90s Music: Tool (Guest Blogger)

(Where to start introducing Brad Miller?  I could start with many apocryphal stories, i.e. probable B.S.  I could say I was thrilled to find him on FB, to know he was still alive.  Instead I will play it straight and say he was a best friend during one of the most crucial and difficult years of my life–freshman year of high school.  We had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, a lot of Madden football and such.  I enjoyed his thoughts on Tool because, for whatever reason, I don’t know a thing about them except vague memories of their videos.  His current hobby is car stereo equipment.  That’s a music lover, for ya.  Thanks for your contribution, Brad.)

The discussion of Tool and “best band” could span several thousand words but, since space is restricted, I’ll try to limit it to a narration of the most attractive aspects of Tool.  Tool’s first EP, released in 1992, was submitted with little fanfare.  However, their first full album was released a year later and sported prominent hits “Sober” and “Prison Sex” that were more recognized for the innovative animation  in their music videos (created by guitarist Adam Jones) than for their music.  I too, at the time, paid little attention to their music.  Some more observant friends of mine tried to turn me on to Tool but, I ignored their efforts until I saw them live.  After that, I was hooked.

I originally arranged for my friends to meet me at a Tool concert in Atlanta.  My reason behind this was that I was in Pensacola and my friends were in Paducah, KY.  They were huge Tool fans and, when I learned of the Atlanta show, I knew that my friends will travel for that, allowing me to hang out with some people from home.  Soon, my attention went from my friends to the show on stage.  Tool’s live performance cemented my interest in the band and I have not been disappointed since.  The live show was a cross section of their music in general, displaying layers of passion, talent, and complexity.

Having played drums for a while, the percussion is what first drew me to Tool’s music.  I think there is an argument to be made that Danny Carey is one of the best drummers ever but, this is probably not the place for that.  What cannot be ignored are Danny’s complex rhythms, amazing speed and stamina, and constant effort to introduce new elements and styles to his playing.  There are faster drummers out there but, no more busy than Danny Carey.  When most drummers play one stroke, Danny uses 5 or 6 as fill in his beats.  Largely unnoticed, his cymbal work is very unique.  He uses cymbals less for accent splashes and more as single notes harmonized with the rest of the music, like plucking singular notes on guitar strings.  At the aforementioned concert, they opened with “Third Eye,” which is still one of the most impressive and active drum tracks ever.  It’s over 12 minutes long and he opened with that!!  One listen to Tool’s percussion and there should be no question that they must be in the conversation for best band of the 90s.

As prominent as Danny’s drumming is, the lyrics and vocals of Maynard James Keenan may be more powerful.  The vocals can be respected by listening to any of Tool’s songs.  Maynard balances a female-like finesse with vicious, powerful screams.  The finesse allows him to do such things as a duet with Tori Amos and sing for the milder band, A Perfect Circle.  His more aggressive singing is illustrated by a thunderous screech at the beginning of “Ticks and Leeches,” a yell that was rumored to have severely damaged his vocal chords for weeks.  However, Maynard’s singing talent is eclipsed by his writing prowess.  Without venturing into a huge dissertation, two aspects of Maynard’s lyrics set him apart from other singers.

Firstly, the lyrics require the listener to research things in order to understand them.  Discussing any subject from legal battles to genetic structure, Maynard never provides a clear answer as to the meanings of his songs, forcing the listener (if he cares to) to piece it together himself.  Enter in the second aspect of Maynard’s writing.  Almost without exception, the listener can apply Tool songs to their own lives and experiences.  Maynard rarely speaks in generalities.  Rather, he sings about things that are obviously concerns in his own life.  Though the subjective specificities of Maynard’s writing may not be known, his style utilizes a flexibility that allows the listener to apply the words to their own, personal meaning.  A great example of this is the song “The Patient.”  While apparently addressing a specific aspect of his own life, Maynard’s words in that song provide the listener with a beautiful narrative to express frustration, tedium, and the necessity of being patient.

I could easily continue this type of monologue for hours but, I believe that these are the aspects of Tool’s music that have the most value for me.  Adam Jones (guitar) and Justin Chancellor (bass) are no slouches either.  The artwork and imagery associated with Tool is just as unique as the drumming and lyrics.  To me, however, if “Best Bands of the 90s” is the subject, I believe that the foregoing creates a legitimate argument that Tool must be considered.

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