Given the current model for success in today's record industry, where major acts seem to release a splashy album followed by an even splashier tour every year or so, Tool should have fallen off a while ago.
Where most bands ride a hot streak until it cools, inundating fans with product, the prog-rock metal quartet disappears from the public eye for about five years between albums. For more than a decade, the unassuming group has maintained a low profile. Even diehard fans don't seem to know much about the members' personal lives.
Yet Tool is one of the biggest metal bands around. Last May, after five years of silence, the guys re-emerged with a grand new album, 10,000 Days, selling 564,000 copies the first week in stores.
"It didn't take us five years to make the record, but we stayed busy with side projects and rolled with the punches," says guitarist Adam Jones, the unit's available mouthpiece. He and his band mates (singer Maynard James Keenan, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor) headline 1st Mariner Arena tomorrow night. "You get inspired by so much. All of that applies to putting music and art together. It's a very experimental and rewarding process."
Nothing about 10,000 Days follows the conventions of modern major pop releases. Like the great rock albums of the double-LP age, the songs are highly improvisational and epic in scope. "Wings for Marie/10,000 Days," the album's centerpiece that movingly explores the 27-year, stroke-derived paralysis and recent death of Keenan's mother, runs 17 minutes. Even the CD packaging - an elaborate fold-out design with psychedelic, 3-D artwork viewable through two attached stereoscopic lenses - bucks today's standards.
"That was my idea," says Jones, who last week was playing a date with the band in Tampa, Fla. "All the ideas start with writing the music, and it flows with the art. ... I saw a kid's book that was similar [to the CD packaging design] and thought it would be a cool idea for the album."
The music inside is challenging and unabashedly ambitious, yet it's all economically arranged. The new album builds on Tool's last release, 2001's Lateralus. The sprawling songs leave ample room for Carey's complex drumming, Jones' searing riffs and Chancellor's serpentine bass lines. Often distorted and heavily processed, Keenan's vocals are mixed down in the instrumentation. The overall sound, laced with throbbing electronic flourishes and polyrhythmic percussion, is big and dense throughout.
Whereas Tool's previous three albums were produced by David Bottrill, the band decided to oversee 10,000 Days itself. Jones says that although others have received production credit, the group has always arranged its own material.
"We produce our own stuff, and 90 percent of the songs are done when we get to the studio," Jones says. "It's very much the same live. The integrity of the music is still there."
Tool invests as much art and flash into the stage show as the albums. The current tour features 12 projectors - eight behind the band - and other effects.
"It's visually stimulating," Jones says. "We like to push both hemispheres of the brain."
The members of Tool strive to offer fans the same qualities they admire in musically adventurous rock acts of yesterday: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Funkadelic.
"People are still talking about the music and shows they did more than 30 years ago," Jones says. "We're more into the art of the music and presenting the art of the music. We don't worry about whether it will be a commercial success. It's a reflective thing: We would want the same thing from a band."
See Tool at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., at 8 tomorrow night. Tickets are $37.50-$53 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.