Let me begin with an impossibly pretentious assumption: Tool are a philosophy, one grounded in rhetoric informed by a rejection of what philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as the “joint-stock economy” of society — the herd, trampling over free thought. As you'll hear in their music, Tool make a passionate plea for individualism. They condition us to be skeptical of group-think and its tools of subjugation (namely, the church and Hollywood) as singer Maynard James Keenan screams into our clogged ears to “learn to swim,” or “let go,” like a nihilistic drill sergeant.
To appreciate Tool, one requires a culturally forgotten sense of conviction that's both cerebral and militaristic, like learning a martial art, or solving the bishop puzzle in The 7th Guest; they even use odd time signatures that confuse the Western music mind. They don't make it easy on us to become initiated. Tool is hermetically sealed off from the digital age, as none of their music is available on streaming services or iTunes. They are fundamentalists in their disdain for the modern music industry. Even their website seems like a puzzle — as does their creative process, as they seemingly finish albums the way Kubrick released films in his later life (i.e. rarely, if ever). Their last album was released more than a decade ago, which partially explains why so many were confused when they got top billing at this year's Governors Ball festival. They're probably the most unpopular-yet-worshipped band on the planet.
I undertook this ranking in an effort to rediscover Tool, a band I mostly stopped listening to after 10,000 Days was released in 2006. I'm revisiting their catalog, not providing a roadmap to understand it. That would require a tome. To keep the process pure, I've purposefully remained ignorant to their presence on the internet in order to maintain a degree of solipsism. Fuck Google, Wikipedia and fan forums. I've also excluded any covers or tracks I felt qualified as a filler, as opposed to a transition or an intro (those I kept). Even though I know perfectly well that Tool purists will deny the assertion that Tool ever recorded a filler.
42. Disgustipated, Undertow (1993)
It was brazen for a band releasing their first full-length to close it with 15 minutes of animal sounds and drum patterns, where nine of those minutes include the sustained sound of grasshoppers rustling in the background as a Baptist preacher forecasts a vegetable holocaust. Then again, the cover art is a stretched-open ribcage.
41. Merkaba, Salival (2000)
Cacophony attempts to denormalize our brains by accessing the pineal gland, what French philosopher Renee Descartes referred to as the “principal seat of the soul.” This is the musical equivalent of guided meditation, or a DMT trip, the latter of which I only know about because of Tool. Descartes I discovered in Philosophy Theory class, around the time Lateralus was released.
40. The Gaping Lotus Experience, Opiate (1992)
It would be logical to deduce that, as a former Midwestern army cadet and mohawked punk, Maynard is not a hippie. So the sitar effect and shamanic vocals in “The Gaping Lotus Experience” probably are a diss aimed at the opium-den mysticism of worshippers at the altar of Syd Barrett, as if to say that the Summer of Love was as goofy as Mick Jagger in The Performance. Or it could be a middle finger to those Tool fans who suggest the band is informed by Satan.
39. Die Eier von Satan (The Balls of Satan), Aenima (1996)
An aggro German voice is heard over an industrialized arrangement that crescendos with a chorus of cheers. In 1996, when the internet was limited to AOL chat rooms, this was thought to be an allusion to Adolf Hitler. It turned out to be just a cookie recipe read in German, which was amusing, or disappointing, depending on your tolerance for fascistic satire.
38. Maynard's Dick, Salival (2000)
Perhaps a criticism of hero worship buried under Maynard's average-sized penis, where the singer relentlessly objectifies himself by referring to his dick in the third person: “Slide a mile six inches at a time on Maynard's dick.” This is the closest (or farthest) Tool ever got to a coffeehouse sing-along.
37. Jerk-Off, Opiate (1992)
For me, “Jerk-Off” is a direct assault on Puritanism, where masturbation is used as a metaphor to attack those who shamed teenagers like Maynard for exploring their sexuality. There's also a ton of heavy-metal rage here, shit that would have triggered a national outcry had this song been released in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre.
36. Flood, Undertow (1993)
Tool delving into Nietzschean nihilism, where the correct path can be found only in the rubble of the previous one. This is existentialism as a doom-metal baptism, in blood, inside the muddy river of Tool.
35. Swamp Song, Undertow (1993)
Paul D'Amour, Tool's original bassist, had a very specific bass sound, one he'd occasionally create by slapping the thick steel strings on his Rickenbacker, which gave early Tool an armored brutality to their sound. It's the backbone of “Swamp Song,” in which Maynard plays a Geronimo figure waging war with the invaders: “Wander in and wandering, no one even invited you in.”
