Three decades in, we rank Tool’s best songs: all the way from Opiate to Fear Inoculum…
In many ways, Tool’s back catalogue – a collection of songs three decades in the making yet only five albums deep – is less a discography to be listened to and more of a puzzle to be solved. Together, drummer Danny Carey, bassist Justin Chancellor (or his predecessor Paul D’Amour), guitarist Adam Jones and vocalist Maynard James Keenan are a band apart. It’s not just in the deep, dense, vertiginously complex music they make, either, but in their often contrarian approach to conducting the business of being in a band; their unwillingness to be steered by their own success, and their insistence on delivering greatness on their own stubborn terms. Following their story step by step, song by song is the only path to enlightenment for their (many) obsessive devotees.
So many of their individual compositions work as effective standalones, however. Sometimes they’re microcosms of the greater entity, but more often they’re detailed fragments reflecting back vibrant perspectives on art, humanity and society as a whole.
We’ve charted our top 20 here. Be warned, however, give these as spin and they’ll drag you in…
20. HOOKER WITH A PENIS (ÆNIMA, 1996)
The story endures of singer Maynard James Keenan being confronted by a fan who claimed to have been a Tool fan since their first EP, but had been disgusted by their “selling out.” Maynard’s response? To remind the fan that he’s part of the problem for buying their records in the first place. Shamelessly censor-baiting title aside, this was a rebuke of the sheer mindlessness of the phonies and fools in their fanbase who think that finding success necessarily puts artists at odds with their hardcore followers. Arriving when it did, the song was key, too, to reminding those fans that for all their increasingly proggy flourishes, the band were still fuelled by the filth and fury of that punk spirit within.
19. OPIATE (OPIATE, 1992)
Kickstarting a long history of merging philosophy and prog metal, the title-track from Tool’s debut EP fleshes Karl Marx’s hypothesis that “Religion is opium for the masses” into a provocative, eight-and-a-half minute exploration of society’s need for figureheads to follow. ‘Choices always were a problem for you,’ Maynard teases. ‘What you need is someone strong to guide you / Deaf and blind and dumb and born to follow / what you need is someone strong to use you…’ The ’90s alt. influence is strong here, but it’s always interesting to see how they drew it out into such a sprawling song structure. That climactic ‘RAPE YOU!’ still raises goosebumps to this day.
18. EULOGY (ÆNIMA, 1996)
‘Would you die for me? Don’t you fuckin’ lie!’ Eulogy certainly isn’t the easiest listen in the Tool catalogue. Taking four minutes (of an eight-and-a-half minute runtime) to really get going, it showcases the quartet’s songwriting at its most awkward and contrarian. When it does get going, though, the band build on a staccato foundation with one of their most compelling compositions. So, who is this Eulogy for? Although there is potent Christian imagery at play, it’s evidently metaphorical, with various interviews and reports over the years naming everyone from Kurt Cobain to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Not a fond farewell, regardless.
17. PNEUMA (FEAR INOCULUM, 2019)
If any criticism could be reasonably levelled at Tool’s fifth album (aside, of course, from the interminable wait for it to actually see the light of day) it would be that it seemed almost too inwardly-focused, obsessing over the band’s mythos and the weight of expectation borne by such a long gestated opus. Along with 7empest (more on that later), Pneuma is able to stand apart from all that, recycling the band’s long pored-over sharpness and creative ingenuity into a track that feels unapologetically new. With its title a reference to respiration, the song charts the process of yogic meditation, drawing the listener deeper within themselves. A special mention for drummer Danny Carey’s out-of-this-world percussive performance, too.
16. PRISON SEX (UNDERTOW, 1993)
If you’d only heard Tool’s latter-day material, the provocatively titled sub-five-minute slammer Prison Sex would be hardly recognisable. A staccato alt.rock earworm that openly owes debts to the contemporary grunge and funk-rock scenes of the time, it arrives with almost ass-shaking attitude. Perversely, though, it charts a downward spiral of child abuse, with guitarist Adam Jones crafting a nightmarish, hugely controversial music video that directly addresses the subject as Maynard writhes in a pool of vitriol and catharsis.
15. JAMBI (10,000 DAYS, 2006)
On an album that – for all its power – tends to err towards ponderousness, Jambi is a jarring standout to cleanse the palette and rouse the entranced soul. Named, with both knowing absurdity and heartbreaking poignancy, after the magic genie who granted wishes on Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse, it finds Maynard plumbing the darkest depths of his psyche, bargaining with the titular Jambi for just one more day with his departed mother as rock-breaking riffage pummels the background.
