Tool: Popular Modernism in 90s Metal, Part 2

Tool was formed in Los Angeles in 1990, by members Maynard James Keenan (vocals), Adam Jones (guitar), Paul D’Amour (bass), and Danny Carey (drums). They immediately gathered an underground reputation for playing unconventional and esoteric heavy music which had little to do with the conventions of glam metal, but instead fed into the emerging alt-rock/metal-scene driven by bands such as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. This makes perfect sense, given that Tool’s key influences are not from metal, but rather 60s and 70s progressive rock-bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd, and (in particular) King Crimson (with whom they have also toured). Indeed, much like NIN’s sonic inventiveness lies in how they fused industrial and electronic sounds with a revived form of metal, so did Tool take the experimentalism and psychedelia of 60s prog-rock and added a distinctively heavy touch to it. They have often said themselves that what they are seeing themselves as doing is taking up where prog-rock left things in the 70s, which is particularly evident on their later records. And even though they certainly consider their contemporaries in alt-metal (Rage, NIN, Mike Patton, Isis, Meshuggah, and others.) to be inspirations and fellow travellers, they have also often cited artists from other genres – such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, and Sigur Rós – as doing something similar to what they are doing. Ultimately, it is not so much the genre that matters here, but the sonic experimentation in popular forms. It is indeed not just the music that makes Tool such a compelling cultural phenomenon – but also their uncompromising attitude against much popular music and the culture industry in general, and the speculative and metaphysical underpinnings of their artistic vision. Of all the artists whom I encountered when going through the cultural output of the 90s during college (not just in music), Tool are without a doubt those who have influenced me the most. It was through their music that I first understood that culture can be more than mere entertainment – but also a vehicle for personal exploration and discovery – and where I first became interested in philosophical issues related to consciousness, metaphysics, and human enhancement (all of which I have pursued professionally since then). Even though I have later come to disagree with the particular metaphysics that underpins the band’s work, it was through their music (rather than philosophy) that I first became aware of these grand questions.

The ambitious core of Tool’s artistic program consists of the struggle against closed systems of thought – cultural, religious, and political in particular – which are utilized in order to control people on a mass-scale by manipulating them into conformity, and the speculative dimensions of human evolution and transformation that these power-structures threaten to cancel out. Emerging from L.A., Tool has always been close to the nexus of what the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously referred to as ‘the culture industry’ in the 1940s (when they, not coincidentally, also lived there in exile during World War II), and there is something Adornian in Tool’s distinctively pessimistic attitude against the blandness and shallowness of a popular culture, which they – like Adorno – deplore because of how it lulls people into zombie-states of consumerism and uncritical acceptance. And just like the rise of Hitler and Nazism deeply affected Adorno’s writing, the members of Tool – while not a political band per se – have often spoken out against the horrors imposed by the Bush-administration and the way its War on Terror was propagated through the mass-media, and was imposed on a passive and uncritical population. Tool’s central message has always been that one should – in the words of the counterculture-icon Timothy Leary, whose work has been influential to them – ‘think for [one]self and question authority’, and that culture can and should be utilized as a medium for posing such critical questions. As the full Leary-quote goes (in a passage sometimes used by the band when they play live):

Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities, the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing, forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability.

However, contra Adorno, Tool does not view popular culture as a lost cause to give up on, but as territory to reclaim and reformat. In other words, the struggle against popular culture has to take place within popular culture itself, because – as they often put it – there are only a limited number of spaces available and someone has to lay claim on those and show people that there are other options to choose from and higher ideals to explore. And indeed, the band soon established itself as one like few others (at least among popular groups), since they refuse to make shorter songs to cater to popular opinion (most of their tracks are between seven and eight minutes, and some longer than ten or close to fifteen); rarely discuss the meaning of their lyrics (or print them in their record-booklets); never appear in their music videos (with one exception) or on their record-covers; usually give few interviews; often have spoken out against the idolization of rock-stars and people’s fascinations with their private lives; and do not shy away from strongly criticizing the McDonald’s-mind set and retro-blandness of music such as nu-metal (Limp Bizkit, etc.), pop-punk (Green Day, etc.), and Brit-pop (Oasis, etc.).

