If you tuned into rock radio in the early nineties, you might have heard a tune about “Sober” reflecting the genre’s evolving mood. With Nirvana’s triumph, rock and roll became more sullen and introverted, embracing dark colors and minor keys. “Sober,” released in 1993, boasted a heavy rhythm and a tormented refrain. It was a breakthrough hit for the California band Tool, which participated in the Lollapalooza tour that year and jumped from the second stage to the main stage, joining Alice in Chains and Rage Against the Machine.
To categorize the emerging bands, the term “alternative” was used, though it turned out to be a fitting description of Tool. Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer, is a soft-spoken but prickly presence. The Tool discography is austere and sublime, with five full-length albums full of complex riffs resembling mathematical equations.
During Tool’s recent two sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden, everyone seemed to be wearing black Tool T-shirts, creating an ecstatic and immersive atmosphere. You can’t really sing or nod along at a Tool concert due to the hypnotic way the lyrics are intoned and the band’s eschewing of simple beats. Tool is old-fashioned and unpolitical in an era when music tends to be either partisan or esoteric.
In 2019, Tool released the album “Fear Inoculum,” which is more subdued than its predecessors. During a move to more artsy experimental music, Tool deflates its own pretension with dumb jokes. The band’s die-hard fans might consider their songs as one long, glorious composition. Tool’s music somehow seems more mysterious now than it did back in 1993.