Today’s music industry often makes it easy for people to throw mindless labels on artists or bands, because most music created for mainstream success is easy to digest. TOOL is one of the few existing acts today that not only have created a sound all their own, but also a separate niche for creative artists and bands to thrive. That is, artists who really want to send a message through their music, and bands whose music you may have to listen to a few times in order to truly appreciate it.
Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones and Maynard James Keenan are the driving force behind this progressive-rock machine, and I hope they intend to stick around. Here, we will examine some of the band’s most famous work and try to unravel the riddles within.
Number Ten: “Schism.” “Schism” was one of the few TOOL songs that received consistent radio-play. Off of their third album Lateralus, the single won the band a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Like most TOOL songs, “Schism” is pure poetry. While every song is interpreted differently by the listener, this track could be about division within an important relationship, whether between two friends, lovers, or relatives (although “lovers” are specifically mentioned in the lyrics).
The lyrics accurately portray the often tiresome merry-go-round that two people can spin in for a lifetime; knowing that this person fits so well in your life but not putting enough effort into making the relationship work. Keenan mentions the testing, crippling, rediscovering, and strengthening of communication as an unfortunate but necessary cycle. However, “the circling is worth it,” suggesting the narrator wants to hold on.
Another interpretation is that the narrator is speaking about religion and the church, and how it has become corrupted and divided over the years. “Point the finger, blame the other, watch the temple topple over” suggests that because of this religious division, the world has suffered war and death. Despite how futile it seems, the narrator seems to feel like there’s something sacred in unity, and he’s determined to “bring the pieces back together.”
Still, others say that the division in the song had to do with Keenan taking more time for his band A Perfect Circle than for TOOL, yet Keenan seems like a deep fellow and it’s unlikely this song was strictly about a quarrel with band mates.
Spiritually, this song could be referring to one man trying to reconnect with the one he calls God, or the Source of all creation. It’s almost as if he’s discovered the Holy Grail, except it’s out there for every human to access; yet everyone turns a blind eye.
One of the most beautiful lines in the song is, “Finding beauty in the dissonance.” Even if we manage to find bliss, we still have to accept that chaos will always exist in the world; that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying to change the order of things, however.
Number Nine: “Right in Two.” “Right in Two” is one of my favorite tracks off of 10,000 Days. It accurately describes the downfall of the human race: “Angels on the sideline puzzled and amused / Why did Father give these humans free will / Don’t these talking monkeys know that Eden has enough to go around?”
The song goes on to describe how we as humans senselessly take our life for granted; killing each other and everything unified and beautiful on this planet with our greed; dividing it “right in two.” Humans are referred to as monkeys in this song, suggesting we haven’t evolved at all. Instead of looking towards heaven, we surround ourselves with dualities of right and wrong, and often choose the latter cause it’s often the easier choice.
I find it amazing that the band was able to tackle such huge subject manner so simply and eloquently. The song raises thoughts about the eventual extinction of the human race, how so far earth is the only life-supporting planet, and how the end of the world is going to come a lot quicker if we continue to destroy our world and each other.
Number Eight: “Wings for Marie / 10,000 Days.” Although these are technically two separate tracks, I’m placing them together as they are part one and part two of the same song.Both were written for Maynard’s mother, Judith, who had spent a great deal of her life paralyzed; 10,000 days supposedly represents the amount of time she spent in this state until her death. From the lyrics, one can tell Maynard deeply cared for her: “What have I done to be a son to an angel… (she) might of told a lie but never lived one…Didn’t have a life but surely saved one.”
These songs are so special to me because I was lucky enough to witness them live. At a show in New Jersey they played these tracks simultaneously, and at the conclusion the band came together, sat down, and lit their lighters in a prayer of silence; the audience soon followed. The performance of the song gave me chills, but seeing a band that rarely interacts with an audience share such an intimate moment, almost brought me to tears.
These songs indeed are very personal to Maynard, and the way in which he describes her beauty, grace and kind heart is the perfect tribute from a son to a mother. Perhaps now that Maynard is comforted in knowing Judith received her wings, he can feel even more spiritually connected to her and to the better world beyond earth.
Number Seven: “The Pot.” Another track off of the album 10,000 Days, “The Pot” is an awesome song, full of energy, anger and significance. One interpretation of the song is the injustice that first-time drug offenders suffer at the hands of authority, who are often “hypocrites” who use themselves. The title itself suggests that the song may be about those who get in trouble for smoking pot, when “eye hole deep in muddy waters” are those who shoot up heroin.
Another explanation for the title can be found in the lyric, “pissed all over my black kettle,” aka “the pot calling the kettle black,” in terms of how eager our government is to point fingers and place blame on others. (It’s rumored that Keenan once stated he thought 9/11 was an inside job; this could explain the line “rob the grave to snow the cradle then burn the evidence down”). Whether the band is referring to drug laws or government abuse, it’s clear the song’s underlying theme is how delusional people can be in believing they are in any way better than anyone else.
Number Six: “Lateralus.” This track is off of 2001’s album of the same name, and although TOOL is rarely considered an upbeat band, this song contains a deeply profound and positive message: “Push the envelope, watch it bend…Reaching out to embrace whatever may come…To feel inspired, to fathom the power, to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain, to swing on the spiral…And following our will and wind we may just go where no one’s been…”
We as humans are too easy in accepting our fate. Yes, we will die one day. But that does not mean our lives in this world are meaningless. We need to, at the very least, attempt to find a medium between our reality (“with my feet upon the ground”) and our universe (“to swing on the spiral of our divinity.”) We need to live in the here and now, and not so easily accept the notion that there’s nothing in the world left to discover.