While it would be easy to dismiss this attitude as pretentious and elitist, there something admirable about a band who so bluntly speaks out against what we all know are no more than passing pop-phenomena – which have more to do with clever marketing-procedures than with art, as they put it – and insists on the fact that they stand for higher ideals. This is what we really need today, I think: not more of the ‘anything goes’ postmodern mentality, but genuine opinions on what forms of culture we want in order to build a novel popular culture at the beginning of the 21st century.

Tool released their first EP, Opiate, in 1991. The title refers, not surprisingly, to Karl Marx’s famous characterization of religion as the opiate of the masses, and the title track – filled with satirical lyrics such as ‘Jesus Christ why don’t you come save my life now / Open my eyes blind me with your light now’, and ‘If you want to get your soul to heaven / Trust in me now don’t you judge or question / You are broken now but faith can heal you / Just do everything I tell you to do’ – was the first of many of singer Maynard James Keenan’s (himself raised as a southern Baptist) attacks on mass conformity and public idolization. The EP was also followed by a music video for the track ‘Hush’, where the band members appear naked with their mouths taped shut and their genitals covered by signs that say ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Parts’. Towards the end of the video they all remove the tape, with saliva filling and running down their mouths. It is their only video to date in which the band members appear themselves. Musically, the EP is heavy (apparently because of the mood in the band at the time, and since the record label wanted to market them as heavy metal) and the song structures have not yet reached the level of complexity that they would on later records – but it is still a solid EP with distinctively gruesome artwork.

The same can be said about their first full-length album, Undertow (1993), whose red ribcage-cover and uncompromisingly explicit artwork resulted in some stores (such as Wal-Mart and Kmart) refusing to stock and sell it. Eventually, the CD came out with an alternative bar code-cover and a note from the band saying that even though they hate being censored they have decided to compromise this time, since they want people to hear their music – and that the original artwork will be sent without extra cost to those who fill out the attached form and send it in. Musically, the album follows the style of the EP, with relatively conventional song-structures and a distinct heaviness. And like the EP, it deals with a number of taboo subjects; such as the song ‘Prison Sex’, which refers to the cycle of abuse and how victims of abuse sometimes may subject others to the same thing as a way of numbing their own unresolved mental scars. As some of the lyrics put it: ‘Do onto others what has been done to me’, ‘Released in this sodomy’, and ‘I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this / Shit, blood, and cum on my hands’. We are certainly far away from the generic blandness of popular culture as we usually know it, which became even more obvious when the music video for the song was released. One of the first of many of the band’s uses of Claymation and stop-motion animation techniques, the video was directed by band-member Adam Jones (who previously had worked with animation, makeup, and special effects under Stan Winston, and on films such as Predator 2 (1990) and Terminator 2 (1991)) and alludes to the contents of the lyrics via the semi-sadistic activities of two humanoid robotic creatures. Needless to say, MTV stopped airing the video after a while because of its symbolic dealings with child abuse, and it was also criticized for its ‘offensive nature’ by the Canadian TV-channel MuchMusic who later invited Keenan to discuss and defend the video. But he only got about a minute to speak and ultimately was unable to engage in any real debate about it.

