1 No posturing.
The band Tool has been tagged as: Metal, Alt-Metal, Prog-Metal, Prog, Art Rock, Art-Metal, Hard Rock, and probably many other descriptions that have escaped my notice or antique random access memory. While it is probably wise to be skeptical of any genre-labels, they do serve a very limited purpose: they help one’s aesthetic perceptions focus in on an artistic locale by orienting one’s understanding. They let you notice things by pre-distinguishing. To call VanGogh a Post-Impressionist is not merely to describe his artistic output accurately, but to distinguish his project from an Impressionist like Monet; to call Brahms a Romantic composer is to set us up for seeing his music as different from the Classical and the Baroque. The limitations of this approach are obvious: many cases straddle categories or elude categorization altogether (e.g., is Beethoven Classical or Romantic? Why isn’t Turner considered an Impressionist?). But the benefits are equally clear. It is part and parcel of sound aesthetic practice to, as A.N. Whitehead once put it, “Seek simplicity and then distrust it.”
Since there is nothing inherently bad about labeling, as long as one knows in advance that labels are abstractions, it’s not crazy to classify Tool as a “Metal” band. They have the requisite harmonically rich, distorted guitar tones, vocals that range from whispers to screams, and the frequent use of double-bass-drum rolls. The mood they establish is dark and emotional. There are symbolic references to the preternatural and mystical: prying open one’s third eye, activating one’s chakras and attaining satori (as in the Alex Grey “galaxy brain” video for “Parabol/Parabola”), even audio scraped from an Art Bell radio call-in featuring an agitated listener describing an encounter with a UFO. To this extent, they fit the Metal bill.
But I am hesitant to lump Tool into the Metal category without severe qualifications, and not just because all labels mislead when they also lead. Metal as a genre seems to me to live on a certain kind of posturing: testosterone-soaked, borderline violent, directionlessly angry. In some of its variants at least: Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth. This is not a slam against these bands — I genuinely like Metallica, at least — but that it’s a kind of shtick is clear. Or consider proto-Metal bands like Mötley Crüe or Anvil or (god help us) Kiss and VanHalen, the ur-figures of this genre. The mystique is all about sex with a laser-like male gaze, about the “find ’em, fuck ’em, and forget ‘em” mentality aided and abetted by drugs and alcohol. The veneer of masculine pretense, of “c’mon honey, you know you want me”, is both thick and flimsy: it chips away with a single strike, and reveals the fragile male ego within. It’s posturing, and silly, and a minor but genuine reason why I quit the gender.
Tool is not like that, and never was. Yes, they have songs about sex, like “Prison Sex” and “Stinkfist”, but they are not juvenile and take stock of sexual longing in both its lightness and darkness. It is not all fun and games and “Girls, Girls, Girls.” They do not look like your typical Metal band either: Adam Jones (guitar), Justin Chancellor (bass), and Danny Carey (drums) look like standard-issue rock musicians that you might find at the soda machine in your local rehearsal studio, and Maynard James Keenan, who is anything but ordinary looking, does not dress for Metal success. His stage persona, which has varied widely over the years, is deliberately marginal — alternately nerdy, bizarre, and distraught. Kind of the anti-Hetfield.
Tool’s repertoire also encompasses songs about death and loss (“Eon Blue Apocalypse”, “Wings for Marie”), about emotional collapse (“Sober”), about civilizational decay and collapse (“Ænima”), overcoming fear (“Fear Inoculum”) and the transcendence of the soul (“Parabol/Parabola”). What distinguishes them is not just that these themes are not prevalent in Metal, but that their expression is not hackneyed or sentimental. Whatever emotion a Tool song seeks to express is genuine both in content and in presentation. No posturing whatsoever.
Posturing sometimes works — say, The Ramones — because it is all part of the show and all good fun. Sometimes it does not — say, The Sex Pistols. As George Burns once said, if you can fake sincerity you can fake anything. Led Zeppelin’s expression of love in “Thank You”, or The Band’s expression of parental grief in “Tears of Rage” work precisely because they are sincere, and the sincerity is not faked. And thus it is with Tool.
2 Musicianship without showing-off
The problem with virtuosity is that it tempts the virtuoso into making it an end in itself. This has destroyed many talents. Call it the Buddy Rich syndrome. There is no doubt that, in terms of sheer technical skill, Rich was unsurpassable, and is probably the greatest drummer of all possible times. But Rich’s solos told only one story: that Buddy Rich was the greatest drummer of all possible times. He was a show off: the show was a spectacular one, but the show was all there was. Compare with, say, Elvin Jones or Art Blakey: their left hand technique was no match for Rich’s, but for them their mission was to tell a story on their drum-heads and cymbals, and they succeeded brilliantly. There is a You-Tube clip of Jones and Blakey in a drum-off: Jones, who could be lightning-fast, played slowly and somberly. Blakey did not, but what makes his soloing not just a display of chops was the fact that, throughout, he played polyrhythms, the hi-hat in an entirely different time-signature. The chops were subordinated to the story. I think it’s significant that Rich never had a good word to say about Blakey or, for that matter, the late Ginger Baker. Baker had half the chops of Rich, but twice the imagination. “Toad”, his solo piece for Cream, had discrete movements: it was a musical composition that subordinated technique to story. And that is the mark of genuine virtuosity: expressing good judgment on when to open up and when to hold back for the sake of the music.
