(In Defense of Tool)
I recall one of those semi-satirical listicles popularized by online culture magazines, titled “What His Favorite Band Says About Him.” When it came to Tool, the answer was, “either he’s very very dumb, or very very smart.”
Certainly, Tool is not a name to bring up in polite company. For more than thirty years they have been extremely popular, as reflected in their sales figures, but also extremely uncool; associated with a kind of thorny, angry, “alternative” masculinity. Their songs – sometimes over ten minutes long – are complicated and dark, with lurching time-signatures, and driven by almost industrial precision. The production is somehow both obscure and clinical. And their music videos are bleak and alienating. For these reasons, they are often, paradoxically, dismissed as both pretentious and proletarian.
One might describe Tool’s sound and vibe as jazz for incels. Or prog rock for gothically-inclined bicycle messengers. Or Rush for humanities students on speed (rather than engineering students on dope). Their fans are cultish and obsessive, which also often sets off alarm bells in the normie population. (And Tool fans are likely to think of themselves in contrast to so-called “normies.”) Fans have been known to boast of upgrading their stereo system each time the band releases an album; partly in order to keep up with the new recording technology, and partly as a ritual sacrifice in honor of such a momentous occasion. I’ve seen people posting photos of their goosebumps online, when listening to new tracks.
The hipper-than-thou, taste-making, Pitchfork-magazine brigade, however, will have none of it. Tool are considered something like the Dave Matthews Band for Reddit trolls, or Nickelback for lumpen-Juggalos. It should be clear by now that such coding is deeply classist, and to my mind at least, bespeaks a kind of latent bourgeois panic. Nor should there be any assumption about the ideological character of Tool fans. I know plenty of queer, lefty types who confess that they owe their persistent existence, at least partially, to the cathartic power of their music. (The sound of pre-millennial angst when amplified into some kind of dystopian sci-fi HR Giger panoramic nightmare.)
The first time I heard Tool was in 1993, as I drove aimlessly around the suburbs of Melbourne. The single “Sober” heaved mechanically through my car radio’s speakers, and the sound of the bass immediately struck me like some kind of dark lightning bolt, thrown by Thor himself. There was so much space in the production – cavernous, but intimate. This was “heavy metal” as assembled by metal itself: gargantuan mercurial cyborgs gone rogue; acting against their programming. (Yeah, fuck you, Matrix!) I pulled over to the side of the road, awash in the aforementioned goosebumps; waiting impatiently through several other songs by lesser artists before the announcer finally told me the name of the song and band. (Such were the data-poor days of the 1990s.) I was an instant fan.
Three years later, Tool released what many consider their magnum opus, AEnima. (And yes, it’s hard to deny charges of pretension, with a name like that. But pretension is built into the bones of the genre.) The title song is a candidate for one of the first “anthropocene,” songs, as the lyrics express a proleptic sense of relief at the idea of Los Angeles – the band’s home-town – being punished by Mother Nature for her many sins; washed away into “Arizona Bay.”
Maynard James Keenan, the band’s singer and front-man, cautions the populace to:
Fret for your figure and
Fret for your latte and
Fret for your lawsuit and
Fret for your hairpiece and
Fret for your Prozac and
Fret for your pilot and
Fret for your contract and
Fret for your car
LA is depicted as “one great big festering neon distraction,” and the narrator of this Biblical scenario urges everyone, over and over, to “learn to swim.”
Why? Because “Mom’s gonna fix it all soon . . . Mom’s comin’ ‘round to put it back the way it ought to be.” Passive Oedipal fatalism notwithstanding, “AEnima” evokes an enema-like deus ex machina to dispense with the various species of feces we are obliged to put up with in the modern metropolis.
Fuck L. Ron Hubbard and
Fuck all his clones
Fuck all these gun-toting
Hip gangster wannabes
. . .
Fuck retro anything
Fuck your tattoos
Fuck all you junkies and
Fuck your short memories
. . .
