Analysis Culture

The Best of Tool: ‘Finding Beauty in the Dissonance’

Ever since the release this past August of Tool’s magnum opus, Fear Inoculum, I have been binging on the band’s music. Flowing logically from this sonic gorging is the below emesis, in the form of my assessment of Tool’s best songs. These ten tracks represent those that I assess to be the crown jewels of Tool’s oeuvre.

As far as the breakdown of which songs come from which Tool albums, you’ll find four from Lateralus (five, if you count “Parabol” and “Parabola” as separate songs, as Tool themselves do); three from Fear; two from Undertow; and one from Aenima. I really wanted to include a song, or multiple songs, from the album 10,000 Days, but none exceeded the quality of those listed below. In my opinion, the latter is Tool’s weakest LP, so I guess it makes sense that no tracks from that album made this list. In the honorable mention category, though, there are two songs that made it from 10,000 Days. There are none from the Opiate EP, although I do love it.

So here they are, Tool’s ten best songs, ranked from ten to one, by this author.

10. “The Grudge,” Lateralus

This is one of the heaviest, most unabashedly “metal” of Tool’s songs, at least on this list. It opens Tool’s third album and is one of Maynard James Keenan’s least lyrically opaque songs. It explores the corrosive effect of harboring a grudge, and Maynard beseeches the listener toward the end of the track to “give away the stone” and “let go.” The song ends in a sustained guttural bellow, signifying the ineffectual rage of “wear[ing] the grudge like a crown.”

Like most Tool songs, “The Grudge” smacks you in the ears with a musical climax, which kicks in around the 3 minute 40 second mark of the song.

9. “Undertow,” Undertow

The title song from the band’s first full-length album describes in a darkly poetic way the sinister allure and iron grip of addiction, and its power to drag you down under the water’s surface. Never has the word ‘euphoria’ been imbued with such maleficent power as it is while being drawn out here by Maynard toward the end of the song. The polyrhythmic composition is rich and textured and gives us a small taste of what is to come in Tool’s subsequent work.

The musical climax starts at the 3:30 mark.

8. “Lateralus,” Lateralus

One of Maynard’s most lyrically spiritual songs, it touches on existentialism, the immediacy and brevity of life, and the struggle between living in the flesh and reaching out through the spirit and soul. Drummer Danny Carey delivers a master class in drumming throughout the whole song, and especially throughout the last two minutes.

The musical climax lasts the entirety of the final two minutes of the song, starting at the 7 minute 17 second mark.

7. “Prison Sex,” Undertow

Its abrasive title underscores what is perhaps the lyrically darkest song in all of Tool’s repertoire. Propelled relentlessly forward by Adam Jones’ percussive guitar riffs, Maynard explores throughout the song the pervasive, insidious, and cyclical damage done by sexual assault. It is a disturbing, seedy, and frightening journey through the mind of a sexual criminal.

The musical climax starts at the 3 minute 42 second mark and includes some of Maynard’s most graphically disturbing lyrics as the song’s narrator explains how he’s come full circle in committing the heinous acts through which he himself also once suffered.

6. “Forty Six & 2,” Aenima

Tool is known for all four of its members sharing equitably in song-writing duties, with each listed as a contributor on every song. This track is one of the first that bassist Justin Chancellor brought to the band after he joined prior to the release of its second album, Aenima. His bass line that opens the song is the beating heart that churns throughout.

This is also one of the earliest iterations of the Tool song style that would come to dominate later albums, and especially Fear Inoculum: tempo shifts, mid-song sonic intermissions punctuated by complimentary instrumental parts, and thundering Danny Carey drum fills and polyrhythms. This is also one of the first times that we collectively realize that Danny Carey is an absolute maniacal genius on his chosen instrument. His playing highlights the musical climax in this one, as it does in so many Tool songs.

Lyrically, the song touches on themes of metamorphosis, transformation, transmutation, and moving beyond current physical limitations. Beyond that, its deeper meaning is anyone’s guess.

The musical climax starts around the 4 minute 30 second mark.

5. “Descending,” Fear Inoculum

“Descending” is a valedictory for Tool, a 13-minute long crescendo of a song that begins with the sounds of a storm before a lean Justin Chancellor bassline intro, Adam Jones’ clean guitar tones, and Maynard’s opening lyrics: “Freefall through our midnight, this epilogue of our own fable.” The song is a reveille, a call to arms, a summons to fight the end, to push through “to the quickened dissolution.”

It’s a slow burner of a song, and one wonders in the beginning where it will all lead. The answer is an instrumental assault that pummels us for the last almost-seven minutes of the song, stirring us from “our wanton slumber,” to fight off apathy and to conquer.

“Sound the dread alarm through the primal body,” Maynard sings, as we approach our “swan song and epilogue.” Adam Jones follows with a ringing guitar solo, then back to Chancellor’s gorgeous bassline, building to an all-out musical assault that carries us through to the end. It’s a glorious madness of Tool’s own making.

