If you were to invent a band that is completely antithetical to how popular music acts are supposed to comport themselves in 2017, you probably couldn’t do better than Tool. At a time when seemingly nothing is valued more in pop discourse than “relevance” — an annoyingly opaque term that denotes an amalgam of commercial success, media coverage from the “right” outlets, and social-media presence — the veteran alt-metal quartet barely registers. Tool’s music is the opposite of trendy, the members don’t tweet or consent to most interviews (unless singer Maynard James Keenan is allowed to talk about his vineyard), and you can’t even dial up the band’s albums on streaming services. (Tool is among the most stubborn holdouts from the streaming era, on the grounds that it upholds the sanctity of the band’s extremely long and complicated albums.) It’s not even that Tool is considered uncool — in many ways one of the most popular rock bands of the last 25 years is invisible.
And yet, when New York City music festival Governors Ball announced its 2017 lineup earlier this month, there was Tool at the top of the bill, ahead of infinitely buzzier artists such as Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino, and Lorde. Surely this inspired many prospective attendees to quizzically ask, “What’s Tool? Is that a new DJ?” But if you measure popularity using old-world metrics such as albums sales and sold-out arena shows, Tool is by far the most popular act booked at Governors Ball this year. (Tool also is headlining the Boston Calling festival.) And with a new album (maybe?) on the way in 2017, Tool might very well be poised re-assert itself as a relevant musical force.
Of course, Tool’s legion of true believers don’t need convincing. For them, Tool is nothing less than the Radiohead of metal. (Or, in the parlance of metalheads, Radiohead is the Tool of music that’s doesn’t rock.) Nevertheless, it’s been a long time since Tool has produced new music. To put it in perspective: Chance The Rapper had just turned 13 when 10,000 Days was released in 2006. Or how about this: Tool’s most recent album was out for almost exactly one year when Barack Obama announced that he was running for president. Here’s one more: When 10,000 Days debuted at no. 1 on the albums chart, bands still thought it was a good idea to house their music inside of ridiculous packages like this.