34. Sweat, Opiate (1992)
On the first track off their first EP, Maynard invites you on a lucid-dream journey into the wilderness of his own subconscious, perhaps a past life or haunting simulation, the kind romanticized by Edgar Allan Poe in his poem “Dream Within a Dream.”
33. Part of Me, Opiate (1992)
If you didn't already know, Tool's original rhythm section sounded like a postapocalyptic Red Hot Chili Peppers. Maynard used the tanklike aggression to create danceable melodies with his Eastern-sounding vibrato, singing about meta shit like conversing with his own ego to expose its fallacies — to kill it before it kills him.
32. Crawl Away, Undertow (1993)
Adam Jones' luminous punk intro, with Paul D'Amour's bass clanking in the background, is something you won't hear on many Tool songs. That's what I took away from Undertow, a record where Tool extracts moments of sonic clarity out of all the thick murk.
31. Undertow, Undertow (1993)
If Undertow is a concept album for the pissed-off skeptic, then the environment it inhabits is a swamp, where parishioners bathe in mud, leeches and the charred pinewood of an old church that collapses under the weight of Tool's pagan swell.
30. Bottom, Undertow (1993)
Henry Rollins is the more aggro version of Maynard. So their collaboration on a track that attacks Judeo-Christian guilt is both organic and outrageously pretentious. Their coupling is the musical equivalent of sitting through a lecture where Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins tell you how much they agree with each other.
29. Intolerance, Undertow (1993)
You hear some sort of animal breathing in the background, perhaps a pig, or Tool creating the effect, as “Intolerance” foreshadows the future of Tool as the new architects of metal, where they construct a bridge between movements to create a whole new landscape. Two minutes in, there's a pause, as Adam Jones plays a riff that reminds me of Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, which makes “Intolerance” one of the most head-banging tracks off Undertow.
28. Hush, Opiate (1992)
The slap bass intro is lit on fire by Maynard's unrestrained scream, “Fuck youuuuuuuu!” and one of his most important lyrics: “I can say what I want to, even if I'm not serious.” Study it, especially if you're a teenager being bullied by uptight teachers and macho assholes, as this is Tool shredding apart the norms of speech, conduct and political correctness.
27. Cold and Ugly, Opiate (1992)
Maynard's hilarious request to “throw that Bob Marley wannabe motherfucker out of here” is followed by a Tool song that's memorable for its bridge, one that includes a ripping solo by Adam Jones that sounds like Tony Iommi at his most amped.
26. Opiate, Opiate (1992)
Today it sounds like A Perfect Circle song, but in 1993 it was the most melodic song off Opiate, where Maynard hints that removing the invisible hand of God from the consciousness is the first step toward enlightenment.
25. 4°, Undertow (1993)
This song has a really life-affirming chorus, which is unusual for Tool. It seems like a highly influential track, too; looking back at it now, it has a strand that connects Tool to the DNA of bands they influenced, like Korn and Mudvayne.
24. H., Ænima (1997)
“H.” is a puzzling track that could be about a son's connection to his mother, his tortured inability to “let go” and experience love without shame, or something else entirely. I couldn't explain it then and won't bother now, but the thick distortion on the intro, followed by watery guitars, is a mind-bending juxtaposition.
23. Hooker With a Penis, Ænima (1997)
The same year Green Day released “Good Riddance” as an acoustic Dear John letter to 924 Gilman St., Tool dropped an angry rant, their hardest song, one directed at poser fans, calling them “sellouts.” In it, Maynard describes the fans as consumerist whores he's been puppeteering from the start; rather than defending his band's authenticity, he does the reverse and tells the fan to “buy my new record.”
22. Intermission/jimmy, Ænima (1997)
I should add that the cover art for Ænima looks like the hybrid design of a wormhole and a microchip. Without researching this, I'd surmise the cover is a suggestion to take a leap over to the other side, by shattering through Blake's “doors of perception” into a parallel universe. “Jimmy,” a self-referential song I mostly didn't bother with in high school, is a precursor to 10,000 Days and its subject: the slow death of Judith Marie, Maynard's mom, who was paralyzed when Maynard was 11 and died when he was 39, a little more than 10,000 days later.
21. The Pot, 10,000 Days (2006)
Aside from the faint echo on Maynard's falsetto on the intro, which could have been a recording glitch, “The Pot” really has only two things worth talking about. The first is the clarity in Maynard's alto, which is almost never this high, or lucid, which made me feel uncomfortable when I first heard it. The second is Justin Chancellor's funky work on the bass, which bounces around on an Arabic rhythm that seems almost impossible to play, as the steely notes seemingly stab Maynard's wail, which can get a bit unnerving when he screams, “Who are you to wave your finger … you must have been high, high, hiiiiigh.”