Surely the band doesn’t just mean tangible things, but more so experiences that connect our hearts and minds to the divine source. We are more than just flesh and bones; we have chakras, vibrations and energy fields surrounding us that affect not only us but other people and the planet as well. It’s also thought that the band used time signatures from the Fibonacci sequence in this track; this sequence relates to the golden spiral, which is seen throughout nature.
Number Five: “Third Eye.” Listening to “Third Eye” through headphones, one might feel like they’re on a drug-induced mind-trip, which easily could have been the band’s intention. The track is from 1996’s album Aenima. The opening of the song is a quote from comedian/philosopher Bill Hicks about how drugs get a bad rep, but some of the most talented musicians in history created their best work in these states of altered consciousness.
Within this track, TOOL describes the experience of bliss when one’s third eye is open. The first two verses talk about “dreaming” and “tumbling down that hole”. We can surmise that the narrator has encountered a god (possibly Hindu) and perhaps is referencing “Alice in Wonderland” in the falling down the rabbit hole.
The narrator has a conversation with a celestial being he encounters, and realizes that he is in a place of innocence, yet he has trouble remaining in this blissful state. This is exemplified in the lyrics, “Came out to watch you play / Why are you running away,” which seems to be his celestial friend telling him that by accessing one’s third eye, you can access all the wonders of a childhood dream, if only you can get rid of the fear.
Number Four: “Aenima.” “Aenima” is the title track off of TOOL’s 1996 album, and the lyrics of this song seem to be prevalent now more than ever. Essentially this song welcomes the end of the world, (specifically the “flushing away” of LA,) as a much-needed change, or “vacation” from all the B.S. that has flooded our lives. Throughout the song Keenan talks about the endless clichés and inauthentic values of society.
“Try and read between the lines…Learn to swim.” We as society allow money and the media to blindfold us, without even questioning these idiotic trends and falsehoods. We essentially give away our willpower and individuality once we let this type of materialism run our lives. It seems like we need a catastrophic event to open our eyes and allow us to start over as a human race.Interestingly, some say this song is based on a comedy routine by Bill Hicks, who Keenan was a fan of.
Number Three: “46 & 2.” “46 & 2” is from 1996’s album Aenima, and like all TOOL songs, it forces you to think. Supposedly there are three different levels of evolution or consciousness for human beings, shown within different numbers of chromosomes. We as humans are now thought to be at the second level, with 46 chromosomes. “46 & 2” represents the third level of consciousness, or 48 chromosomes.
Essentially, this third level is our ending place; a place of individual peace and nirvana. However, in order to reach this place we must find our inner self and confront all of our phobias, fears and doubts. You must choose and accept the path you take in life, and step through your “shadow.” (It’s quite possible that Keenan is singing about Carl Jung’s “shadow psyche” concept). “46 & 2” chromosomes equals advanced consciousness.
Number Two: “Stinkfist.” Off of 1996’s Aenima, “Stinkfist” is another controversial song that can easily take on several different meanings. Some might initially think the song is about “fisting,” which could be correct, but perhaps it’s more than that. One gets a sense of the sexual undertones, with sex being a hedonistic and animalistic act; nothing more. The sensation that lust brings us, whether it’s for sex, drugs or power, helps us feel alive but also numbs us at the same time, to the point where “nothing seems to satisfy.”
As the song progresses, you go from finger, to knuckle, to elbow, to finally, “shoulder-deep within the borderline.” If referring to sex, this border-line, when the song opens, seems to be purely biological; two people engaging in sex for pleasure only. By the time you are “shoulder-deep,” there seems to be no border-line at all because a line was already crossed. You have taken a risk by actually going deep enough within this person to feel them beyond physical means.
“Relax, turn around and take my hand.” This line follows both the beginning and end of these passages. Concluding the song, this line transforms into literal terms; you see this other person as more than just a sexual being. You want them to feel comfortable because you care for them on some level, not purely because you want to sleep with them.
The song poses many questions about how we live our lives in pursuit of pleasure. Why must we first objectify ourselves and play a role in order to get what we want? If what we all seek is real, true passion, why do we fear getting too close to people? “Stinkfist,” to me, is a metaphor for going beyond our physical needs and having the guts to go after what our soul wants.
Number One: “H.” Off of 1996’s Aenima, “H” is an extremely powerful song. Anyone who thinks TOOL’s music is not for them should listen to this song on headphones at full blast. I guarantee you will gain a deeper respect for this band. Whether this song is about an unhealthy relationship or drug addiction (which many have speculated,) it seems to be referring to having some sort of dependency on something that is “considerately killing” you.
Often things that appear to help and influence us positively can end up having the exact opposite effect. We can follow friends, leaders, the media, or simply whatever feels good, but we will always end up back at square one, or worse than we began, if we don’t follow our instincts.
Interestingly, by the end of the song, Keenan sings, “I have died, I will die, it’s alright, I don’t mind.” This brings to mind the spiritual aspects of rebirth. It’s almost as if the narrator is cast in the role of the biblical Adam, who was tempted by Eve and the snake- or even Jesus Christ- and because he is a major mythical person in history, he is somehow doomed to be tempted by the same notions. He knows he will die, and will have to die, over and over again; with every breath, a higher power is “considerately killing” him. But by the end of the song, he seems to reluctantly accept his fate. The song could also be about having a child, and all the responsibilities and sacrifices one has to make as a parent.