There are some general rules for success in the world of hard rock music. Keep your songs radio friendly, read 3-4 minutes. Make your lyrics, or chorus, sing-along friendly. Release an album at least once every 3 years, preferably every 2 years. Stick to simple emotions that everyone understands: love, anger, sadness and lust. Be easy to fit into a genre. Tool has flagrantly, almost gleefully, disregarded all of these and amassed the kind of devoted following normally reserved for cult leaders.
When it comes to releasing albums, Tool is the Thomas Harris of the rock music world. The band averages five years between albums: releasing Aenima in 1996; Lateralus in 2001; and 10,000 Days in 2006. The wait between 10,000 Days and the, as yet untitled and unscheduled for release, fifth studio album will be even longer. Despite these waits, all four of Tool’s studio albums have gone at least platinum in sales. These sales might suggest that the band has found an identifiable genre niche to live in, but that isn’t the case either.
Tool fits somewhere into the world of hard rock music, but after that, slapping a genre label on the band gets sketchy. Genre labels from alternative metal to progressive rock and even art rock has been applied, held on tenuously for a bit, and then fallen away. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that band, although unmistakably consistent with its own sound, is not particularly consistent with any other sound. Nor does the band make its music easy in any other way.
Unlike the common practice of including lyrics in the liner notes or on a band’s website, Tool does neither. The lyrics aren’t simple, rarely lend themselves to singing along, and explore a range of complex and sometimes hard to digest topics. For example, the core of 10,000 Days is two songs: “Wings for Marie (Part 1)” and, the title track, “10,000 Days (Wings Part 2).” These two songs, taken together, are nearly 18 minutes.
They walk the listener through what feels, and may very well be, a telling of lead singer, Maynard James Keenan’s, grieving process following the death of his mother. These songs do not sentimentalize or sugarcoat. They are filled with naked anguish and Keenan’s visceral rage at a God he does not believe in, but that his mother did. This is how Tool writes music, with a cutting edge that forces the audience to think and rarely in ways that lead to easy answers.
Tool breaks the rules. The songs are long, complicated, frequently performed in the key of “what the heck was that?” and with bizarre, rapidly-shifting time signatures. The lyrics are sometimes hard to discern and, courtesy of Keenan’s outrageous vocal range, nigh impossible to sing in some places. They don’t release their albums a steady, audience pleasing pace. The band members write the music they want to write and release it whenever they deem the time has arrived. They break all the rules and their fans love them for it.