Fuck smiley glad-hands
With hidden agendas
Towards the end of the song, building relentlessly to a churning climax, the clouds suddenly clear, and Maynard’s vocals soar into a kind of beatific, Botticellian grace. Our ears are blessed with an atheistic-white-boy-gospel-plea for Revelations:
‘Cause I’m praying for rain
I’m praying for tidal waves
I wanna see the ground give way
I wanna watch it all go down
Mom, please flush it all away
I wanna see it go right in and down
It’s hard to convey, to those who weren’t born yet, just how stagnant the 1990s felt, in terms of socio-political “progress.” This was the time when Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History” made a lot of sense, at least on a visceral level; while Jean Baudrillard insisted persuasively that we were living “after the orgy.” Neo-liberalism was not only ascendent but triumphant. Consumer culture had established itself as the only legitimate model for human life, so that the suburbs and the strip-mall were now our social destiny and existential horizon. The Thatcher-Reagan ideological complex had super-saturated almost everything, even in the far-flung colonies where I grew up, and there were few signs of resistance. So called “alternative music” was exploding at precisely the same time any alternative to the status quo seemed impossible. By the same token, it’s strange to think how intense some of the music was at the time, conveying a profound sense of dread or anger. Strange because things would get so much worse in the next century. As the tentacles of silicon valley extended their slimy reach into our modems, hearts, and habits, popular music would, in the aughts, become dominated by the self-satisfied handclaps of the willfully fey, and the jaunty banjo plucks of the complicitly whimsical. (Although, in the last few years there does, thankfully, seem to be some kind of rekindling of aesthetic resistance – of musical thumos – in the world of grime and trap; but time will tell the extent to which that has any ongoing impact.) And while it’s true that politically-engaged, affectively-enraged acts – like Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Tricky, and Public Enemy – were always obliged to work within the corporate system to find a wide audience, there was, for a few years at least, the senseof a general sonic pact to at least go out with a bang, rather than a whimper. So to say, the zeitgeist seemed to implicitly understand Fredric Jameson’s oft-quoted insight, that it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
The revolutions of the twentieth century had been found wanting, by the end of that century; congealed into new tyrannies. And May ’68 served as some increasingly illegible epitaph to the dream of non-exploitative, human-scaled, community and experience. The 1990s was the decade in which neo-liberalism flexed its oily muscles for the cameras, and the people were expected to applaud the obscene spectacle. No wonder Radiohead wailed, “I just want something to happen,” and Tool dreamed of apocalyptic floods. “Don’t just call me pessimist,” sings Maynard, in “AEnima”: “Try and read between the lines . . . I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t . . . Welcome any change, my friend.”
A tool is an object designed to intervene into the workings of the world. It is also an external prosthesis used to bring new worlds into being. Human beings have been defined as homo faber, “the tool using animal,” even as other creatures – like chimps using stones to break walnuts, or elephants using branches to swat away flies – have been observed utilizing objects to make their tasks more efficient, or their lives more bearable. A tool is the primary instantiation of technology writ large, which, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued, is “a way of revealing, or bringing forth.” Technology, as an instance of what the ancient Greeks call techne, is both an art and a science; making decisive interventions in the way of things, and thus forging new possibilities, affordances, and modes of relation. For Heidegger, our tools only reveal their true essence when they break or malfunction, since only then do we truly appreciate the extent to which we relied on them, our non-human partners, to accomplish things that we consider intrinsically human (like building a house, making some clothes, baking some bread, composing a song, or writing a poem). Hence, Heidegger’s gnomic dictum: “the essence of technology is nothing technological.” There is, in simpler terms, a kind of sacred pact between tool-users and tools themselves, and the way these work together to reveal, at least potentially, the obscured meaning hidden within this underlying miracle of Being. The danger, however, lies in the scenario where this partnership becomes unbalanced, and tools themselves start to define the terms, without our input. Then they “enframe” everything we do; even our ways of speaking, interacting, and navigating the world. And we become, as Marshall McLuhan said, little more than “the sex organs of the machine world.”
For Heidegger, an old-fashioned water-mill is an organic or harmonious form of technology, since it adapts to the natural will or capacities of the stream or river over which it is built. A hydroelectric dam, in contrast, changes the stakes, since it embodies “an unreasonable demand of nature,” taking more than the land is willing to give of its own accord. Modern technologies are a danger, according to Heidegger, because they are extractive, out of balance, and unreasonable. They ask more than they give, and they foreclose any way of thinking or doing outside these logics of exploitation and maximization.