Yet despite the occasional expected resistance from various media outlets, Tool had by now established itself as a unique voice within the flourishing scene of 90s alt-metal – which was going to be taken to another level on their next record. In that regard, it might seem strange that their bass-player, Paul D’Amour, decided to call it quits with the band in 1995. Although his departure was not the result of some kind of disagreement with the rest of the band, but simply a logical outcome of the fact that he wanted to play a different kind of music than the others (more melodic, in contrast to the rhythmic experiments that the band was moving towards). He has been involved in a number of projects since then, but none of them have been as prolific as Tool. After D’Amour’s departure, Tool brought in ex-Peach bassist Justin Chancellor from the UK (he became their only non-US member), who had opened for them previously with his (now split up) band – and he has remained with them ever since. And the following year they released their masterpiece Aenima (produced by David Bottrill, who also has worked on albums by King Crimson and on Robert Fripp’s collaborations with David Sylvian), which in many ways acts as a bridge between their earlier somewhat more conventional metal-output and their later ventures into considerably more experimental prog-territory.

Combining the words ‘anima’ (a Jungian term referring to a female archetype of the male unconscious) and ‘enema’ (no further explanation required), the album expands upon the earlier critiques of mass idolization and social conformity, but also significantly introduces what later on became a key topic for the band: the evolution and progression of the human race beyond cognitive, social, and even biological constraints. On the one hand, there are tracks such as ‘Eulogy’ and ‘Hooker with a Penis’, which address the former. ‘Eulogy’ allegedly refers to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology (which – as a movement that represents much of what Tool despises the most about humanity and has its headquarters in California – needless to say has been a frequent target of the band), in the form of a satiric worshipping of a fallen leader: ‘Standing above the crowd / He had a voice that was strong and loud / And I swallowed his façade / Cause I’m so eager to identify with someone above the ground’. And ‘Hooker with a Penis’ is based on one of Keenan’s encounters with a fan – referred to as ‘OGT’ (for ‘Original Gangster Tool’) from 1992 in the lyrics – who accused the band of having sold-out and ‘sucking up to the man’ after the release of Undertow. In response, the lyrics suggests that – given the nature of popular culture today, where ‘All you read and wear or see and hear on TV / Is a product begging for your fat-ass dirty dollar’ – we are all constantly selling out and such a statement is mere hypocrisy.

But the album also introduces songs whose lyrics deal with significantly wider and more speculative topics; such as ‘Forty-Six & 2’, which allegedly is a reference to an idea of Carl Jung that suggests that it is possible for the human race to evolve into a state in which the human DNA would deviate from its current form by producing two additional chromosomes (on top of our 44+2 – hence 46+2) – and that this would produce a radical change of our subconscious ‘shadow’ (another Jungian archetype, which refers to parts of one’s identity that one fears and represses). And then there is the stunning album-closer – the 14 minute-long ‘Third Eye’ (a reference to the pineal gland, and how drugs have been said to allow one to open one’s third eye), in which the band for the first time truly showed off their soon-to-be unique psychedelic fusion of prog-rock and metal. The song starts with a sample of the comedian Bill Hicks speaking about the war on drugs really being a war on personal freedom; that those who do not believe that drugs have done good for us should go home and throw away all their CD’s and tapes that have ‘enhanced their lives throughout the years’, since all the musicians who made those were ‘real fucking high on drugs’; and that ‘today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, [and that] there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves’ (although when the song is performed live, this passage is replaced with the above quotation from Timothy Leary). The song then turns into a remarkable journey of mostly heavy instrumentals – although with a stunning, quieter middle-part – and some of Keenan’s more trippy lyrics, which really makes it feel very much like a psychedelic experience in-itself. It is one of the absolute highlights of the album, which strongly hinted at where the band would be going next.