14. THIRD EYE (ÆNIMA, 1996)
A fellow celebrity outsider with a reputation built on unwavering honesty, outside the box thinking and bone-dry wit – it’s hardly surprising that late comedian Bill Hicks was a marked influence on Tool as a young band. Following his passing (and the lost opportunity to work together), Tool closed out their third album with this 14-minute epic, starting with a direct sample of his The War On Drugs monologue (“See, I think drugs have done some good things for us, I really do…”) before opening out as a multi-part exploration on opening the pineal gland – that proverbial ‘third eye’, deep in the centre of the brain. A daring statement from artists ascending.
13. SOBER (UNDERTOW, 1993)
If there’s an argument that with their increasingly big ideas, Tool have lost at least part of their their laser focus and bleeding edge attack, then this is the song with which to make it. Inspired by an unnamed artistic acquaintance struggling with addiction (‘Why can’t we drink forever?’), its intense five-minute span is comprised of unashamed alt.metal bombast and lyrics no less compelling or complex for their refusal to dance around their subject matter. All the better for it, too.
12. STINKFIST (ÆNIMA, 1996)
How many bands are out there with the subversive intelligence, unwavering nerve and sheer unhinged chutzpah to open their ‘difficult second album’ straight-faced with a song about anal fisting? Reckon you could count their number on one hand? We wager it’d take just a single (moderately malodorous) finger. Although their music landed without a hint of fratboy puerility, Tool didn’t even try to hide their mischievousness. If people were too blind – or simply too stunned – to pick up on the title Stinkfist, Maynard’s ‘cheeky’ chorus refrain of ‘Relax, turn around, take my hand…’ laid the meaning grubbily bare. Taking the piss. These lads were dragging out the shit as well…
11. VICARIOUS (10,000 DAYS, 2006)
Although critical consensus has largely concluded that Tool are far to gnostic to be considered heralds of societal downfall, it’s almost impossible not to look at lyrics like, ‘Eye on the TV / ’Cause tragedy thrills me…’ and revisit the timeline from 2006 to the internet-driven heartlessness of today. On the other hand, there is a timelessness – from citizens filling the coliseum to crowds gathered round the gallows to the internet voyeurs of today – about people’s craving to vicariously experience pain and suffering, too. A clockwork instrumental composition, only just bubbling under, lands with the same dualist sense of modernity and timelessness.
10. THE GRUDGE (LATERALUS, 2001)
If Lateralus is Tool’s map of the path to enlightenment, its spring-loaded opener is a powerful invitation to take that first step of letting go. ‘Wear the grudge like a crown of negativity,’ Maynard dares us. ‘Calculate what we will or will not tolerate / Desperate to control all and everything…’ Tightly wound like a panic attack for its thumping first five minutes, the song explodes in a swell of fiery catharsis and sweet relief in its own closing act. The most substantial album opener in the history of rock? Quite possibly.
9. 7EMPEST (FEAR INOCULUM, 2019)
When 7empest was unveiled last year, it was heralded not only as that long overdue fifth album’s crowning achievement, but also that of guitarist Adam Jones’ career with the band. It’s not hard to see why. Clocking in at a staggering 15 minutes and 45 seconds, it’s a dark tower that springs into view almost unexpectedly in the album’s final stretch – building from a passage of deceptively insubstantial noodling into a raging storm of sound. From the moment that pulse-quickening first wave of distortion hits around 80 seconds in, you know you’re in for something special. It’s one hell of a ride as listeners – and Adam’s bandmates – scramble to keep pace on the rollercoaster that follows.
8. THE POT (10,000 DAYS, 2006)
When Justin Bieber of all people decided to post the lyrics to this pivotal track from 2006’s 10,000 Days last July, it sent the internet and metal communities into a frenzy, prompting Maynard to respond simply “#bummer” on Twitter before later backtracking to issue a sort-of apology to the Canadian popstar. What most people seemed to ignore in the furore, though, was what it said about how much Tool had infected the mainstream in the 13 years since The Pot became their first mainstream rock chart-topper. A typically venomous rebuke against modern hypocrisy (The Pot calling the kettle black and all that…), this delivered the same blend of intellectualism, accessibility and mind-bending mass appeal that Christopher Nolan would later bring to the silver screen.
