Why Tool Could Be More Relevant Today Than Ever Before

The legendary metal band is returning after a 13-year absence, and while its sound isn’t in, its disaffected embrace of spirituality is.

A Tool band photo
Pent-up demand and nostalgia from its cult surely help explain Tool’s sudden charts takeover. (Travis Shinn / RCA Records)

A heavy-metal giant is awakening from a 13-year slumber, but does the domain it once ruled remain? From the early ’90s to 2006, the foursome of Tool stood as a rock-and-roll epitome when rock and roll was a social average. As grunge issued a culture-wide call to bond over psychic wounds by comparing calluses, Tool responded with gnarlier body-and-soul horror than many were prepared for. By the time the band’s frightening bass lines and abject-trauma themes had been sucked into a popular nu-metal movement lacking mystery and brains, 2001’s Lateralus fell from the sky like a 1,000-page New Testament, or at least like a textbook dusted with DMT.

But today, even the wave of car-commercial guitar pop that was cresting around the time of the band’s 2006 motley, 10,000 Days, has crashed and dissipated. Rock still matters, but as a rumor, an input, in the ongoing brainstorm—between rap and everything else—that represents American pop today. If Tool was a best-selling alternative to a mainstream branded as alternative, that’s not a paradigm that computes anymore. Nor has there been an easy way for it to be rediscovered and redissected since its absence. The band kept its music off streaming and download platforms. Even many of the onetime diehards (ahem) let their devotion lapse when their CDs scratched and their iPods fritzed.

Earlier this month, though, the band flung open its survival-shelter doors and put the bulk of its music online, finally. The response was great reaffirmation. Five of Tool’s releases immediately entered the top of the iTunes sales rankings, and the band became the first ever to occupy all 10 leading spots on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart. Later, the group announced a new album (debuting on August 30) and released its title track, “Fear Inoculum.” With its 10-minute, 22-second run time, that song became the longest ever to land on the Hot 100—an especially fun feat in an era of generally declining song lengths.

Pent-up demand and nostalgia from its cult surely help explain Tool’s sudden charts takeover. I’ve now gone back and listened to the music I obsessed over in high school: It’s still deliciously huge and transporting. But certain elements land more queasily—not because the band is out of time now, but because it chimes with the 2019 cultural moment in deep and not-totally-reassuring ways. With its churning riddle-songs, Tool swirled psychoanalytic ranting, evolutionary pseudoscience, and omnibus spirituality as a reaction to modern tech-assisted burnout. Listen to the mantras of the present moment—the gurus as politicians, the social doctrines with radical diets, the astrology craze, the conspiracy theories, and the suspicion of reality as a simulation—and you hear the frontman Maynard James Keenan’s grumbles.

Maybe Tool planned its return after noticing that Carl Jung has made a big comeback. BTS, the Korean pop sensation, named an album trilogy after the German philosopher’s schemas. Jordan Peterson, the much-debated Canadian professor-preacher, has repurposed ideas about anima and ego for a new generation. Back in 1996, Tool’s Ænima took a stab at doing the same, with the hypnotic swirl of “Forty Six & 2” describing exactly the process Peterson now touts: integrating people’s “shadows,” a.k.a. their suppressed creep, into their waking self for a transcendent sizzle. One YouTube video I recently came across made the insightful point that that song ends with all the instruments banging on one note, surely to represent the narrator’s arrival at inner unity. That video was, naturally, drawing the connection between Peterson and Tool.

That connection is coincidental, but it isn’t meaningless. Part of Tool’s appeal was that it took metal’s fantastical pangs—previously rendered with dragons, wizards, sci-fi, Satan—and seemed to dignify them by drawing on rule systems: science, philosophy, religion. Doing so allowed listeners to access gut pleasures with the pretense of mind expansion. Call it heavy edutainment or rifftastic self-care. The title track from Lateralus was written in time signatures determined by the mystic math of the Fibonacci sequence; Keenan’s lyrics mapped out Jung’s theory of individuation using references to alchemy. But it is a great song because of its massive, grinding, straining sound, evoking a slow-motion uppercut aimed at the sun. The music yearns for enlightenment so powerfully that it seems to, in bits and flashes, actually provide it. Which is also what pseudo-rational rule clubs of all sorts do.