I dwell on jazz virtuosity to carry over a lesson for Prog-rockers. Prog has been unjustly maligned, but one has to admit that virtuosity has often led to wretched excess. At its worst, you get the spectacle of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which oscillated between finely crafted Prog pieces and an avalanche of 16th notes. They did not know when to stop. When they were good, they were very, very good. When they were bad (especially in concert) they were awful, self-parodyingly awful. (The same could be also said of Dream Theater, but so far they have managed to keep it under better control than ELP.)
What is great about Tool is that they are virtuosi, but you have to work to notice it. There is a minimum of soloing; they utilize dynamics and tempo-changes as vehicles for musical complexity rather than pyrotechnics. Yet their virtuosity is real.
Consider the title track for Lateralus, a.k.a., the Fibonacci song: not only are the syllables of the lyric-lines Fibonacci numbers (1–2–3–5–8), but the time signature varies between 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8, 987 being a Fibonacci number as well. Try playing a measure of 9 beats, followed by a measure of 8, and then a measure of 7, without missing a step. The only other Rock bands I can think of that incorporated this many time signature changes, without making the songs unlistenable, are Yes (“Siberian Khatru” in 15/4 to 4/4 and back again), Rush (“Free Will”, 13/8!), and Peter Gabriel era Genesis (“Apocalypse in 9/8” to the finale of “Supper’s Ready” in 4/4). You might notice the rhythmic complexity, but it does not obtrude on the value of the composition. For Tool, as with the best of Prog, complexity is a means toward an end, and not an end in itself. Composition is king.
3 The only game left in Rock-town
When I taught high school in Brooklyn, one of my students lamented to me that “Hip-hop is dead”. My reply was: “Rock and Jazz say: welcome to the club!”
I have always looked upon proclamations like “We are at the end of X” with a gimlet eye. The possibilities of history and visual art have not been exhausted, pace Francis Fukuyama and Arthur Danto. But I fear something has come to an end with music — in particular all manner of Rock — which has less to do with philosophy than economics. The marketing tail has finally managed not only to wag the artistic dog but to make it irrelevant. We live in the age of the Pop Diva. Now there are very talented pop divas, but their talent is beside the point. Downloadability is what matters. Beyoncé is a very talented vocalist, but I am constantly amazed at the mediocrity of her material. I should not be. The mediocrity can be compressed — both sonically and economically — into the short, catchy, hooky format that will get clicks on Apple music and other sites. Rock and jazz and classic R&B are formats that lend themselves to albums and not downloadable singles. They have become niche genres. I don’t think that my student thought the same about hip-hop: he was more lamenting what he took to be a sharp decline in the quality of 21st century hip-hop music. But it has become a niche, along with every other musical genre, in our culture. “Technology is destiny”, no more than “Biology is destiny” or “Culture is destiny” is not true without major qualifications; but there is definitely something true about it. Highly-compressed downloadable files, in contrast to vinyl and CD albums, not only sacrifice audio quality for convenience’s sake: they also undercut the narrative continuity of the work of artists, whether individuals or bands or orchestras. They carve out separate niches for devotees of Jazz, Rock, R&B, and Classical: you can buy files, or listen to albums — no problem! But anything you like is locatable on a market whose periphery is everywhere and whose center is nowhere. A Postmodern nightmare, or wet dream. Same thing.
Musicians (and musicophiles) love to kvetch, so I will stop with the kvetching here and now. To paraphrase Frank Zappa on Jazz, Rock is not dead: it just smells funny. Rock remains a vital medium, but mostly a backward-looking one: its archive of standards reach back into the 1950s, and it is easy to access it. But it is no longer part of the Zeitgeist, whatever that is or whether it ever really was part of it. From where I stand, however, the only rock band that sees over the future-horizon is Tool. I used to think Jack White was rock’s future, but he has burned himself out I fear, partly because there’s only so far you can take “retro” before it literally gets old, and partly because of his incessant ego-driven bullshit. (Saying “technology is the enemy of art” in the tone of a scolding prophet, while liberally using a DigiTech electronic Whammy pedal, is, shall we say, a mite disingenuous?)
I have no doubt that at some time Tool might also burn itself out: every artist either does or dies before that happens. But they show no signs of burning out anytime soon. Maybe in another 13 years they will grace us with another engaging, complex masterpiece. One can only hope.