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Tool Wants You to Push the Envelope and Watch It Bend

In my opinion at least, all of Tool’s songs are great, and all of their albums are as well. In other words, everything fits right where it is, so by putting together a Perfect 10, I by no means want to suggest otherwise. And, equally, in my mind this could be pretty much any 10 Tool songs. So my approach here has rather been to build a playlist of Tool songs that cuts across albums, based on two basic criteria: the flow of one song into the next, and a certain thematic resonance. So I’d encourage you to go ahead and click play below as you read on.

Tool Perfect 10

A playlist featuring TOOL

Track 1: “Pushit”

This might seem like an odd place to start, but I love the opening bars of “Pushit.” Perhaps my favorite Tool song of all time, the way it moves from sounds that feel nebulous and abstract to a concrete and grounded groove, with Maynard’s opening vocals providing a kind of bridge, makes this feel like what could be a perfect opening track.

The version that appears on Salival is also great, by the way (and I had the pleasure of hearing that in concert years ago before it had been broadly released—a truly transcendent experience), but the original version holds its own and is where I want to start here. It is angrier than the rendition with the tabla, and it would seem that is to the point; that by the time the latter version was released feelings had perhaps softened. And it’s interesting how the same song, with the same lyrics, can come across so differently through such a change in style.

I guess I’m basically saying to put either version here, and it’ll work. I’ve gone back and forth as to which I like better.

Either way, this is a song about a bad relationship. It’s about loving someone who you know is bad for you, and you grapple with that tension.

I love you. I hate you. I hate that I hate you because I love you. And what would life be like to move beyond this? I can’t imagine. Who are you but my reflection? Who am I to judge or strike you down?

I’m slipping back into the gap again
I’m alive when you’re touching me
Alive when you’re shoving me down, yeah
But I’d trade it all
For just a little peace of mind

“Pushit” is about that moment of realizing the thing does need to end. The gap is between the relationship and where one is after it. It is the break itself in which this song dwells—the realization that one has to move beyond the toxic structure one is caught in without knowing what comes next.

This is why both versions of the song work. The original is in the thick of it; the Salival version is with retrospect. In the moment there is anger, but looking back it’s mostly a sad story. But the anger isn’t gone. It’s not for nothing that both versions end the same way.

Remember I’ll always love you
As I claw your fucking throat away
It will end no other way
It will end no other way

Track 2: “The Patient”

“The Patient” strikes me as the perfect follow-up to “Pushit.” If the former is about this kind of break in one’s life, clearly related to a failed relationship, “The Patient” gets to the kind of ennui one might feel in the wake of all of that.

A groan of tedium escapes me
Startling the fearful
Is this a test? It has to be
Otherwise, I can’t go on
Draining patience, drain vitality
This paranoid, paralyzed vampire act’s a little old

We’re dealing with the same kind of people, here, but without the love. This is about being worn down by the world and the people in it. It’s the same thing that made me want to “claw your fucking throat away” but on a smaller scale, or also a broader one. And yet it is the next verse that I think gets to the heart of the thing:

But I’m still right here
Giving blood, keeping faith
And I’m still right here

Be patient. And that’s not just about waiting; it’s something beyond that. We need patience with people as well as doctor’s offices. And this implies not just waiting but a certain calmness in it and a certain acceptance of it.

If there were no desire to heal
The damaged and broken met along
This tedious path I’ve chosen here
I certainly would’ve walked away by now

The point is that ultimately it’s worth it—that human connection—even if it is hard, and even if it is trying. Wait it out.

Track 3: “Pneuma”

Taking a jump to Tool’s must recent album, Fear Inocolum, I must admit that I almost forgot the difficulty of listening to a new Tool album for the first time when I first put this on. After all, it had been 12 years, but beyond that this most recent album might be even more difficult than the previous in certain ways. The time signatures are insane, and you just don’t know what’s coming.

That being said, it was only a couple of listens in that “Pneuma” grabbed me in a real way. I found myself tapping my foot along to its complex rhythms, and it’s been my favorite track on the album ever since. Of course, that might change.

But, regardless, what we get here is representative of Tool’s move into the more spiritual, if you want to call it that. “Pneuma” precisely refers to the spirit, or the breath, and take that as you will. I’ve always connected to what they’re up to here in a certain way. There is something Spinozist about it in a way that I’ve always found appealing.

But however you take the metaphysics, we see a running theme with Tool: move beyond your everyday conceptions of things and towards something else:

Pneuma
Reach out and beyond
Wake up, remember
We are born of one breath, one word
We are all one spark, eyes full of wonder

Track 4: “4°”

There is a definite through line, particularly in early Tool, about butt sex. Which to be clear, I am not opposed to at all, unless it is nonconsensual. But I do think taking some of these songs literally is to miss the point. There is a metaphor at play here.

This should be particularly clear with “4°.” It is about moving beyond what you are comfortable with and exploring that.

Free yourself from yourself

Locked up inside you
Like the calm beneath castles
Is a cavern of treasures that
No one has been to
Let’s go digging

The metaphor is that perhaps you have taken something to be outside of what you’re open to, but that same thing could open you up to unexplored possibilities. Free yourself from yourself. Let me show you another way.

The instrumentals here are certainly in contrast to where the band would go later, but I find it striking that I can plug this in here and the tone fits. The flow works. There is something about Tool that has remained consistent even if what they’ve been to has changed a lot.

Track 5 and 6: “Parabol/Parabola”

“Parabol” and “Parabola” are two different tracks on Lateralus, but I’m not sure they should be. This is really one song, as the one leads into the other in a way that is not just seamless, but in a way that ties them together pretty clearly.

