One of the final holdouts of the streaming revolution, Tool, has finally relented. In the run up to their latest album, Fear Inoculum, their first in 13 years, the legendary prog-metal band has made their back catalogue available on streaming services everywhere. An entire generation of potential fans who’ve grown up with the ability to stream albums at will, and for whom physical media is a quaint and archaic idea, now have the chance to experience the full scope of one of the greatest and most mysterious bands of the modern era.
As a band, Tool have shifted and evolved much over the now 27 years of their career, and even with just five releases in their back catalogue (not including Salival, which did not get the streaming treatment) it can be difficult to know where to start. Tempting as it is to say, “start at the beginning and work your way forward,” our consumption of music is so vastly different than it’s ever been. With the caveat that it’s impossible to remove most Tool songs from the fabric of the album on which they’re featured, we decided to take some of the guess work out of the process for new fans venturing into the Tool shed for the very first time.
Sweat: The first track off their first EP, “Sweat” sets a bold standard that the band spends the rest of their career tearing to shreds. A more overtly “heavy” song than many of their later works, it’s impossible to disconnect “Sweat” or Opiate from the miasma of the rock of the era. Still, it invokes many of the themes that Tool would explore throughout their career and the lyrics give a hint at the kind of philosophical ideas that lead singer Maynard James Keenan would more fully expound upon in later releases. Feeling like a dose of post-grunge in the midst of the grunge era, it was about six years ahead of its time, setting a trend that Tool would follow in subsequent releases.
Bottom: Undertow is largely a more refined extension of the elements explored by Opiate, in which Tool is still playing the role of more traditional metal/hard rock miscreants. “Bottom,” while still playing within that oeuvre, further suggests that Tool had higher aspirations than your average early-90s heavy metal band. Featuring a guest performance from Henry Rollins, who delivers what might be the most Rollins monologue of all time, the song is about confronting weakness both within the self and the world outside. These are themes that Tool would more artfully explore as they evolved, but there’s an undeniable power evinced here that evokes not just what Tool was but who Tool aspired to be.
Eulogy: There’s a prescience to this track from 1996’s Ænima that feels even more appropriate today than it ever has. Rumors about who Keenan is singing about have abound. One of the more commonly accepted notions was that it’s a tongue-in-cheek memorial to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard but since he died ten years before this song, I’m skeptical. The who matters far less than the rest of the song implies, however. Ultimately this is a song about rejecting those who purport to speak for us and thinking for ourselves. By removing any specific notions about who the song might be about from the context, it could be about anyone. It also serves as a beat by beat recounting of how fascists and fools gain power by “standing above the crowd [and having] a voice that was strong and loud.” Anyone can gain power by “ranting and raving” but, in the end, it’s a façade and, when they’re gone, they won’t be missed.
Disposition/Reflection/Triad: Originally conceived as a single 24-minute song entitled “Resolution,” before being broken up into three distinct tracks, these songs make up an epic prog-rock banger that brings the emotional crux of 2001’s Lateralus to a close. Flowing like the movements of symphony of heavy metal, they serve as a sort of final mission statement for the over-arching themes of introspection and transcendence that are explored throughout the album. One part Pink Floyd and one part Led Zeppelin, it’s 24 minutes of mind-bending fury that pushes you forward on a journey of self-reflection and ego destruction that’s as heavy as any trip you’re likely to take.
Wings for Marie/10,000 Days: Written following the death of Keenan’s mother, these two tracks form a world destroying 18-minute eulogy unlike any that has ever been given. For backstory, Keenan’s mother suffered a debilitating stroke when was 11 years old (explored in the song “Jimmy” off of Ænima). She spent the next 27 years (or 10,000 days) in a wheelchair before dying in 2003. “Wings for Marie/10,000 Days” finds Keenan exalting his mother and her Christian faith, which he’d often railed against in other songs (see also: A Perfect Circle’s “Judith,” also about Keenan’s mother). It’s the most emotional song from a band that’s never shied away from delving into emotional material, finding Keenan coming to terms not just with his mother’s death but with the faith his mother displayed throughout the final 27 years of her life. If you’re not sobbing by the time Keenan sings “Give me my wings,” then I don’t know what to tell you.