The fifth Tool album has become something like alt-metal’s Chinese Democracy. This April will mark 12 years since the release of the group’s most recent LP, 10,000 Days, and 10 since they started teasing a follow-up. Among journalists and fans, Tool albumspotting has become its own pastime. Information has trickled out as a baffling series of contradictions. Late last year, drummer Danny Carey told an interviewer that Tool’s fifth LP would “definitely” be out in 2018, while in January, singer Maynard James Keenan took the time to correct a fan who claimed a summer release was imminent: “Not. Coming out this summer. Not.”
Meanwhile, the world keeps turning: The band steps out for arena-scale gigs whenever and wherever it pleases, populating set lists with its ample back catalog. (Their biggest non-festival headlining show to date went down only last year.) Keenan has become a successful vintner, launched his multi-album Puscifer project and even recorded the first A Perfect Circle record in 14 years. Carey performs with chopsy fusion project Volto! and records with nautical-themed supergroup Legend of the Seagullmen. Guitarist Adam Jones plays video games and teases rehearsals on Instagram. Meanwhile, bassist Justin Chancellor assures interviewers that Tool’s writing process is well underway.
So, like Guns N’ Roses’ fabled 2008 LP, is this just another case where the project’s absence is its main point of interest? I don’t think so. This one feels different. Unlike Chinese Democracy, where fans and critics alike fixated on the increasingly farcical spectacle of its nonexistence as much as the prospect of what it could sound like, this is an album people actually seem to care about on a purely musical level. And here’s why: Because Tool really are that fucking good.
Tool’s four albums to date contain some of the richest, most immersive rock music of the past 25 years. And what should by all appearances be a cult band is actually a mainstream juggernaut: The band’s prior two albums debuted at Number One; the one before that came in at Number Two. Considering the contents of these releases, the wholly unreasonable demands they put upon a listener’s time and attention span, those figures are staggering. Tool’s music isn’t just dark or perverse; it’s radically ambitious, of a kind not seen since the gatefold double-LP days.
Early signature songs like “Sober” and “Stinkfist” still stand as metal landmarks, anchored in the aesthetic of their early-to-mid-Nineties era. (In his autobiography, Keenan noted that the starkness of the band’s sound was by design: “The geometry of this table we were building was very basic. It wasn’t Victorian. It was four legs with a top on it, a very simple structure.”) But the grandeur of later, more expansive triumphs like “The Grudge” and “Schism” transcends their era entirely. No band has ever summoned quite the same blend of progressive pummel, captivating dynamics and emotional resonance – or referenced Carl Jung, Bill Hicks and Timothy Leary on the same record, as Tool did on 1996’s Ænima, which Rolling Stone named the 18th best metal album of all time.
In the current musical landscape, Sweden’s Meshuggah aim for a similar kind of rhythmic wizardry, while fellow Nineties survivors Deftones combine lush sensuality with raging catharsis, but even these bands’ grandest statements seem limited next to the Kubrickian wonder of an album like Lateralus. Considering the musical and lyrical growth Tool exhibited between Undertow, their 1993 full-length debut, and that 2001 album, it’s a shame that we haven’t been able to monitor their progress as closely during the past decade – a period when, judging by recent live shows, all four band members are at the peak of their musical powers.
Tool’s deliberate pace and stubbornly old-school approach – they’ve never made their music available for streaming or even sold it digitally – makes perfect sense. Their music, not to mention their visionary, half-sacred/half-profane album art, is designed as a lavish banquet rather than a quick-fix snack. For those that want to go there, Tool’s records are absurdly information-packed, a complex web of angular time signatures (the Fibonacci sequence–based “Lateralus”) and brain-bending polyrhythms (“Jambi”), foreboding interludes (“Parabol”), and awesome instrumental poise (the jagged accents that conclude “Forty Six & 2,” Carey and Chancellor’s undulating groove on “Schism,” Jones’ searing lead melody on “Parabola”). But Keenan’s dynamic, nakedly emotional delivery and strong ear for a hook give even the band’s thorniest tracks an improbable catchiness.
Ever since he emerged on the scene, the singer has come off as a kind of freakish prodigy: His 1993 Reading performance of “Sober” remains a terrifying spectacle, as the mohawked singer writhes and twitches and roars while tearing at his pink onesie. And his intensity and range only deepened over time. No other vocalist in his peer group could have pulled off both the shrieking vitriol of “Ticks and Leeches” and the reflective prayer of “Wings for Marie (Pt 1).” He’s more reserved these days, usually haunting the back of the stage in some insane get-up, but his voice still possesses an eerie and inimitable power.
Assessing the Tool catalog honestly, you could argue that the band’s peak is behind them. The sprawling 10,000 Days, while intermittently outstanding, was their shakiest album to date. Clunky lyrics and rambling epics made it the lone Tool LP that can at times feel more taxing than rewarding. It’s an open question whether the band’s fifth album might be plagued by similar flaws.
So why then, after such a long wait, do we still care? Because no other band on earth could possibly fill this void. It’s not just that no active band really sounds like Tool; it’s that no active band’s sonic and conceptual universe feels anywhere near as vast. Eccentricity and mystery are qualities severely lacking in the world of Big Rock. Metallica are still making powerful records; U2 are still scratching that itch; Foo Fighters are still the Foo Fighters; Queens of the Stone Age are masters of their own offbeat niche. But none of these acts – nor anyone else in 2018 – is equipped to spin your head around and leave your third eye pried wide open.
Nearly 12 years since Tool put out their most recent album, we present a timeline of everything we know about the band’s upcoming LP. Watch below.