Is This The Year Enigmatic Alt-Metal Band Tool Stages A Comeback?

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.

Like many things that originated in the ’90s, Tool can be difficult to explain in 2017. But let me try: Formed in 1990, Tool originally flourished in the niche between grunge and metal, similar to Alice In Chains and Rage Against the Machine. (Tool guitarist Adam Jones actually met drummer Danny Carey via his old high school friend, RATM’s Tom Morello.) Tool’s full-length debut, 1993’s Undertow, is a relatively straight-forward rock record compared with the group’s unapologetically convoluted later releases, but it nonetheless established the Tool template — moody, deliberately paced jams set in tricky time signatures that provide a sprawling musical bed for Keenan’s dynamic vocals.

A singular frontman in the history of metal and hard rock, Keenan is equally capable of affecting a winsome croon reminiscent of emo singers like Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, as well as the sort of ravaged metal-guy screams that gets you in the door at places like Ozzfest. Then there’s Keenan’s visual presentation: On stage he has slathered himself in white paint, donned fake breasts and long blonde wigs, and played the part of a leisure-suited televangelist hurling gold-plated Bibles into the audience.

The purpose of this subterfuge is twofold: It makes Keenan a magnetic stage presence, and for years it also made him essentially anonymous. Seeing Tool perform in 2002 on the Lateralus tour remains one of my favorite arena-rock experiences — the perfect synthesis of lasers, on-screen projections, and spotless sound is probably the closest I’ll ever get to seeing Pink Floyd. But afterward I didn’t feel like I had actually seen Tool. For a long time, it was possible to be a hardcore Tool fan and not know what Keenan even looked like. When Spin put Tool on the cover in 2001 — with faces blurred, of course — the magazine also ran a sidebar called “Am I Maynard or Not?” in which readers were invited to pick out the band’s frontman from a series of photographs. This is what people used to refer to as “mystique.”

Tool became unlikely MTV stars thanks to the video for the thoroughly depressing “Prison Sex,” which MTV eventually banned from its playlist for being too disturbing. (This in turn made Tool even more awesome in the eyes of myself and my knucklehead teenaged male friends.) But the band truly came into its own with 1996’s Ænima, in which the band’s prog-rock side fully blossoms, thanks in part to producer David Bottrill, who the band hired because he had worked with King Crimson.

Ænima also showcases Tool’s irreverent, surprisingly funny streak — probably the most under-appreciated aspect of the Tooliverse. For all the songs inspired by abuse and death and prison and metaphysics and ritual magic, Tool also is capable of intentional silliness, like in Ænima‘s “Die Eier von Satan,” which evokes a Nazi rally but is actually a cookie recipe recited in German through a megaphone. Then there’s the infamous “Hooker With A Penis,” a stinging rebuke of Tool’s own fans — who Keenan describes as being dressed in the standard ’90s rock uniform of “Vans, 501s, and a dope Beastie tee” — that accuse them of selling out. (This was back when people still cared about selling out.)

My favorite Tool album is 2001’s Lateralus, also known as the “spacey one.” (Whereas Ænima is the “Zeppelin-y one.”) Lateralus came out one year after Mer De Noms, the debut by A Perfect Circle, which Keenan formed with Tool’s former guitar tech, Billy Howerdel. Compared to Tool, A Perfect Circle is practically a pop band; Mer De Noms sounds like Queens Of The Stone Age if Queens Of The Stone Age had been into the Cure instead of cigarettes and sex.

When Mer De Noms became a hit, it seemed like Keenan’s other, far weirder band might be overshadowed. (The Spin story from 2001 is as much about A Perfect Circle as it is about Tool.) But on Lateralus, Tool boldly veers in the opposite direction from Mer De NomsLateralus unfolds with maximum grandiosity, its 79-minute running time pushing the storage space of the era’s predominant format, the compact disc, to the breaking point.

Listening to Lateralus now, it’s hard to articulate what makes the album good. I’ve played it many times, but after extended immersion in this densely majestic web of intricate guitar riffs, stabbing basslines, and mathematically precise drum fills, I often have trouble recalling a melody or quotable lyric. That’s because Tool doesn’t operate like a typical metal band. Most metal bands push out with all-out force — Tool’s specialty is creating massive slabs of sound in which the aggression is turned inward. The result is ambient music designed for the weight room.

“It’s like computer-generated patterns,” bassist Justin Chancellor suggested in 2006. “When you stare at it, let your eyes relax and then you see an image in it. Our music is like that, you relax and open your thoughts.” I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s pretty much the truth when it comes to how Tool’s music works.

A new Tool album is supposedly on the way soon — though after years of false starts caused by lawsuits, side projects, illnesses, and the band’s own painstaking nature, “a new Tool album is on the way soon!” has become a jokey meme on metal websites. The band’s recent updates are a laundry list of “artistes locked in the studio” cliches — there’s lots of talk about the “alchemy” of experimentation and “trying to discover ideas that we haven’t discovered before” and attempting to “flip it upside down,” whatever that means. Reportedly, Tool has two albums worth of material recorded, but only five songs are up to band standards. At this rate, Tool will need to create two or three additional rejected albums to get enough material worthy of release.

Like all Tool fans, I’m curious to hear what the band does next, though it’s to hard to fathom after all this time what exactly a new Tool album would sound like. Tool to me is the quintessential CD band — if the compact disc ever gets a revival, collectors will rush to procure Lateralus and 10,000 Days on disc like they fetishize their vinyl copies of Abbey Road. But where does that leave Tool now?

In the ’90s and the ’00s, Tool sold millions of records in spite of shunning publicity and other typical conventions for a big-time rock band. Because of these aversions, Tool is left out of most conversations about the most vital bands of its era — for instance, it’s hard to imagine that Tool will make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame when it becomes eligible next year. But while Tool’s anti-media approach has its obvious shortcomings for anyone that hasn’t built a career with the help of muscular, ’90s-era major label support, Tool’s refusal to fit in has ultimately served it quite well. Relevance is good, but being immune to the transience of relevance is better.