And the inclusion of Hicks is no mere coincidence, since the band had met him a few years earlier and felt that they were engaged in similar issues (Keenan also has some experience from stand-up comedy himself). Sadly, Hicks passed away from cancer in 1994 (at the age of 32), and the album is dedicated to him in the form of a portrait of him in the booklet that is accompanied by the line ‘Another dead hero’. Hicks presence is also notable on the (kind of) title track  ‘Aenema’ (with an ‘e’ instead of an ‘i’), which incorporates elements from his Arizona Bay-routine. The song itself is the band’s definite statement on the deplorable state of the L.A. culture industry from which they emerged, but which they so despise and constantly rebel against. It is somewhat like their version of Adorno’s chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and does not shy away from taking a massive piss at what the song refers to as the ‘three ring circus sideshow of freaks’ that is the latte-zipping, Prozac-nibbling L.A.-crowd of ‘L. Ron Hubbard clones’, ‘gun-toting hip-gangster wannabies’, ‘smiley glad-hands [presumably a reference to politicians] with hidden agendas’, and ‘dysfunctional, insecure actresses’. In the end, the song suggests that ‘the only way to fix it is to flush it all away’ in the form of an enema-like tidal-wave; that everyone should ‘learn to swim’; and that we will ‘see you down in Arizona Bay’. It is probably the best of the bands more satiric songs to date, and forms – along with ‘Third Eye’ – a sublime ending to a record that upped the ante significantly for the band and to me stands as one of the musical highlights of the 90s.

Aenima became a massive success (it had sold over 3.3 million copies in the US alone as of 2010), but things were not just positive behind the curtains. Unlike NIN, Tool did not have any initial conflicts with their record label (Zoo), since they were given final say on everything from the artwork, to the promotion, and also the music itself. But after the release of Aenima, the now defunct Zoo was acquired by another company named Volcano and they decided to sue the band for breach of contract after they had started looking at offers from other labels. Tool sued back by arguing that the label had failed to use a renewal-clause in the contract – which effectively allowed them to take up other offers – and what followed was a long and tedious legal dispute. Even though the parties eventually settled and Tool was allowed to set up their own sublabel (Tool Dissectional) and maintain control over their music, the outdrawn legal battle almost killed the band since they got into a rut of only meeting to talk about legal issues – rather than actually creating music together – which had a strongly negative effect on them. But perhaps the band was heading towards a break anyway. They have often explained the long gaps between their later albums with the simple fact that the music they make is very demanding intellectually and emotionally, so it is something they need some time away from to do other things.

Keenan is the one who has been most visible outside Tool, having performed guest-vocals for Rage Against the Machine on their self-titled debut-album (1992), for Deftones on White Pony (2000), and for Tori Amos on Live from New York (1997). And in 1999, he joined Billy Howerdel’s (Tool’s former guitar-tech) new band A Perfect Circle as their vocalist. Considered to be something like a rock-supergroup, APC has had numerous members from bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, and Queens of the Stone Age since its inception. They have released three studio-albums to date: Mer De Noms (2000), Thirteenth Step (2003), and Emotive (2004). Musically, they are not as complex as Tool – with a more linear and straightforward sound – but has nevertheless made some solid music over the years. Their second album is particularly great, and their third release – a cover-album of classical political songs – came out on November 1st, 2004 (the day before the US-presidential election). At the moment they are ‘semi-active’, having released a live-album in 2013, but with no new plans for a studio-album at the present. Keenan was also involved in Tapeworm, a NIN side-project founded by touring-members Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser. Also involving Reznor himself – and later Atticus Ross and a number of guest-musicians – Tapeworm was active on-and-off since NIN’s Self-Destruct Tour in 1995, and allegedly was close to finishing a record in the early 2000s. But nothing ever materialized, and Reznor officially announced the end of the project in 2004. He later explained that the music that came out of it simply was not as good as one would expect from a NIN/Tool-collaboration (‘like a seven, rather than a ten’), and there was consequently no point in releasing the material (which also was delayed by the usual record label-conflicts).

