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5✭ Fridays - Tool

Posted 2007-02-09 Tags: 5✭ music rock prog

Time passes and I have not yet finished my ongoing evaluation of music players (the race is close between WinAmp and Windows Media Player, of all things. iTunes is right out, again). As a result, I cannot turn to a random 5✭ song and expound at length about song and artist, which is my normal modus operandi for these articles. Instead, we shall explore in some detail one of my favourite bands of all time; Tool. Once again, a caveat: you may find Tool to be strangely offputting and discomforting, and you may find them to be wildly offensive; they may just get you thinking, though, and that's quite the accomplishment in the MTV age. And another caveat: any information here may be inaccurate, since Tool is notorious for spreading (often hilarious) misinformation about themselves.

It is difficult to know where to start when discussing Tool. They are often categorized as progressive rock which is code for very difficult to classify. They are most certainly a rock band with a fairly standard set up; a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a singer. They definitely fall more towards the heavy end of the spectrum, and one would also classify them as experimental. Other words that come to mind are strange, angry, difficult, and intense.

Maynard James Keenan is the singer / lyricist of the band, and his powerful and unique voice is probably the first thing you'll notice. Maynard's voice ranges from sweet to dark to screaming; the fifth track from Opiate features one of the most intense and bonechilling screams I have ever heard from a human voice, but "The Pot" from 10,000 Days is started in a sweet, moderate tenor. His subject matter channels anger from many sources - disaffectation from religion, childhood trauma, hypocrisy of media and politicians, etc - and may make you squirm on hearing them. For instance, "Prison Sex" from the album Undertow talks in detail about acts of abuse to children, and how abuse begets abuse. It is not an easy song to listen to.

Adam Jones is Tool's guitarist and is also the artist behind many of their videos. He's classically trained in string instruments, and taught himself to play guitar, learning by ear. Jones is one of those elusive animals that often fail to get their due recognition: a fantastic rhythm guitarist. You are not likely to hear any blistering guitar solos in his work, but he has such an amazing sense of timing and harmony that you may be surprised that there aren't more guitars playing. Although, sometimes, what you're hearing is actually Tool's bass player, Justin Chancellor.

Chancellor frequently plays bass as if he were actually a lead guitar player, and I would be remiss if I didn't say that he is one of my personal main sources of inspration in how I play bass guitar. The interplay of Chancellor's bass with Jones' guitar is one of the keys to the unique sound of Tool; the two are so tight that it seems as if they play with one mind together. Chancellor's bass riff in "Forty Six & 2" from the album Ænima is a fantastic, percussive riff that is one of the best examples of his ability to grab the reigns in a song, which is extraordinairily hard to do when one of your band mates is Danny Carey.

Danny Carey is where my essay is going to fall apart, because I really can't tell you much about him. It's possible that he thinks of drumming as an occult experience. It's possible that he thinks he has summoned and contained a demon, which makes it possible for him to do what he does. It's possible that he's just a great drummer that started off learning jazz and then took the polyrhythmic bebop that he had learned and applied it to rock. It's possible that he's the greatest drummer of our time. The greatest single act of technical instrument mastery that I have ever heard was a Danny Carey drum solo, during which he sustained rhythms in at least 4 identifiable non-multiplicable time signatures (a 3-4-5-7 polyrhythm†), and somehow let the polyrhythm dissolve into a pattern that was recognizable as the beginning to one of Tool's songs. I was thoroughly dumbfounded.

Tool is made up of four musicians who individually are among the best at their instruments. Together, they create a whole that is disturbing and strange, often very primal, angry and interesting. Their live show is among the best that I've seen; one time they incorporated gymnasts who performed à la Cirque de Soleil.

It's also interesting to note that quite a few classical musicians are interested in Tool. There have been at least two String Quartet tribute albums to tool, wherin Tool is arranged and performed by string instruments, without percussion. It certainly highlights how the most important aspect of their music is rhythm.

The best Tool album is Ænima, so if you have never heard Tool, start there. You could also listen to Lateralus and try to tap your foot along to "Schism." You may end up with the strange problem that the music makes you want to move your body, but confounds your feet. And keep an open mind - you may learn something.

† - I'll try to explain: music is made up of small units called "measures" which have a certain length according to the number of beats. Rock music frequently has 4 beats in a measure; a waltz normally has 3. A polyrhythm is playing two measures at the same time, of the same length, that have a different number of beats in them; you end up with beats crossing and being played in and around each other. Carey played 3, 4, 5 and 7 beat measures all at the same time, which means that each hand and each foot were all tapping at slightly different paces. To get an idea of how difficult this is, try tapping your right foot and left hand at consistent speeds that are not the same. Or set 2 metronomes to different speeds, and try to tap along with both of them.