Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Top Ten Things: Tool Songs

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Today I'm thinkin' about everyone's favorite weirdo math-metal quartet, the Stanley Kubrick of rock n' roll, Tool!

I compare them to Kubrick because like Stanley, Tool are uncompromising in their artistic vision, relentlessly perfectionistic, and their output is not easily digestible, yet it's still commercially successful.  You need to put in some work to enjoy a Tool album; it's not something you can listen to passively.  Between the unconventional time signatures, the multi-layered instrumentation, the radio-defying running times, and the hooks that only sink in after several listens, a Tool record gets infinitely better with familiarity.  When I think of Tool I think of Maynard's snaking, undulating melodies, Adam's agile guitar riffs that fit together like puzzle pieces with Justin's pulsing bass lines, and Danny's impossibly complex drum patterns that sound like he has at least two extra limbs.  Tool is unlike any other band out there; the songs conjure vivid imagery and develop organically, taking as long as they need to get where they're going.

But which Tool songs are at the top of the pile?  Let's take a look at the Top Ten Tool Tunes.....

**Note: I'm a music nerd so some of this will deal with the songs' compositional theory.**

10. Lateralus

The title track from their third album, the wildly complex "Lateralus" features shifting time signatures (5/8 in the verse, 9/8 to 8/8 to 7/8 in the chorus) and a vocal rhythm inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.  The subject matter is about growing and pushing one's boundaries to achieve something greater than themselves, again tying into the Fibonacci theme ("Ride the spiral to the end/And may just go where no one's been").  The verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure then gives way to a climactic third act that employs a 4-over-3 polyrhythm, with the vocals in 4 and everything else in 3.  This is one of Tool's many epic tunes that dazzles musically but also carries a positive message.

9. Jambi

The second song on 10,000 Days borrows its strange title from Pee Wee's Playhouse (specifically the show's genie character), which Danny Carey said sprung to mind when he heard Justin Chancellor's bass line.  "Jambi" is mostly in 9/8, giving the song a circular pulse, and features some of Adam Jones' most impressive syncopated rhythm guitar work.  Lyrically the song seems to deal with the meaninglessness of wealth and power without being able to share it with one's soul mate, as it were - "If I could I'd wish it all away/If I thought tomorrow would take you away."  Then the song's conclusion mentions two uniting as one, a theme that recurs later in the album and in its stereoscopic artwork.  It's probably as close to a love song as the band has ever written.

8. Forty-Six & 2

Another song about ascending to a new level, "Forty-Six & 2" is a reference to a Jungian theory about the human race evolving to include an extra pair of chromosomes and thus becoming a more advanced species.  It's a rare Tool song that's mostly in 4/4 but it's full of delightful syncopation and interlocking parts from the three instrumentalists, climaxing in a repeated staccato attack.  One of Tool's most popular radio hits.

7. Eulogy

Track #2 on Aenima is a subtly scathing rebuke of L. Ron Hubbard that begins with an extended, slow-building, percussive intro and transitions into a simple verse ("He had a lot to say/He had a lot of nothing to say, we'll miss him") before exploding into an eminently memorable chorus.  Keenan's knack for creating winding, twisting melodies is on full display here in lines like "Don't cry/Or feel too down/Not all martyrs see divinity/But at least you tried."  The second half has a looser, more open structure but explores the same subject matter - "Get off your fucking cross/We need that fucking space to nail the next fool martyr."  But a big reason I like this song so much is the strength of its chorus; one of the best they've ever written.

6. The Pot

Tool's first #1 hit was this comparatively simple tune about hypocrisy, its title a double entendre of being high on drugs and "calling the kettle black."  Maynard delivers one of his most soulful vocal performances over a rolling, syncopated 4/4 groove, and the result is an infectiously singable, relatable reproach of disingenuousness.  What else can be said about "The Pot," other than "It's great?"

5. Right in Two

Perhaps no Tool song ties together its lyrical theme and its musical motifs as perfectly as the de facto closing track of 10,000 Days.  Sung from the point of view of an angel lamenting humanity's self-destructive, warlike tendencies ("Don't these talking monkeys know that Eden has enough to go around?"), "Right in Two" talks about dividing and cutting things in half ("Silly monkeys, give them thumbs/They forge a blade and where there's one they're bound to divide it/Right in two").  Fittingly the song itself is in 11/8 time - visually 1 + 1 = 11, and late in the song a symmetrical ostinato pops up that fits snugly in the 11-beat phrase, looking like this: 1  11  1 / 1  11  1.  It's an ingenious marriage of musical/lyrical thematic material that makes "Right in Two" one of Tool's most ambitious and noteworthy songs.  It's also got one of the most brutally heavy instrumental sections they've ever written.

4. The Patient

My favorite song from Lateralus is this poignant 5/4 opus, another example of a title with a double meaning.  The lyrics concern staying the course in a difficult, painstaking endeavor but also imply the the person speaking is in some kind of medical field - "If there were no desire to heal/The damaged and broken met along/This tedious path I've chosen here/I certainly would've walked away by now."  This is one of Maynard's more emotive vocals, and the second half of the song builds to a truly affecting climax, as the line "I must keep reminding myself of this" soars over the final chorus, creating a haunting counterpoint.  "The Patient" is Lateralus's masterpiece.

3. Stinkfist

Redubbed "Track #1" for the music video due to the implied graphic nature of the original title, Aenima's opening track deals with the theme of desensitization and increasing tolerance toward external stimulae.  Lines like "Finger deep within the borderline," "Elbow deep within the borderline" create an explicit metaphor for the song's real meaning, expressed with "There's something kinda sad about/The way that things have come to be/Desensitized to everything/What became of subtlety."  That the song's implied imagery led to its censorship ironically illustrates its point.  Regardless, "Stinkfist" is a succinct and powerful five minutes, and one of Tool's very best songs.

2. Aenema

For me the climax of Tool's greatest album is the title track, one of two tributes to comedian Bill Hicks.  "Aenema" bounces between 6/8 and 3/4 time and lyrically is about ridding society of its unimportant anxieties, particularly its obsession with celebrity.  Borrowing phrases like "See you down in Arizona Bay," the song supposes a future in which the entire state of California sinks into the ocean and humanity embraces less superficiality and materialism.  The second verse takes shots at upscale America's everyday worries ("Fret for your figure and fret for your latte and fret for your lawsuit and fret for your hairpiece"), likening it all to a freak show.  "Aenema" builds to a whirlpool-esque instrumental denouement, which goes from 6/8 to another 4-over-3 polyrhythm and puts an exclamation point on this scornful, nihilistic tune.

1. Vicarious

My all-time favorite Tool song is the 10,000 Days opener, about society's voyeuristic need to watch others suffer via TV news.  "Vicarious" makes mention of various horrific news stories before readily admitting that both the speaker and everyone listening gets off on seeing other people die from the safety of their couch - "I need to watch things die/From a good safe distance/Vicariously I live while the whole world dies."  The song begins with a morose arpeggiated guitar (complemented perfectly by the bass line) before launching into a stuttering 5/4 riff, over which Maynard's whisper-growled vocals tauntingly bring the listener to task for our own depraved tendencies.  The song features multiple self-contained sections that together form a prog-metal masterwork with a climactic, soaring final chorus - "Vicariously I/Live while the whole world dies/Much better you than I."  This is in my opinion Tool's greatest track.

There's my list - comment below with your thoughts, and join us on Twitter, MeWe, Facebook and YouTube!

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