I thought of Tool recently when an earnest young man told me, in a TED Talk–y explanatory tone, that the problem with society is that we put hot sauce on everything. What he meant was we’re overstimulated—by entertainment, flavor, porn—and the only remedy, per something his friend read on Reddit, is to do “dopamine resets”: spending a day not doing much other than walking outside. What a common thought, and what a Toolish thought. The band’s moan against the numbing effects of what some term “cultural decadence” lasted from the titling of its 1992 debut EP, Opiate, to the anti-TV ranting of its 2006 single “Vicarious.” On 1996’s “Stinkfist,” Keenan described an extreme sexual act so as to argue, per the lyrics, that there’s “something kinda sad about the way that things have come to be desensitized to everything.” On Joe Rogan’s podcast last month, he lamented widespread addiction to “dopamine” and pleaded with listeners to, yes, go take a walk.

The ascetic impulse is an ancient one—the Sabbath is a dopamine reset, no?—with obvious appeal in the era of Netflix auto-playing (ugh). But purification of the self has, of late, been hitched to larger, more unsettling purification missions: See the reactionary politics that have accompanied Peterson’s lifestyle counseling, or the white nationalists who’ve espoused “no wank” credos, or the anti-vax implications of Marianne Williamson’s love-heals-all gospel. All of that may seem far from Tool’s dark, boot-clad, skeleton-tattooed aesthetic, which is firmly in a cathartic metal tradition of flaunting one’s own disaffection. But after so many mass shootings accompanied by male manifestos decrying supposed cultural decline, it’s harder than ever to wave away, say, Keenan looking around a Southern California tourist trap during a 2001 Spin interview and remarking, “You want to get out a rifle, stand out on a building, and … erase the karmic debt, so to speak.” I can’t quite get the chuckle I once did from 1996’s “Ænema,” an otherwise awesome anthem that lovingly envisions all the groups of people who will die when Los Angeles falls into the sea.

To be clear, Keenan and his bandmates’ apparent nihilism existed alongside convincing displays of humanism. Early albums of humid funk-metal featured graphic references to sexual abuse, but there was a real empathy to the songs, whose point was that violence only multiplies. (Such songs also echo all-too-relevantly nowadays, and not only because an anonymous Twitter user last year accused Keenan of rape, which he denied.) The band’s two studio albums from the 2000s—which had a cleaner sheen, grander scale, and more pompous manner than Tool’s scuzzily catchy ’90s work—were elaborate lectures on the need to “rediscover communication,” as the band’s spider-skiddering hit “Schism” put it. On Rogan’s podcast, amid chitchat about jiu-jitsu and wine making, Keenan talked about the need to prepare for climate change and find common ground across political differences.

If abstraction-worship and mystical lawmaking can provide much-needed meaning in lives, they can also derail them, which is something that Keenan’s many anti-doctrine, anti-charlatan lyrics recognized. Most often, though, would-be prophets simply make peoples’ eyes glaze over, and there’s a danger of that happening as Tool returns. Fear Inoculum’s lead single stretches Tool’s therapeutic ethos as thinly as it can, with Keenan purring about expelling negativity and resentment. Around him, the drummer Danny Carey has a blast on tablas, the guitarist Adam Jones riffs with delicate majesty, and the bassist Justin Chancellor lobs stones into the cosmic pond and lets us admire the ripples. All the band’s classic ingredients are here, and even more ambitiously deployed than before, but I don’t get that old Tool feeling of having some secret of the universe unveiled. Maybe that’s because this band has already spoken its litany to me before. Or maybe that’s because this is a time when revelations are easy to come by, and often not to be trusted.