20. Jambi, 10,000 Days (2006)
When I first heard this song, the vamping buzzsaw guitar (which rumbles throughout) felt like it distracted my brain from the other parts. Now it sounds like the blues on bad acid, with momentary pauses that cut through the noise. A lot of 10,000 Days, including this part, is a conceptual melting pot of esoteric shit I can't wrap my head around, combined with the painful death of Maynard's mother.
19. Sober, Undertow (1993)
This was Tool's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was how my generation discovered them as that weird band that made Tim Burton–style videos. I first heard “Sober” on MTV at the age of 10, as it inescapably haunted every night. It seemed to play on MTV as often as Dr. Dre or Spin Doctors. But how? How did a video depicting a deformed, twitching hermit become a crossover hit? I shall provide no explanation.
18. Disposition/Reflection/Triad, Lateralus (2001)
A 24-minute experience that consists of three separate tracks — from an album on which Tool evolved into the starchildren of metal — that brings you to tears if you listen to it in a dark room, alone, in a meditative trance. Danny Carey's tribal drumming and the Indian melody on “Reflection” will seduce you into Maynard's cult. A lot happens here, but in its totality, this is a psychedelic achievement and trip into the melting cathedral of Tool.
17. Eon Blue Apocalypse/The Patient, Lateralus (2001)
When I first heard Adam Jones transform his guitar into a ghostly grandfather clock, something that sounded like death chasing me down an alley, I felt dissociated from the experiences of being a “patient.” But growing older and feeling death breathing down my neck, this song has steadily crept into the darkest parts of my heart.
16. Vicarious, 10,000 Days (2006)
This song translated how I felt during the height of the failed invasion of Iraq. It was a hellfire missile targeting the news networks, Bush and our voyeurism of the human plight. It always reminds me of watching Faces of Death tapes as a morbid teenager, or witnessing Saddam Hussein being hanged on cable news only months after “Vicarious” rained down on us. It was the first Tool song released in five years, one I happened to record on cassette when it premiered on KROQ.
15. Forty-Six & 2, Ænima (1997)
The echoing bass has an everlasting creepiness that overshadows the rest of the song, as it becomes a guiding light, like the buzzsaw guitar on “Jambi.” Here Maynard evolves into a new kind of creature with a higher state of consciousness, shedding his repressed thoughts and false beliefs. In simpler terms, hearing the lyrics “Change is coming … now is my time” was the push I needed at 15 to feel comfortable in my loneliness.
14. The Grudge, Lateralus (2001)
This was my first time listening to this song in years, and while I remember thinking it was intense (particular the modulated bass intro), it feels more important today, in the internet age, where we all have grudges, shaming, beefs and fucked-up horoscopes. Back then, I didn't know the astrological significance of the lyric “Saturn comes back around,” but now, in hindsight, my 29th year was when the pieces all began to fit, and my tolerance grew.
13. Eulogy, Ænima (1997)
I took this to be a eulogy for Texan comedian Bill Hicks (who died in 1994), which could be an offensive mistake if it's about someone else, or a criticism of Jesus' unsubstantiated martyrdom. But the words seems to be describing Hicks. Here are a few lines worth reading:
“Not all martyrs see divinity, but at least you tried.”
“Ranting and pointing his finger.”
“He had a voice that was strong and loud … I'm so eager to identify with.”
12. Schism, Lateralus (2001)
“Schism” is Tool's most played song on the radio — a hypothesis I cannot verify as a fact, but I'd be shocked to learn otherwise. Justin Chancellor's sinister bass line is both medieval and postmodern, the result of steel strings colliding with a pick, one he uses to stroke the distorted notes on metal's most otherworldly epic. Listening this after years of avoiding it on the radio, and it's as if Tool is communicating to me in an alien tongue, like the Engineers from Prometheus.
11. Pushit, Ænima (1997)
For a time, this was my favorite Tool song, where a horde of flies buzz around the intro on a 10-minute roller coaster that could either be about role-playing rape, or self-motivation, or both. The song slowly pushes itself upon you, forcefully, choking you. “Pushit” climaxes in a musical triumph that's deceptively calming, before it hammers you over the head with industrial pressure.
10. Ticks & Leeches, Lateralus (2001)
Danny Carey sounds like he has tentacles, each one with its own brain, enabling him to play his geometrically configured kit in such a way that it's dizzying. I once saw Carey perform a solo set at the Baked Potato jazz club; he wore a Lakers jersey and proceed to pummel his kit with brute strength, flawless technique and an upright posture where his head never moved. It was surreal, so when I hear his impossibly intricate work on “Tickers & Leeches,” particularly on the coda, I imagine the free fingers of a jazz pianist like Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell, transmuted to the drums through a 6-foot-5 Midwesterner with muscles.