Tool, the band, I would submit, are an example of techne working against its own modern appropriation and imperative. Their music is a sonic record of the possibility that technology itself can be enlisted to amplify the cause and legacy of Luddite resistance. (And I mean here the true history of the Luddites, who weren’t simply “technophobic” or “anti-progress,” but who understood, right at the beginning of the Industrial revolution, that specific forms of technological arrangement are designed to more efficiently enclose and enslave the common worker.)
Of course, we like to call a slow or stupid person a “tool”; such an insult suggesting that the target of such abuse is also a dumb object: merely a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves (as per Kant’s famous ethical definition of the human). But this etymology reveals our ambivalence towards technology. On the one hand, we revere and fetishize it, as an essential companion and enabler (exhibit A being the iPhone). On the other hand, we fear and revile it, for the very same reasons. We resent our dependence on mere things to fully be who we feel we are, or should be. The tool has become the symbol of the uncomfortable fact that we are slaves to the notion that we are masters of this world.
At the turn of the millennium – as it became clearer that the internet was swiftly becoming not only our economic backbone, but our own extended nervous system – Tool’s neo-Romantic orientation become more prominent. The songs on their next album, Lateralus, were more introspective; some suggesting a more resigned, even mystical, sensibility. The first single, “Schism” testifies to the fact:
There was a time that the pieces fit, but I watched them fall away.
Mildewed and smoldering, strangled by our coveting
I’ve done the math enough to know the dangers of our second guessing
Doomed to crumble unless we grow, and strengthen our communication
The consensus among exegetical fans is that this song is inspired by a personal relationship gone awry. Given the band’s fondness for grand-narratives, however, and a bleak view of human progress, it could well also describe a general post-Lapsarian lament. As Maynard himself noted in an interview: “They’re all about relationships. Learning how to integrate communication back into a relationship. How are we as lovers, as artists, as brothers – how are we going to reconstruct this beautiful temple that we’ve built and that’s tumbled down? It’s universal relationship stuff.”
Sadly, I have only seen Tool play live once, and that was in extremely suboptimal conditions. They had been booked for a large outdoor festival in Melbourne, circa 1994, called Alternative Nation. Unfortunately, on the day of the event, the heavens opened up in a way that rarely happens in Australia’s second city. The storm continued for hours, almost tropical in intensity. I remember finding a café to escape to, in a bid to stay dry, and being met by the miserable expression of a classically beautiful Chinese bride, in full wedding dress, with extended family scattered around her, like so many sad and sodden doves. The gods were clearly not happy with her union.
Eventually the clouds parted, and Tool took the stage to only a smattering of people, as the majority of fans had given up on the chance that the event would proceed. I remember the band gave their best – Maynard slithering about the stage shirtless, like one of those lizard men from the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon. But the sound mix was thin, the wind demoralizing, the anticipation scattered, the mood ruined.
Many years later, in 2018, Maynard was accused of sexual assault by an anonymous female fan on Twitter. He was swift to condemn this as “a despicable false claim that only does damage to the #metoo movement.” As far as I can tell, no legal action was ever taken. Such serious accusations, however, inevitably form a pall over the accused. To follow this rabbit hole online is to find the usual dismissive apologetics that “all musicians have taken advantage of groupies,” or the common counter-claim that “where there is smoke there is fire.” In any case, I have no interest in defending Maynard’s character or alleged actions. I’ve never met him, and I know little about him, beyond his music, and the fact that he owns a commercial-scale vineyard. It seems, however, in this important moment of reckoning, in which we hope to rewrite a much more ethical and responsible social contract between the genders, the conversation around the artist vis-à-vis their art will become increasingly difficult and vexed. Indeed, there seems understandable momentum to reverse the usual assumption – “innocent until proven guilty” – when it comes to such accusations, since women have, historically, so seldom been believed, and yet so often been abused. In this case, I confess I’m not sure how to proceed, since I found out about the allegations while researching this article, and it has thrown a pall over the whole enterprise. No doubt Maynard is, at the very least, a bit of an asshole and hypocrite. He may indeed be a full-blown predator. (Which, if it comes to light, will bring up the usual questions of art qua artist.) For the sake of completing this article, however – which, in its therapeutic narcissistic indulgence, has helped me pull myself out a year-and-a-half of pandemic-induced writer’s block – I won’t throw away the music itself just yet.
