As any fan or follower of modern rock music will argue, Tool are one of the most talented, creative, and interesting projects to come along in the last 25 years. The record sales, ticket sales, and merchandise sales speak for themselves, and seeing the band perform live is something that must be witnessed firsthand to be truly understood and appreciated. With legions of fans proudly part of the band-sanctioned “Tool Army,” it’s no surprise there is a clamoring for the band to release new material, just as the fans of any rock band might express, right? Well, not exactly. Most rock bands, regardless of their stature, cannot afford to go for 8 years or more between albums and hope to remain significant or influential. Tool seems oblivious and apathetic about this concept. In fact, at some point, one wonders if they’ll ever even release another album at all.
Tool have never kept up the release pace of their contemporaries, with most 90s bands releasing a new LP every 1-2 years throughout that decade, while Tool went more for the 3-5 year span between new albums. Compared to classic rock acts who released a new LP every 8-15 months, this lengthy break between albums stands out even more. At their peak, some groups in the 60s and 70s released three new LPs within a 15 month span! To really begin to understand how or why Tool has gone so long, and seems to revel in that length, one needs to be acquainted with their dark brand of humor.
Tool’s relationship with its audience has always been hard to completely understand. While the messages of many of their songs seems to be made very explicitly, the lyrics of their songs are often misinterpreted. One moment, the band appears to insult the ignorant who rely on religion or politics as a crutch or drug, and the next moment, the lyrics warn the intellectual listener that “over thinking/over analyzing separates the body from the mind.” Song lyrics and print-based jokes that date back over 20 years point out that the band seems to be in this only for the money, and whether that’s satirical or not is not easy to discern. The line between contempt for the audience and post-modern parody is very unclear, but it certainly seems to entertain and amuse the band either way.
Any time an individual member of the band is interviewed, they are inevitably asked about the progress on a new LP, and when fans might expect to hear it. Each time, the response is mostly similar. The band has either just entered the studio or is nearing completion of the basic recording process with vocals and overdubs to be added shortly. The frustrating thing about this from a fan’s perspective is the band gives out this general, false information in each interview and has been doing so for nearly the last five or six years. One recent example turned into a social media flare-up when guitarist Adam Jones’s sarcastic comment to a fan back stage that the record was “done. It’s coming out tomorrow,” was posted as a factual update on the long-delayed new LP. The band contacted Rolling Stone magazine within hours of the release of the story to explain what had actually been said and that they were, as always, in the early stages of production on new material, but that it was not yet ready for release.
On one hand, it’s worth noting that the band simply has no need to go to the trouble of writing or releasing new material, anyway. Tool is able to perform wherever they want in the world, and they sell out every ticket, every time they play. At some point, a band becomes so large and has such a following that it is not necessary for them to have new material to promote just to have a reason to perform a short string of shows or a random festival when the desire is there. The band has a number of rock radio hits on which to draw, and fans know and love the deep cuts just as much as the average radio-listener knows the hit singles. Not releasing new material has no real effect on the band’s media support, as most of their songs are too long and/or too weird for inclusion on many radio stations. MTV no longer plays music videos outside of the 15-year-old pop music demographic, and even internet or satellite radio stations who play alternative music would feature it anyway because of the band’s supportive fan base and living-legend status.
Much like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd before them, Tool’s anonymity and desire to maintain it allows for them to get away with things, artistically and otherwise, that most other successful artists and celebrities are not able to do. An air of mystery surrounds them, and they play on this, to both serious and comedic effects, constantly. All this leaves some wondering if they decided long ago that there would be no new material, but perhaps the joke is that they wanted to see how long they could stretch it out, leaving everyone else hanging, but with nothing else on the way. Such a move, if this is remotely true, would be unprecedented in rock and roll history. Sure, the Sex Pistols successfully executed “the great rock ‘n’ roll swindle” by recording only one LP and riding it for all it was worth (which they still do), but for Tool to back up, every time, that new material is in progress, and then to never produce it after many years of saying it was on the way, would be the ultimate rock joke. It would be foolish to put it past them.