In 2000, Tool released a compilations-album named Salival, which features all of their videos up to that point and a live-disc with reworked versions of ‘Third Eye’ (with the Leary-intro), ‘Pushit’ (another Aenima-track), covers of Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’, Peach’s ‘You Lied’, and so on. And in January 2001, the title of the new Tool-album, Systema Encéphale, was announced along with several esoteric-sounding track titles, such as ‘Numbereft’, ‘Encephatalis’, and ‘Coeliacus’. However, it was later revealed that this was all a hoax by the band itself, in order to fool the file-sharing culture that had begun to emerge through sites such as Napster. In contrast to NIN, Tool has been very vocally against online file-sharing from the start, since they feel that it threatens the economy of smaller bands who cannot afford to lose out on revenue from record-sales. They have often pointed out that the ones who get hurt by file-sharing are not so much the record-labels as the artists themselves, who have to pay for recording and touring with money out of their own pockets. Of course, bands like NIN and Radiohead are both in positions that allow them to give away their music for free – but most artists are not financially independent to such an extent, and will consequently suffer from the money they miss out on.

In May 2001, the real album was released with the title Lateralus (allegedly referring to the human leg-muscle ‘vastus lateralis’ and a form of creative reasoning known as ‘lateral thinking’). Once again produced by Bottrill and clocking in at an epic 78 minutes and 51 seconds, the album was yet another huge step forward for the band and completed the unique fusion of psychedelia/progressive rock with the new metal that Aenima had promised. With all of the songs clocking in at around seven minutes minimally – and featuring an epic three-part conclusion that lasts for a total of 22 minutes and 30 seconds – it was immediately evident that the structures of the early releases were a thing of the past. The album also showcases the band’s interest in so-called ‘sacred geometry’ (the existence of geometric invariants in nature), which gives it a distinct metaphysical tone. The technically complex title-track, for instance, allegedly incorporates rhythmic intervals following the Fibonacci-sequence and also makes frequent references to spirals – which could encompass everything from LSD-induced spiral-hallucinations to the Fibonacci-spiral itself (the band has of course not gone out of their way to confirm any of this). Lyrically, the album also fully explores the Eastern-influenced themes of ego-transcendence, psychedelic transformation, and metaphysical interconnectedness that ‘Third Eye’ hinted at, and that was given an additional dimension on Lateralus through Tool’s first collaboration with the painter Alex Grey.

Known for his remarkably complex spiritual and cosmic paintings, Grey is indeed the ideal visual companion to Tool, and he created the stunning translucent CD-booklet which gradually peels off different layers of a human body (also used on the picture-discs of the vinyl-edition, which came out a few years later), as well as footage for one of the two music videos (for the tracks ‘Schism’ and ‘Parabol/Parabola’) that followed the release of the record. Also diving further into themes explored earlier, the videos (once again Claymations directed by Jones) are packed with disturbing-looking humanoids, organic phenomena, and mystical and spiritual references. The video for ‘Parabol/Parabola’ follows a man (played by the trip-hop artist Tricky, who also joined the band onstage during the subsequent tour) on a journey through a mysterious forest until he reaches spiritual awareness and opens his third eye in a wonderfully complex computer-generated conclusion created by Alex Grey. These visuals would also accompany the band onstage, as part of a by now remarkable live-show. When playing live, Keenan famously refuses to set up at the front/middle-section of the stage – as singers usually do – but instead utilizes the band’s extensive usage of  back-lightning to hide in the back next to the drum set – which often makes it difficult to see him at all, to many people’s frustration (in the early days he often covered himself in body-paint and dressed as a woman for a similar effect, and he has also been covering his face with a gas-mask at some more recent gigs). Jones and Chancellor set up at the far left and right sides of the stage – effectively leaving the middle-portion completely empty – while visuals from the videos and the work of Jones, Grey, and other visual artists are shown on big screens behind the band. Keenan explains this setup with the fact that it gives them the best sound, but it is obviously also another way for the band to get the attention away from themselves and force people to focus solely on the music and visuals.