And so, returning briefly to “AEnima,” I would again flag this track as a prescient moment in the shockingly swift reality of climate change and ecological disaster. It is a suitable soundtrack for reading something like Paul Kingsnorth’s influential essay, “Dark Ecology,” in which the author compares the scythe to the brushcutter, in order to draw attention to the different ways these two objects subtly reshape the human user to their own inherent dictates:
A brushcutter is essentially a mechanical scythe. It is a great heavy piece of machinery which needs to be operated with both hands and requires its user to dress up like Darth Vader in order to swing it through the grass. It roars like a motorbike, belches out fumes and requires a regular diet of fossil fuels. It hacks through the grass instead of slicing it cleanly like a scythe blade. It is more cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster and far less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced. And yet you see it used everywhere: on motorway verges by council workers, in parks by municipal gardeners; even, for heaven’s sake, in nature reserves. It’s a horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient thing. So why do people use it, and why do they still laugh at the scythe? To ask that question in those terms is to misunderstand what is going on. Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better, they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes to technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point; the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.
Kingsnorth teaches people to slow down, to simplify, by learning to use the scythe once again; but it’s difficult to master. “That lack of mastery,” he writes, “and the promise of one day reaching it, is part of the complex beauty of the tool.”
Echoing Maynard’s lyrics throughout the album, Kingsnorth notes: “Our civilisation is beginning to break down. We are at the start of an unfolding economic and social collapse which may take decades or longer to play out – and which is playing out against the background of a planetary ecocide which nobody seems able to prevent. We are not gods, and our machines will not get us off this hook, however clever they are and however much we would like to believe it.”
It is worth noting that Lateralus also contains a eulogy to the legendary, angry comedian Bill Hicks, who represents the bristling contrast between the tastes of generation X with millennials. In some ways, Hicks represents a “third way,” between the Scylla of reactionary conservatism and the Charybdis of so-called political correctness. (That this attitude now smacks of toxic male privilege is perhaps an indication of the triumph of the latter, as much as anything else.) But the “politics” of Tool – if we can talk of such a thing, about a rather incoherent art-metal band, is, or at least was, anything if not anti-war, anti-patriotism, and anti-machismo. One track, for instance, is simply a voice-mail message left by someone with a strong European accent:
Figlio di puttana, sai che tu sei un pezzo di merda?
Hm? You think you’re cool, right? Hm? Hm? When you kicked out people [out of] your house I tell you this, one of three Americans die of cancer, you know? Asshole. You’re gonna be one of those. I [don’t have the] courage to kick your ass directly. Don’t have enough courage for that, I could, you know. You know you’re gonna have another accident? You know I’m involved with black magic? Fuck you. Die. Bastard. You think you’re so cool, hm? Asshole. And if I ever see your fucking face around, In Europe or Italy, Well I’ll — That time I’m gonna kick your ass. Fuck you. Fucking Americans, Yankee. You’re gonna die outta cancer, I promise.
Different stories circulate online regarding the provenance of this message, including the theory that this was the band’s landlord at one point. Presented without context, however, underlaid with a plaintive piano refrain, the effect is not a kind of comic prank call, but of the voice of all those who have been fucked over by the American imperial project. There is a strong sense of fury and menace in the anonymous man’s voice. And I can’t help thinking that the decision to include this diatribe is a way of ventriloquizing the conflict that any sensitive American feels about being a part of a nation that much of the world either fears or abhors.
Such naked self-criticism is rare even in liberal circles, let alone in the heavy metal scene. Over the years however, it seems the combination of aging and wealth have, predictably, mellowed Tool’s edge. Now they seem content to only tokenistically gesture towards this long-vanished third way. In 2017, for instance, Maynard told a New York audience: “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. I’m just gonna tell you both of them at the same time: Fox News, Huffington Post, the left, the right, Trump, Breitbart, Facebook – none of these things are your enemy. Your enemy is ignorance, that’s the fight.” We’re right to be suspicious, however, of people who claim to locate themselves outside ignorance, looking in, since this is the impossible space of Archimedes; or indeed the quintessential Qanon conspiracy theorist.