9. Lateralus, Lateralus (2001)
It follows “Ticks & Leeches” the same way it did on the album; yet another sample of Danny Carey's complex drumming. “Black then white are all I see, in my infancy” — another reference to Descartes, who began his first meditation by ridding himself of all his previous beliefs. “Push the envelope, watch it bend,” is Maynard telling us to embrace sacred ideas — as put forth on every Tool record — to break away from the simulation and witness the beauty of unshackled thought.
8. Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann)/Rosetta Stoned, 10,000 Days (2006)
I'm convinced that this was the song that made 10,000 Days so polarizing. First, it begins with an Ennio Morricone–inspired intro that sounds vaguely Western, unlike anything Tool had done before. The song, which is mostly indiscriminate talking, feels like a satirical criticism of Fire in the Sky, or the fact that most cases of UFO abduction are reported by rural storytellers, like Somerset Frisby, or the meth addict seeking 15 minutes of fame. This is Tool's argument against most UFO sightings but not all.
7. Stinkfist, Ænima (1997)
Memorable for vertiginous mandala drums on the intro, “Stinkfist” might seem PG in our PornHub reality, but in 1997 (when strange sexual acts couldn't be Googled), teenagers like myself were left mouth agape as Maynard romanticized the orgiastic release associated with anal penetration. It was also a great '90s conversation starter, like debating whether Dave Matthews Band's “Crash Into You” is about BDSM sex.
6. Third Eye, Ænima (1997)
Until I discovered Bill Hicks, which happened after I discovered Tool, I thought the man speaking on the intro was Timothy Leary, or some other LSD researcher, or perhaps even a philosopher arguing that hallucinogens are the gateway to a higher consciousness. I feel dumb admitting that, but it's true, even as I proceeded to use the argument to convince my parents that without drugs, music would have never evolved, that The Beatles would have been playing standards had it not been for marijuana, acid and Indian mysticism.
5. Prison Sex, Undertow (1993)
An allegory of childhood molestation released in 1993, at a time when “Cops” was at its peak, when criminals being raped inside the “sexual jungle” of the American prison system was family entertainment. I discovered this on MTV, when my friends and I would debate whether Maynard was saying “release in sodomy” or “release inside of me,” both of which could work.
4. Intension/Right in Two, 10,000 Days (2006)
“Why did father give these humans free will? Now they're all confused,” observes an angel, looking down at the evolved ape, the human, who's mishandled God's plan. This is Tool's smartest argument against man-made religions, delivered in a beautiful, 16-minute epic that's even got an tabla solo (by default, I pick Indian instruments and rhythms to describe the instrumentals in Tool songs, although they could also be Latin or Middle Eastern, or all three).
3. Wings for Marie (Pt. 1)/10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2), 10,000 Days (2006)
A 17-minute eulogy written by Maynard for his mother. It's chilling, not only in the words but through a suspenseful build that evokes grief, suffering, the spirit rising from the body, communicating with the dead, and a stubborn son forgiving his mother for her flaws. This is Tool's death march through the Arabian desert, a sacrifice at a Mayan temple, a European requiem for Judith Marie Keenan, as she approaches the pearly gates. “You are the light, the way, that they will only read about,” Maynard sings, in his most personal lyric, a meditation on loss.
2. Parabol/Parabola, Lateralus (2001)
There's that moment when the seductive guitar riff on “Parabol” begins to grow, like a star on the verge of exploding, as the temperature on the notes rises with Maynard stretching his syllables, “Eternal all this pain is all an ill-uu-uu-uu-uu-sion.” Then we enter “Parabola,” the second movement in Tool's cosmic symphony, a “holy experience,” which creates the feeling like ants crawling inside the back of my cranium, tickling my brain and making me feel something no other song can. It ends in pitch-black darkness, a goth-metal burial of Tool's human form.
1. Ænima, Ænema (1997)
In 1997, Bill Hicks' Arizona Bay was posthumously released, a comedy album that contended America would benefit from the total annihilation of Los Angeles. I've never actually listened to it, but I later found it had inspired Maynard to write a song that's both absurd and emotionally honest, like any good stand-up routine. There was also a sense of mystery about it, an element that's gone from music today. For one, the oddly written title, “Ænema,” which reads like an alien hieroglyph, made me feel as if I was listening to heavy metal written by ancient monks, or Mayan priests. It also didn't explain why a song about the destruction of L.A. had been named after a colon-cleansing technique. Instead, we must “read between the lines” while Tool suffocates us with cheeky insults and sage advice. “Learn to swim,” Maynard sings, chanting the album's unofficial manifesto, on a song in which L.A. is Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the first target of the revolution.