Lateralus was followed by another five-year hiatus during which the band kept a low profile, but they returned full force in 2006 with 10,000 Days. Now positioned squarely at the intersection between metal and prog, six out of the nine songs on the album are paired up into two-part epics (lasting between 15-17 minutes each) similarly to some tracks on Lateralus, and the remaining three tracks all clock in at around seven minutes each. When asked about their by now standard lengthy song-format, the band often drew upon their prog-influences by comparing their songs to journeys, and also often likened them to feature films – such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978) – which require a lot of investment from the listener, in contrast to the three-minute jingles of commercial pop. Musically, this was the first time when the sound did not take a huge leap forward compared to the previous record, but instead sees the band comfortably fine-tuning the prog-inspired sound that they had been working towards. Some of the highlights on the album include the 17-minute epic ‘Wings for Marie (Pt 1)’/‘10,000 days (Wings Pt 2)’, an ode to Keenan’s mother Judith Marie, who had suffered from a stroke and died in 2003 at the age of 59; ‘Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann)’/‘Rosetta Stoned’, a 15-minute stream-of-consciousness-style track about a man who undergoes a freakish LSD-trip, finds himself captured by aliens at Area 51, and realizes that he is the ‘chosen one’ to deliver a message to all of humanity – even though he did not ‘graduate from fucking high school’ (the song is something of an even trippier follow-up to Aenima’s ‘Third Eye’, with lots of complex polyrhythms and highly experimental vocals); and the Meshuggah-inspired ‘Jambi’, which includes some of the best guitar-playing on any Tool-album and an amazingly psychedelic one-minute talk-box solo by Jones. Rhythmically, the album also further incorporates Carey’s electronic mandala-sounds that he had experimented with on earlier records.

10,000 Days also extended the collaboration with Alex Grey, who co-directed the music video for the track ‘Vicarious’ with Jones. The video was made completely in CGI – rather than the stop-motion techniques that most of the earlier videos utilizes – and dives further into the mystical and surrealist imagery of its predecessors. Grey was also involved in creating the highly ambitious packaging for the CD, which consists of a booklet of 3D-imagery accompanied by a set of stereoscopic glasses that are attached on the CD cardboard cover itself. Much of the artwork is apparently inspired by visual pseudo-hallucinations experienced by Grey under the influence of psychedelics, which is heightened by the added sense of depth that the 3D-effect provides. The packaging was also another attempt by the band to push for physical releases of music during an era of increased digital downloading. This is probably also part of the reason for why they released the music videos for ‘Schism’ and ‘Parabol/Parabola’ as standalone DVD-singles shortly before (with remixes by the dark ambient-artist Lustmord, who also appeares as a guest on 10,000 days).

Following a by now established pattern, Tool has remained relatively silent over the ten years since the release of 10,000 Days. Aside from a DVD-single of ‘Vicarious’, they have not released anything new since then – but has not disbanded or gone on an official hiatus. And as of 2016 they are back touring and working on a new album. During the extended interim, Keenan is yet again the one who has been most visible. He started a vineyard and winery in Arizona – which also includes an organic produce market and a food court – became partner in a restaurant, and also created what basically may be thought of as a solo-project (although with numerous guests and collaborators from the alt-metal scene and beyond, including Lustmord, the actress and songwriter Milla Jovovich, and the British vocalist Carina Round) named Puscifer. Allegedly a combination of the words ‘Lucifer’ and ‘pussy fur’, the music that has been released under Puscifer (to date, three studio-albums and several EPs and remix-albums) is vastly different both from Tool and A Perfect Circle, and fully showcases Keenan’s comedic side. Inspired by James Brown and Motown (basically, music that you can listen to while cooking dinner, as Keenan has put it) and boasting titles such as V is for Vagina (2007) and Money Shot (2015) – needless to say, more of Keenan’s music that Walmart refused to sell – Puscifer’s tracks are semi-electronic, groovy pieces of a considerably lighter style than his previous work. Even though Puscifer’s music – just as APC’s – has nothing to do with Tool and should be judged on its own merits, it is nevertheless hard to get over the huge difference in sound between this project and Keenan’s other bands. This became evident already when a live-video of the first Puscifer-track ’Cuntry Boner’ came out in 2007. Almost provocatively simple in contrast to Tool and APC, the lyrics depict Keenan fucking a plethora of country-music legends – such as Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley – with his ‘cuntry boner’, and is delivered in the clip by Keenan, a female singer, and a band dressed in wigs and ridiculous country-outfits in a cabaret-like setting – intercut with clips from old Western-movies and images of the celebrities referenced in the song. Subsequent Puscifer-gigs have followed the same cabaret-like setup and also often see band-members taking turns in relaxing on chairs on and off stage during songs, while eating pieces of cheese and drinking wine. Later on, Keenan also expanded Puscifer into a full-blown merchandise that sells clothes, coffee, artwork, and other items both online and in a store in Arizona. And in 2011, they made their network-debut on Letterman.