Of course all enemas are within. (I’m indulging in a tautological exercise, if ever there was one.) And perhaps Tool would have received more respect if they had been a less preachy, more straight-up nihilistic punk band, called Stool. But just as we may occasionally feel the need to cleanse our bowels, with a colonic – or our souls, with some kind of spiritual tonic – it feels good to clean out the mental and emotional cobwebs with a swift dose of Tool’s music. (Even as I no longer have access to the kind of music system that would do it justice. Indeed, I suffer in general from a kind of middle-aged “metal fatigue,” where one or two tracks of loud, pulsing music is enough, before I switch to ambient electronica, or rather angsty neo-folk.)
In any case, I fully understand that Tool represent what the kid’s today call “cringe.” Now that gen X is starting to get hip replacements, Tool are not only an instance of “dad rock,” but “granddad metal.” (In one of the most effectively understated disses ever, the Pitchfork review of Tool’s long-awaited comeback album simply stated: “If there’s one thing that the 86 minutes of Fear Inoculum provides, it is the sound of four people making long, complicated songs together.”) To be sure, Tool lack the street cred of Nirvana, the hipsterism of Helmet, the begrudging critical respect of Jane’s Addiction, the crossover appeal of Soundgarden, the weirdness of System of a Down, the gravitas of Slayer, the redneck authenticity of Pantera, the zen chthonics of Kyuss, the exotica of Sepultura, or even the belated nobility of Metallica. But it’s important, as French philosopher Alain Badiou knows, to practice a “fidelity to the event,” including the humble, personal epiphanies, positive or negative, that occur in one’s aesthetic life; events that threaten (or promise) to rewire the self, or at least make new connections to other vital spheres, like thought, love, and politics. (And if the New AOC-Bernie army ever need me to find the courage to act as part of a human shield, against the onslaught of the Bezos drone army, then I request they play the second-half of Tool’s “Stinkfist” at full volume in my ears, as I grit my teeth, and offer up my speckled carcass to the Cause.)
I freely admit, however, that it’s tone deaf, if not politically suspect, to sing the praises of a band comprised of dubious, aging white dudes – who are, if not actual douche-bags, likely to be firmly douche-adjacent – when there are so many great Afrofuturist and LatinXpunk movements afoot in pop culture. My final point, however, would be to urge us to resist either/or’ing these alternatives. Heavy metal as a genre – or loud, intense music, in general – is one of the best, well, tools we have to fight the power, to forge new meanings, and even to start creating new worlds. It can be an essential part of the affective connecting tissue between all manner of different bodies, identities, and experiences, as Laina Dawes has shown. Beyond the decibel level, chord structures, and effects pedals of alt.metal, the gothic – as a framing aesthetic – can also, as Leila Taylor has shown, be a powerful, and all-too appropriate idiom through which to work-through deep historical traumas. (Including, and especially, the ongoing trauma of the blood-drenched history and legacy of the US.) We may not be able to redeem the unbearable whiteness of Tool. But I maintain their sonic provocation is so much more than the biographies of the men who made it.
Tool, as a gestalt idea in the popular mind, are, I admit, kind of embarrassing. But in their best musical moments they also transcend the banality of the everyday, and provide an aural glimpse of what Heidegger called “the Open”: a complex and intimate rendering of the Sublime. Tool’s music can function as a pulsing membrane – at once grotesque, beautiful, inspiring, and exhausting – connecting, as the amusing listicle noted earlier, very different minds, spines, and hearts; including the very very stupid, with the very very intelligent. This is no small thing.
For as Maynard sings, with such intensity: “I know the pieces fit, but I watched them wash away.”
 See Gavin Mueller’s new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites are Right About Why You Hate Your Job (Verso, 2021). For an older, influential account, see Ivan Illich’s, Tools for Conviviality (1973).
 Cf. Roy Scranton’s radical pessimism, underwriting his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights, 2015).
 See Laina Dawes’ What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points, 2013). Also highly recommended, the recent TV show, We Are Lady Parts, about an East London heavy metal band.
 See Leila Taylor’s, Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul (Repeater, 2019).
 tl;dj – Despite everything, I still like Tool’s music (in small doses, when in the right mood).