Wednesday, January 18, 2012
In case you forgot, Tool is a great band
An hour or two ago a Facebook friend of mine posted an open invitation to try and explain to her why Tool was any good, and why they were so popular. I took her up on it, and of course ended up writing way more than is socially acceptable for a Facebook comment. So I've worked it up into a Trial By Ordeal post. Because you, dear readers, should be convinced that Tool is a Fucking Dope Band. Kind of fitting that this little reminder of the obvious follows on the heels of Noktorn's much-needed defense of Cannibal Corpse.
I am not coming at this as a Tool expert, or anything of the sort. I haven't dug deep into their albums, and mostly heard individual songs on the radio in middle school and high school. But I'm always stoked when one of their songs comes on, and there are times when I just have to hit Youtube and jam out to some Tool. I don't think this disqualifies me to defend them, though. If anything, my scattershot experience of their music captures one of their greatest strengths. Tool excel at writing Big Hit Singles, and talking about why these are so cool is a lot more interesting than quibbling about the overall quality of their discography. I read that 10,000 Days had a ton of pointless filler on it, but if it also had "Vicarious"--and it did--then who the fuck cares?
What strikes me most about Tool is the dynamism of the music. Of course, it's not dynamic like Cryptopsy is dynamic--it's really repetitive. But even during the long hypnotic passages that open up in tracks like "Schism," Tool are doing things and going somewhere. They're adding layers, developing themes, etc. The simple guitar and bass parts mesh together into something much more than the sum of its parts. And, perhaps most important, Tool actually know how to play a crescendo! When the climactic change-up comes, it comes with tremendous force and grace. You really hear the music well up into something new, and yet it always seems like the new idea was hidden within what came before.
While the "tension and release" thing is undoubtedly a formula, the band makes it work. Their organic songwriting approach leaves a lot of room for them to truly play together. Tool thrives on a shared intuition, a sense for inflection and timing and harmony that's been built up through years of practice and probably one of those mystical innate connections. I was stoked about Tool at about the time I was just getting into Led Zeppelin, and to me the connection seemed natural and totally obvious: Part of the pleasure of listening to their music is simply hearing it produced. On the outer fringes of metal and punk, where musicianship is subordinated to songwriting, we tend to focus more on the riffs themselves than the fingers behind them. Bands like Tool remind us that how you play it matters too.
Of course, Tool are pretty "uncool" to like, and that can affect how people hear the music, even if they don't think so. And it's true, alt-metal was pretty fucking reprehensible. But these days, I don't really see Tool as a part of all that. Rather, it was a small part of what Tool are/were about, almost incidental to their music. While they borrow metal techniques, I think they have way more to do with goth than metal. They're a musical and spiritual link between the primal occult weirdness of Killing Joke and Fields of The Nephilim and the whole tribal-industrial Burning Man thing that came into its own during the 90s. During the 80s, the members of Tool must've been tapped into bands further north on the West Coast like Red Temple Spirits and Savage Republic, who were building on UK goth, post-punk, and industrial at a time when their compatriots on the American scene were busy selling out hardcore and inventing "indie rock." Indeed, the true musical analogue of Tool might actually be Neurosis, who drink from the same aesthetic ferment and take a strikingly similar approach to songwriting (though not, usually, with Tool's elegance).
Tool are one of those rare bands that are popular for doing something right instead of doing something easy. They fused sounds and ideas from throughout the nasty underbelly of the 1980s, and then shaped them into songs that somehow do the pop thing without really being pop songs at all. For all your contempt of things that don't have blastbeats, think about it--a 9 minute epic filled with drone and subtly shifting time signatures just isn't a pop song. And yet it gets stuck in your head and, if you're not an uptight square, makes you sing along with Maynard and pound on the steering wheel. Sure, Tool became the mainstream, accessible face of dark underground rock, but they also never stopped being dark underground rock. That's not selling out, it's winning.
Don't worry, TBO hasn't gone mainstream. We'll be back by tomorrow or later tonight with more posts on weird bands that scream in your face and want you to die.