Needless to say, at a cursory glance the lightweight sound and below-the-belt humor that runs throughout Puscifer might seem a bit odd and even disheartening. Had alt-metal’s perhaps most outspoken critic of pop-cultural banality succumbed to its shallow agenda himself? Not necessarily, since Keenan – just like the other guys in Tool – always has had a humorous side (another reason behind the partnership with Hicks in the mid-90s). He was a recurring guest in the sketch-comedy series Mr. Show during the 90s (hosted by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross) – where Puscifer actually first appeared as a fictional band, with Keenan and Jones as members – played the role of Satan in the B-movies Bikini Bandits (2002) and Bikini Bandits 2 (2004), and made a cameo with NIN’s Danny Lohner in the Jason Statham action-movie Crank 2: High Voltage (2009). Indeed, despite the seriousness of a band like Tool, the members have often emphasized the dangers of taking oneself too seriously – and the fact that they are normal guys who like to hang out and watch Monty Python together like everyone else – in response to rock musician-idolization. ‘We take our art very seriously, but ourselves not so much’, as they have put it. And the band is well-known for subjecting their fans to numerous pranks, such as a by now famous April Fool’s joke that was posted on the official Tool-site on April 1st in 2005 and stated that Keenan had found Jesus and was contemplating on leaving the band; and the fake promotion of a 1940’s pseudo-philosophy known as ‘lachrymology’ (which proposes emotional healing through the release of pain – particularly through crying). Even the band-name itself – which may refer to using something as a tool for personal discovery, an uncritical member of the masses who is being manipulated by a higher power, and the male sex-organ – reflects these multiple sides of the group. And with that said, Puscifer’s music has also evolved from their extremely wacky first appearance with ‘Cuntry Boner’, and their latest album Money Shot is actually quite beautiful sounding – with a melancholic open desert-sound and Keenan and Carina Round interestingly sharing vocal duties on most tracks.

But Keenan’s retreat to small-town Arizona and dive into more lightweight music were also results of personal exhaustion from the cultural and political climate at the time. Reading interviews with him from around this time, one may detect a continued frustration and also disappointment with politics and popular culture in the US. On the one hand, the top years of the alt-metal scene were clearly a thing of the past – with many of the bands from the 90s either having disbanded or lost some of their initial edge, while bad commercial music was as popular as always – and, on the other hand, the Bush-administration had steadily marched forward with its War on Terror, which kept nurturing the mass-paranoia that accumulated around it. Indeed, Keenan’s relocation to small-town Arizona partly came out of his frustration with late capitalist US politics and culture, and took the form of a by now common leftist reaction to such horrors – which involves embracing the local and small-scale in response to the global oppression imposed by capitalism (Keenan has explicitly referenced post-war small-scale communities as an inspiration in this regard). There is obviously something slightly disheartening about this, since going back to the local and small-scale is more about survival than about effectuating real change. But at the same time, given the intense artistic energy invested by Keenan – and Tool – over the past decades into changing popular culture and social conformity, who can blame him for also wanting to make some lighter music, settle down, and start a family at middle-age (like most of us do)? And as long as Tool and APC still are active, we can keep hoping that the fight against popular culture will remain very much alive.

To access the Tool-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Łukasz Ryba