7. ÆNEMA (ÆNIMA, 1996)
‘Some say the end is near,’ rages Maynard, blending the apocalyptic and the sardonic on Aenima’s almost-title-track. ‘Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon I certainly hope we will I sure could use a vacation from this…’ influenced by Bill Hicks’ legendary Arizona Bay skit, this epic rages against everyone from the Hollywood elite to gangster wannabes to Scientologists with boundless creativity and real bile. A combination of ‘anima’ (the Latin term for ‘soul’, often associated to the ideas of life force) and ‘enema’ (the medical procedure of rectal irrigation), the name itself points at the fine line between high-mindedness and toilet humour. And is there a reason the ‘i’ has been swapped for an ‘e’ from album to song? Fuck knows.
6. SCHISM (LATERALUS, 2001)
‘I know the pieces fit ’cause I watched them fall away…’ After five years away – at that point, an age for Tool fans who were yet to comprehend the band’s ongoing, first-hand lesson in the elasticity of time – Schism was the introduction to their new reality. Chock full of brain teasing time signatures and semi-ambiguous lyrical themes that seem to reference divisions within the Christian church it may have been, but what really took listeners aback was the sheer beauty with which it was delivered. That fluid bass riff will live forever in the memory, but the ethereal textures and defiantly positivist bombast are the hallmarks of a band rising above the petty pessimism of the past.
5. WINGS FOR MARIE (PT 1)/10,000 DAYS (WINGS PT 2) (10,000 DAYS, 2006)
Although they’re separate tracks on the album itself, this pair of tracks at the heart of Tool’s fourth album deserve to be experienced as a single, 17-minute sprawl. Offering an unprecedentedly personal perspective into Maynard’s mindset, it charts the tragedy of his mother who was left paralysed by a cerebral aneurysm in 1976, when the singer was only 11 years old, and eventually passed away in 2003. The 10,000 days of the title are an approximation of the time that passed in between. Although relatively lightweight in comparison to the majority of the band’s catalogue, the ambience is charged with grief and existential reckoning. One of the most potently heartfelt tracks in all of progressive metal.
4. PUSHIT (ÆNIMA, 1996)
Victims of domestic abuse can find themselves pulled apart by the horrible duality of the situation in which they find themselves: the tension between love and the deeper understanding that they deserve more than the violence with which their relationship has presented them. ‘Remember I will always love you / As I claw your fucking throat away,’ Maynard rages, plunging himself into the mindset for one of his most thrilling performances that crashes like waves, with crests as shimmering as a daydream and troughs that hit like a punch to the gut. A delirious masterpiece that proved how evocative Tool’s music can be, while proving they would not shy away from reality’s more serrated edges.
3. PARABOLA (LATERALUS, 2001)
There’s a case that Parabola should be considered along with its soothing preamble Parabol as another epic composition split across two tracks. While we would strongly recommend that the songs are experienced together, it’s the second half that lives longest in the memory. Its title toys with mathematics again – a parabola being a symmetrical, U-shaped curve, whose ascent mirrors its descent – but the song itself stresses the importance of self reflection. Told from the perspective of someone who has come to the realisation that the body is but a meaty vessel for the soul, the song builds to a thrashing release in line with that ultimate spiritual liberation.
2. FORTY SIX & 2 (ÆNIMA, 1996)
The human genetic makeup traditionally comprises 46 chromosomes, but legendary philosopher Carl Jung believed that we would eventually develop an additional pair, bringing the total to 48 – the mutation that would mark the next meaningful development for humankind. It’s hardly surprising that it’s an idea Tool were taken with, ruminating on how our negative traits and lesser instincts could hold us back from making the leap as a whirling storm of Eastern-influenced atmospherics and pounding riffage circles overhead. Still a live favourite today, the unbridled focus, dynamism and ambition at play remain proof that Tool are still an evolutionary step ahead of their peers.
1. LATERALUS (LATERALUS, 2001)
As much as Tool’s (rare) critics point to songs like Lateralus as irrefutable proof of their pretentiousness – deployment of the Fibonacci sequence knowingly drawing comparisons with maestros like Mozart and Da Vinci – the sheer verve with which they combine maths and music on the title-track of their third LP equally exemplifies everything that makes them great. Like the outward spiral of the sequence itself, the song feels like an irresistible 10-minute escalation; time signatures and lyrical puzzles ticking away, through to a crescendo of overwhelming trippiness. Confirmation, if it were ever needed, that Tool fans’ patience will be rewarded with nothing less than sheer mastery.