The climax starts to build at the 9 minute 28 second point, with 4:10 left in the song. It’s peak Tool, with all three instrumentalists playing fiercely for supremacy.

4. “Invincible,” Fear Inoculum

Adam Jones leads us into “Invincible” with a haunting guitar, before Maynard James Keenan lets us know that the band is “long in tooth and soul, longing for another win.” They achieve it with this song, which confronts the insidious nature of aging, passing your prime, and yet trying to stay in the fight and carry on. It’s a treatise on fighting irrelevancy and the inevitability of falling from one’s perch of supremacy.

The song is a guitar showcase, with explosive riffs throughout, but once again, all three instrumentalists in the band shine with superlative parts. And Maynard imbues the song with fierce resistance, tinged with tired resignation to which the song’s narrator refuses submission. He’s bold and proud of where he’s been, even if he is here, where he ends.

It’s once again a reflection on the band, which finds itself on the backside of a magnificent 30-year run of music, and though Maynard might sing that they are “struggling to remain consequential,” as long as they make music like this, that is not something about which they ever need worry.

The musical climax is the absolute earthquake combination riff of bass, drums, and guitar that kicks in at 9 minutes 34 seconds. Tool’s power remains not only undimmed, but explosive with playing like this.

3. “Schism,” Lateralus

Another Justin Chancellor bass triumph, this track might be one of the band’s most technically flawless and beautifully-done compositions. It is lyrically straightforward — though also insightful — touching on human relationships and the effects of failing, atrophying communication. The song won Tool a much-deserved Grammy Award (for best metal performance) and the haunting bells leading into the climax are a sonic highlight.

The musical climax starts at the 5 minute 10 second mark.

2. “Parabol/Parabola,” Lateralus

More “rock” than any of Tool’s later progressive metal compositions, “Parabol/Parabola” is technically two separate songs on the album Lateralus. It is really one song in spirit, though, sharing lyrics and musical structure. Those lyrics are a triumph for Maynard James Keenan. It is a standout for him, and channels a positive power that drives the song forward as much as Adam Jones’ stellar guitar riffs (which are a thundering force) and Justin Chancellor’s propulsive bass playing. “Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing” might as well be part of a Sunday sermon in the Church of Tool.

The positive, life-affirming lyrics are best represented by Keenan’s “Alive!”— sustained in a wail in the middle of the song. “Embrace this moment; remember we are eternal; all this pain is an illusion,” Keenan reminds us, illuminating both our mortality and chance to be eternal. It is the triumph of birth and existence.

The guitar work is also outstanding, and closes the song in a dirge punctuated by a rolling Carrey drum line. The musical climax is when the song transitions from “Parabol” to “Parabola,” which hits like a hammer.

1. “Pneuma,” Fear Inoculum

From the ancient Greek word for “breath,” the concept of pneuma in Stoicism is the vital spirit, soul, or creative force of a person. It is a fitting title and central theme for Tool’s best song. The song “Pneuma,” second track on Tool’s most recent album, finds the band firing on all cylinders — at its creative peak in terms of song structure, texture, and lyrics. It is simply their finest composition and there is not a missed note or out-of-place moment throughout the track. Like all classic songs, it is as though it has always existed and Tool simply channeled it through their instruments and voice for the rest of us to have the pleasure of experiencing.

Danny Carey is once again a standout on the song, punctuating it throughout with drumming that is both gargantuan and a marvel to behold. The percussive force of the song is truly seismic. From the opening guitar and bass riffs, all three of Tool’s instrumentalists paint individual masterpieces that combine to form an opus of progressive metal.

Lyrically, Maynard again touches on themes of spirituality and existence, and the triumph of the soul over the flesh to which it is bound. Tool at its best always includes Keenan exploring deeper themes of humanity, its place in both the physical and spiritual worlds, and how we relate to each other (in ways both positive and negative). Ultimately we are all struggling to achieve a higher plane of existence, and Maynard implores us all to “reach out and beyond, wake up, remember.” He also ends the track by reminding us that “we are all one spark, eyes full of wonder.”

If Fear Inoculum is Tool’s final album, as some have speculated, then “Pneuma” will be a fitting curtain call for a band that has truly been one of kind over the past 30 years.

The whole song has too many musically climatic moments to list here. Just put on some good earphones, turn it up, and let it take you on a 12-minute journey of musical ecstasy.

Honorable Mention:

These songs did not quite make the top ten list, but are right there bringing up the rear.

“The Pot” (10,000 Days)
“Sober” (Undertow)
“Vicarious” (10,000 Days)
“Stinkfist” (Aenima)

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1 year ago

No choices to bring Fru . . . Tool is unassailable. I would have brought “Sober” in the top 10 though. I can bring in some runners up. Alice in Chains, RATM, and Local H.

1 year ago

Lateralus is my personal favorite album. Pushit, Ticks & Leeches, and The Patient would be my additions to at least the honorable mention list. Would replace Undertow with any of these.

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