviors of rock, some of those same critics were shitting on Tool’s inventive Lateralus. As time has shown, it’s much more accurate to group Tool with genre-defying art rock trailblazers like Radiohead. And as with that band, Tool have a very large, very diehard fanbase despite not releasing anything resembling a “hit” in years. When they play shows, humongous crowds come out and go nuts for them. And it’s easy to see why. As with NIN, Radiohead, and other singularly great bands like them, there is nothing like a Tool show. No other artist approaches songwriting or performing the way Tool do. They are truly one of a kind.

You not only can’t pigeonhole Tool to fit into maligned subgenres of metal, you can’t even really pigeonhole them as just metal or as any one genre. They started out sounding somewhat similar to the alternative rock boom of the early ’90s, but eventually crossed paths with psychedelia, prog, post-rock, and other forms of experimental and art rock. They’ve pulled from math rock rhythms, as well as from Indian tabla rhythms. They’ve really set no boundaries for themselves, and as such, there’s no telling what their new album will sound like when it finally arrives.

They’re one of those bands who have something for every type of rock fan, and if you’re trying to figure out where to begin with exploring their discography, we’ve put together an album guide that might help.

Tool Opiate

Opiate EP (1992)

If Tool had broken up after the Opiate EP (and formed in Seattle instead of LA), there’s a good chance they’d have gotten lumped in with the grunge scene. On Opiate, which is the most straightforward rock release of their career, they’re “metal” but not any more so than Alice In Chains or Soundgarden or even some of the heavier Nirvana songs. They went on to make much, much more ambitious music than Opiate but it’s easy to see why a lot of longtime fans still hold this EP dear. Later Tool albums require you to sit back and take in long, complex songs, but Opiate offers up a small batch of Headbanger’s Ball-ready jams in easily-digestible three and four minute doses. And maybe the most impressive thing about Opiate is how fully-formed and distinct-sounding Tool’s songs already were. On the EP’s two live tracks, “Cold and Ugly” and “Jerk-Off,” the studio isn’t there to save them and Tool still sound as developed as they would on their classic full-length albums years later. It’s moments like those when you realize a certain artist is really something special, and this band is one of those artists. And listening to Opiate now, knowing what Tool turned into, is an entirely new experience of its own. You’re hearing the familiar sounds of a larger-than-life band, but in a very modest, life-sized way. It can be chill-inducing.

Stream Opiate on Spotify below and on all streaming services here.

Tool Undertow

Undertow (1993)

One of the reasons that Opiate sounds like it’s bursting at the seams with talent is because Tool themselves were already aware that they had more in them than a few neatly-packed alternative metal songs. Just 13 months later, they released their first full-length, a 70-minute album with songs that neared or passed the 7-minute mark and embraced atmosphere and progressive rock much more noticeably than the EP. (It also included a spoken word interlude from Henry Rollins on “Bottom.”) The seeds for what Tool would become are not just sewn but starting to blossom on Undertow, though it still remains the band’s most straightforward rock/metal full-length. Tool cross over into prog a handful of times on Undertow, but still remain dedicated to the kinds of heavy rock bangers that gained them a shared fanbase with bands like Alice In Chains. As far as the full-lengths go, Undertow is the headbanger’s album of choice. It holds up very well, but if you’re waiting for Tool’s more experimental side to really take over, the next three albums have you covered.

Stream Undertow on Spotify below and on all streaming services here.

Tool Aenima

Ænima (1996)

Ænima is the album most Tool fans probably consider their most classic, it’s the perfect middle ground between their more aggressive earlier material and their more experimental later material, and if you ask me, it’s the best place to start with Tool. It’s also the first album with bassist Justin Chancellor, who cemented the lineup that Tool have today, and their first of two consecutive albums with producer David Bottrill, who co-produced King Crimson’s ’90s-era classic Thrak a year earlier.

No individual song can show the full scope of Tool, but few come as close as Ænima‘s title track. Maynard bounces between a hushed delivery in the verses and one of the most aggressive barks of his career in the chorus, and it’s also the most singalong-ready chorus that Tool ever wrote. Go to a Tool show, and this is the one even the casual fans raise their fists and shout along to, but it’s not basic or overplayed or anything; just the opposite. It’s nearly seven minutes long, and it’s one of the most overtly psychedelic songs that Tool had released at that point. It veers off into a world where tribal drums collide with acid rock guitar solos; bands like The Flaming Lips and Spiritualized get all the credit for keeping psychedelic rock alive in the ’90s but Tool deserve it too. And while the title track is one of those songs that threatens to overshadow the rest of a band’s career, it’s far from the only great part of Ænima.

