Then And Now: Does Tool’s Back Catalogue Hold Up?
Today, let’s spare a thought for all those unofficial and legally dubious YouTube channels that were surviving almost solely on full streams of the Tool records that have been inexplicably unavailable on perfectly legal and official outlets. Until now! Because today, Tool have made their back catalogue available to stream on your digital streaming service of choice, ahead of the release of the band’s forthcoming fifth album, Fear Inoculum on August 30.
“Our obsession with, and dream of, a world where BetaMax and Laser Disc rule has ended,” vocalist Maynard James Keenan quipped about the long-delayed move to digital streaming platforms. “Time for us to move on. But never fear. There’s a brand new thing we think you’re really gonna dig. It’s called Digital Downloads and Streaming. Get ready for the future, folks!”
And what better excuse to trudge through the Kerrang! archives to reassess those old releases, comparing what we said then and what we think now, under the auspices of confirming if Tool’s back catalogue holds up or not.
Spoiler: yes, it does.
In the summer of 1992 former Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach was on our cover when we snuck in a little review of the official UK release of the debut EP by then-unknown sort-of-rock, sort-of-metal, not-really-either oddballs Tool. This essentially comprised a reprint of what our man Mörat had said in passing a few issues previous when he’d gotten his grubby mitts on a U.S. import LP and proceeded to mostly just moan about the fact that the vinyl had the same six songs on each side, mistakenly believing it to be an album rather than an EP. He did, however, correctly identify that the quartet were “as heavy as a big old bag of spanners when they want to be” and reckoned that the band were “startlingly original” which is some Nostradamus shit when you consider how these nascent escapades into recorded territory compare to the terrain Tool would end up dwelling in.
For the uninitiated, Opiate is possibly not the most welcoming entry point, but as a time capsule of an incredibly raw band ready to scrap their way into wider public consciousness, it’s a fascinating document and although it’s naturally let down by the quality of the recording and limitations of budget, there’s still loads to love about those songs. Bonus shout out to Maynard’s between-song patter on the bonus live tracks.
“If they stop fucking about, Tool will be massive,” our review in ‘92 concluded. Huh…
And this is where shit really gets serious when it comes to Tool. Although it’s arguably their most streamlined and svelte full-length release, Undertow sowed seeds that would bear rich fruit later in the band’s creative journey. It’s also heavy as fuck, even darker still and despite sounding very much of its time, this holds up remarkably well by modern standards. There’s an undeniable flow and thread of feeling in the seams of the songs that doesn’t dissipate with age.
“Shiny, happy people need not apply,” K! writer Mike Gitter wrote in his fulsome appraisal of the record in 1993, picking out the frontman’s particular charms as a highlight. “Keenan’s quick to immolate himself at any opportunity as the band ride hard on currents of bliss, fear and loathing,” he says of the unique balance struck between the quartet’s opposing forces, highlighting the Henry Rollins collab on Bottom in particular for its ability to “make you want to do a lot of one-handed push-ups”.
It’s a sign of the times perhaps that when we first reviewed the towering creative leap forward that was ‘96’s Ænima, our writer Paul Travers appeared to be more bewildered by what he had just heard than able to properly process his thoughts into any real cohesive conclusion. Other than to sit on the fence with the neither-here-nor-there aside of it being “a more experimental approach” and detailing how the songs contained “a fair amount of weirdness” in amongst references to how bold it all felt on first assessment.
While those things may all remain true today, the album’s quality has shone through in the subsequent years and with many repeat listens. This is the point where what we’ve come to know and love about Tool today began to come to the fore.
Up there where we said about Tool not being the most welcoming to newcomers? This might be the way in, representing something of a halfway house between the band’s most accessible moments and the more out-there tendencies embraced much more fully on subsequent albums.
Many argue that Lateralus is Tool’s magnum opus and Dave Everley’s 5K superlative appraisal makes a strong case to support that point. Good luck arguing otherwise, regardless.
“It’s the most perfectly played, perfectly produced record you’re likely to hear this or any other year,” he states, “and there are, to paraphrase one of the band’s old slogans, absolutely, definitely, unequivocally no fucking hit singles” which is a fair comment. “Lateralus is one of the greatest albums you’ll hear in your lifetime,” he concludes.
Indeed, as above, Lateralus might not be the first album you’d play to someone trying to get into the band for the first time, but all things considered it may just be their finest record once those same people are ready for it and it still stands as the one that encapsulates all of their brilliantly rewarding awkwardness. It’s one to live with to truly know and love, but once you do, it’ll stay with you.
10,000 Days (2006)
We (rightly, again) went all in on the full 5Ks for our assessment of the follow-up to the lavishly praised Lateralus and by this point we were calling Tool “legends” and referring to their “most stunning masterpiece yet” which is an argument we’ll leave for all of you to have among yourselves.
10,000 Days is a beast of a record, with grand ideas and ambitions in its DNA. Even all these years later there’s still so much to unpack, and that’s before we even get around to begin tackling Fear Inoculum at the end of this month.
We’ve heard somewhat truncated versions of two tracks live so far (Descending and Invincible) and they suggest that will be an album requiring a lot of careful listening and attention, possibly for a long time to come before we even get close to fully appreciating or ‘understanding’ it. In a matter weeks, the fun really begins…
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