If there is any distinction, it is that “Parabol” is pretty mellow, whereas “Parabola” hits it hard. I see why Tool made this two separate tracks, but it’s still basically one song. I could see listening to “Parabola” without the intro of “Parabol” (although that would be an incorrect thing to do) but not really the other way around, as the end of  “Parabol” ramps up into the beginning of “Parabola.”

The instrumentation is perhaps the main thing here, as Maynard’s lyrics repeat, but instead of the mellow chords of “Parabol” we get things that hit hard. And his vocals change to match. Maybe the same lyrics, but things are different now.

This body, this body holding me
Be my reminder here that I am not alone in
This body, makes me feel
Eternal, all this pain is an illusion…

“Parabol/Parabola” is about being there in the world. Honestly, having a body can suck. We feel pains. You throw out your back, or whatever. But it makes you here. It makes you concrete. And you are not alone. We have this chance to be alive and breathing. Let’s celebrate that.

Track 7: “Stinkfist”

More butt sex stuff, yay! But honestly this song is not at all about that. Metaphors for the win!

Which, look, if you enjoy this kind of fisting, good on you, but I don’t think that is what this song is about. It’s about how desensitized we’ve come to be, and already were in the ‘90s. And it is about punching though that.

Whereas “4°” was about moving beyond what you expect to other sources of pleasure, “Stinkfist” is about the pain, or the possibility of it, at least. And then maybe pleasure in that.

We’ve moved to where nothing can shock us, and so maybe we’ll value anything that can.

Something kinda sad about
The way that things have come to be
Desensitized to everything
What became of subtlety?
How can this mean anything to me
If I really don’t feel anything at all?
I’ll keep digging
‘Til I feel something

I’ve been thinking about this for 25 years, but it just seems to be more and more the case. It’s as though nothing can stun us anymore. So we don’t feeling anything. We aren’t surprised. And that’s a bad thing.

“Stinkfist” also does some interesting things instrumentally, particularly at the beginning. If you won’t realize some of the crazy shit Justin Chancellor does on bass, you definitely should.

Track 8: “Right in Two”

There is a good amount of religious imagery in the lyrics on 10,000 Days, but what I find most striking is the premise of “Right in Two.” This imagines “angels on the sidelines” looking at humanity and being bewildered by the things we do.

Angels on the sideline
Baffled and confused
Father blessed them all with reason
And this is what they choose
Monkey killing monkey killing monkey over pieces of the ground

This is an interesting way to frame a critique of war and general human selfishness. Rather than cooperating to figure out how to make the world an Eden for all of us, we divide people into competing tribes. We divide resources, or hoard them at the expense of others. We kill one another in disputes about pieces of land.

It is also interesting that Maynard’s framework here seems to suppose that the angels are completely powerless to do anything about any of this. They are on the sidelines, left to wonder why God gave us free will when this is what we choose to do with it, and so on.

The instrumentals for “Right in Two” are just as powerful as the lyrics, if not more so. Danny Carey’s drumming is insane, with the tabla he began to use in the late ‘90s featuring prominently. Polyrhythms proliferate further between guitar and bass riffs, and yet the whole thing comes together in a way that is quite melodic.

Like many Tool songs, “Right in Two” is a track that you can listen to in multiple ways. On a first pass it might all wash over you. Then you might focus on the drums, or the bass, or the guitar. The 100th time through you might notice something you don’t feel like you’ve quite heard before at some moment in the song. And finally, you might feel like it has all come together for you in a way that lets you hear and experience everything in all of its detail. But then on the 1000th listen you again notice something new.

Track 9: “Disposition”

For the penultimate track on my purportedly perfect Tool album, I have chosen “Disposition.” It will be no surprise that “Reflection” is up next, as the two songs flow together seamlessly, but I think that “Disposition” stands alone better than “Parabol.”

Its lyrics are incredibly simple:

Mention this to me
Mention something, mention anything
Mention this to me
Watch the weather change

Yet, we can see here themes present in the earlier tracks I have chosen. Watching the weather change is sort of like being one of those angels on the sidelines. There is nothing one can do about it. And the weather in question is not just the literal weather; it is meant metaphorically. Fear Inoculum’s7empest” makes it clear, I think, that Maynard has a certain tendency to view things like politics through this lens (as I’ve asserted that song is about people like Trump).

I don’t think that “Disposition” is recommending quietism, however. It’s not a call to action, by any means, but the other main lyric is representative of the same desire to break out of things as we’ve seen in “Stinkfist” and “4°”—there is a through line in Tool about escaping the clichéd or the banal in order to find something novel. People get caught up in petty disputes and think things are important that aren’t even interesting.

Mention this to me
Mention something, mention anything

Track 10: “Reflection”

Closing my Perfect 10 is “Reflection.” Part of the reason for this is musical. When I saw Tool as they toured for Lateralus, they repeated the closing bars of the song for several minutes beyond its standard run time. Those five notes from Justin Chancellor’s bass reverberated over and over again, but there was nothing boring about it. The experience was meditative—almost trancelike. With the volume and acoustics of a live setting, you could feel that bass in your gut. Ever since, I imagine the song going on like that whenever I listen to it.

I think this is also a good closing track, however, insofar as it ties together the themes the previous songs I have chosen to hit upon, and offers something like a plan of action: crucify the ego.

So crucify the ego, before it’s far too late
And leave behind this place so negative and blind and cynical
So crucify the ego, before it’s far too late

And you will come to find that we are all one mind

Capable of all that’s imagined and all conceivable
So let the light touch you so that the words spill through
And let the past break through, bringing out our hope and reason

Before we pine away

Crucify the ego, before it’s far too late.

Caemeron Crain

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is a party to a Twin Peaks podcast that then did a few episodes on Surrealism before entering an indefinite hiatus. He also has a cat.

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  1. “In my opinion at least, all of Tool’s songs are great, and all of their albums are as well” – This is a correct opinion 🙂

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