With all due respect to original bassist Paul D’Amour, the addition of Justin Chancellor was exactly what Tool needed to fully give into their proggiest desires. Chancellor’s basslines — like on the classic Ænima song “Forty Six & 2″ — became iconic parts of Tool songs, and his style made him as essential to the band’s overall sound as every other member. With this lineup, Tool became one of those bands where truly every member is heard. Chancellor’s show-stealing basslines, Adam Jones’ mood-creating guitar parts, Danny Carey’s polyrhythmic drumming, and Maynard’s unmistakable sneer are all equals. It makes sense that when you see Tool live, Maynard often stays near the back of stage with his face obscured. He’s become one of those frontmen that the fans disproportionately latch onto, but it seems like he knows the chemistry he has with the other three guys is bigger than anything he can do on his own. (He also fronts the bands A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, who both have good music, but who can’t really compare to Tool.) Tool became a tight-knit unit on Ænima, and the album birthed some of their very best songs. There are heavy moments as well as quiet ones, catchy melodic moments as well as off-kilter experimental ones. The album’s got even longer songs than its predecessor, and it’s far more psychedelic and progressive than anything they did before it, but still overall more traditionally structured than what they’d do next.

Stream Ænima on Spotify below and on all streaming services here.

Tool Lateralus

Lateralus (2001)

Coming five years after Ænima, 2001’s Lateralus is Tool’s most experimental album. It still has moments that qualify as metal but it’s overall a progressive art rock album that puts the band’s King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Rush influences more in the forefront than any of their other studio releases. On this album, long songs are more the rule than the exception, and it’s heavy on atmosphere and ambience; the bulk of it would probably appeal even more to post-rock fans than it would to people who came to Tool via their adjacency to nu metal. To revisit the Nine Inch Nails comparison I made earlier, Lateralus is sort of to Ænima as The Fragile is to The Downward Spiral. In both cases, the latter is more classic, more widely loved, and more radio friendly, but the former is adventurous in ways that early fans of the band may have never predicted. A song like Lateralus‘ “Reflection” sees Tool fully off in outer space, with words seeping out of Maynard’s mouth like a slow leak as the band builds an atmosphere rather than focusing on riffs or verse-chorus-verse song structure. It’s closer in spirit to Hawkwind or spacey Grateful Dead jams or certain songs by the aforementioned Pink Floyd than it is ’90s alt-metal, and it’s far from the only time that Lateralus explores that kind of territory.

It was a bold move for Tool to make an album like this; five long years go by after a breakthrough album and they come back with 79 minutes of exploratory jams? It must have pissed a lot of people off, but it was a crucial step in establishing Tool as a band who sets no limits for themselves and insists on pushing forward. Lateralus is uncompromising in its experimentation, yet it remains just as gripping as the band’s more accessible albums. Lateralus was the album that proved Tool could make just about any kind of music they wanted, and still sound like Tool. That’s a sign of a truly great band.

Stream Lateralus on Spotify below and on all streaming services here.

Tool 10,000 Days

10,000 Days (2006)

It’s probably safe to say that, upon release, 10,000 Days got more of a lukewarm response than its predecessors. It wasn’t a return to form, but it was a return to being a lot more accessible than Lateralus was — be it the wait-this-is-actually-kinda-nu-metal chugs of “Jambi” or the prog-pop of “The Pot” — and I could see someone making the argument that, unlike every Tool album before it, it wasn’t a massive leap forward. But year after year went by without a followup, and as is often the case when a band gives their fans that much time for a “divisive” album to sink in, eventually people start to realize how brilliant it is. That was very much the case with 10,000 Days, which seems silly to be critical of now. In its own way, it’s just as essential as everything that Tool did before it. Many of its songs are staples of Tool’s current live show, and those songs sound as great as the classics. And when you’ve got a band as unique and larger-than-life as Tool, sometimes you set your expectations super high for each new album, but a little distance can remind you that even their worst album towers over plenty of other bands’ best.

And though 10,000 Days was indeed a more accessible version of Tool, one more similar to the alt-rock and alt-metal bands you could still hear on the radio in 2006, it also had songs like the 17-minute epic “Wings For Marie (Pt 1)”/”10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2).” That song, and a couple others like “Intension,” see Tool getting even more trippy and more atmospheric than they did on Lateralus. And even if 10,000 Days wasn’t a major leap forward, it still finds ways to not sound like any other Tool album. As a band who’s been around for nearly 30 years and released just four full-lengths, we can probably assume that — like My Bloody Valentine or Portishead or Slowdive — they’ve got a serious sense of quality control and won’t release something new unless they’re absolutely sure it adds to their discography. Let’s hope that means the 13-year wait for Fear Inoculum will be worth it.

Stream 10,000 Days on Spotify below and on all streaming services here.

Tool Fear Inoculum

Fear Inoculum (2019)

Update: Tool’s first album in 13 years is officially here! Read our review of it here.

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