Tool fans are a notoriously patient lot, if not by nature, by necessity. After all, the tenebrous progressive metal maestros aren’t exactly what you’d call prolific, with the band engaging in prolonged periods of dormancy between their complex, layered studio albums. However, that patience is now paying off again after 13 years with the arrival of Tool’s fifth full-length release in 26 years, Fear Inoculum.
Frequency withstanding, Tool’s output has remained consistent: innovative, heady, crushing noise that’s almost always best experienced through decent headphones. For nearly three decades, these experimental polymaths, metal’s answer to Radiohead, have established themselves as one of rock’s most salient acts, emerging amid the grunge movement and churning out potent, punishing tracks.
While it could be argued each of Tool’s albums are masterpieces, they’re all extremely different, taking the listener on disparate journeys. So, which record is their best? Glad you asked because, after a careful analysis of Tool’s catalogue, we’ve collated the following list, ranking the band’s releases from weakest to strongest.
6. Opiate (1992)
At nearly 27 minutes long, Tool’s very first release was an unpolished EP that provided a mere glimpse at the groundbreaking cacophony that was to come from leader Maynard James Keenan and company. Boasting a pair of live tracks recorded inside the band’s Hollywood rehearsal space, Opiate’s sludgy, sinister sound left an impression on early fans. With tracks such as “Hush” and “Cold and Ugly,” this pithy offering also introduced the world to Keenan’s intimidating vocal prowess and sarcastic genius. However, Opiate does have a rushed feel, basically because it was: Tool tracked it in less than two months, and it hit record stores less than two months later.
Album Highlight: “Hush”
5. 10,000 Days (2006)
Possibly Tool’s least accessible album, 10,000 Days is something of an extension of 2001’s Lateralus, considering it did very little to progress the band’s sound from that album. Punctuated by a hard-charging opening track (“Vicarious”), Keenan’s lyrical themes this time revolved around evolution and metamorphosis, as well as the usual suspects: substance abuse, government interdiction, and conspiracy theories. While brimming with ethereal melodies, sweeping soundscapes, and regal riffs, 10,000 Days is in many ways a disjointed release, with bizarre sound effects and dissonant crescendos. But for the first time, it felt as though Tool held back a bit in the studio, which might explain why the LP largely failed to live up to the expectations of fans.
Album Highlight: “Vicarious”
4. Undertow (1993)
This was the outing that started it all for Tool, yielding two of their most popular singles: “Prison Sex” and “Sober,” both of which became alt-rock radio mainstays. Undertow is a dark, technically precise, and cathartic release teeming with industrial elements, captivating riffs, addictive grooves, and Keenan’s haunting, impassioned vocals. Featuring a guest appearance by Henry Rollins on the track “Bottom,” Undertow would be the band’s last album with bassist Paul D’Amour, but it cemented Tool’s status as a formidable force on hard rock’s frontlines. The album captured a collection of young artists, still developing and finding themselves creatively, but gaining in confidence.
Album Highlight: “Bottom”
3. Fear Inoculum (2019)
The wait was indeed worth it: Tool’s latest album is a bleak, visceral, majestic tour de force that epitomizes the prog-metal outfit’s signature sound, but sees the band taking fewer chances, artistically. Fear Inoculum has a familiar feel, with Keenan’s otherworldly vocals woven throughout monumentally long but satisfying tracks that build gradually before rewarding the listener with bombastic apexes. Featuring sound effects furnished by dark ambient architect Lustmord, four of the record’s 10 tracks are instrumental, flaunting the individual talents of Tool’s musicians.
Album Highlight: “Invincible”
2. Lateralus (2001)
A nearly flawless collection of unrelenting tracks, Lateralus is arguably Tool at their finest. This offering marked a turning point for the group, shifting between chugging guitars backed by gut-punching beats and more ambient experimentations. Keenan’s wide-ranging vocals are on fully display on tracks such as “The Grudge” and “Parabola,” while guitarist Adam Jones effortlessly ravishes his instrument on the album’s title track, delivering infectious, trebly riffs that complement Chancellor’s distorted bass battery. Lateralus endures as a testament to Tool’s propensity for the unorthodox and stands as definitive proof that the band’s members are musical visionaries. The sole reason it isn’t their strongest album? It’s not Ænima.
Album Highlight: “Lateralus”
1. Ænima (1996)
By and large, fans agree that Ænima was a career-defining release for Tool: Atmospheric, unpredictable and adventurous, the record successfully tinkered with unconventional song structures while incorporating more industrial and progressive techniques throughout, as exemplified on the tracks “Hooker With a Penis” and “H.” Bolstered by the addition of bassist Justin Chancellor, Tool’s sophomore full-length is an epic, arcane triumph, replete with tribal beats, intricate guitar fills, and dense bass lines. An overall sonic masterpiece, Ænima helped to establish Tool’s reputation for delivering uncompromising, ornate compositions that pushed the bounds of what metal could be.
Album Highlight: “Eulogy”
So there you have it, Ænima takes the top spot for us. But what about you? Which Tool album do you think is the best? Vote in our poll.