Tool were the band who shouldn’t have made it. Their logo was a spanner in the shape of a penis. They’d written songs based around the Fibonacci sequence, child abuse and German baking recipes. They were often censored for extreme visual and lyrical content, riposting highbrow concepts like sacred geometry and Thelemic philosophy. Not exactly Limp Bizkit.
But across their first three records – 1993’s Undertow, 1996’s Aenima and 2001’s Lateralus – the Los Angeles four- piece morphed from alternative metal outsiders to prog rock kings. They went platinum, snaffled up two Grammy Awards, and toured with everyone from Ozzy to King Crimson. When album number four, 10,000 Days, was announced, it seemed like the usual Tool fare. Usual as Tool goes, anyway.
The title nodded to the ‘Saturn Return’, which denotes the moment Saturn reaches the exact place of orbit of when you were born. On average, that happens once every 10,000 days.
“That’s the time in your 28th, 29th year when you are presented the opportunity to transform from whatever your hang-ups were before to let the light of knowledge and experience lighten your load, so to speak, and let go of old patterns and embrace a new life,” vocalist Maynard James Keenan said of the title. “It’s kind of the story of Noah, and the belly of the whale. You sink or swim at that point. And a lot of people don’t make it. Hendrix didn’t, Janis Joplin didn’t, John Bonham. Kurt Cobain didn’t quite make it past his Saturn Return. For me, starting to recognise those patterns, it was very important to start constructing songs that chronicled that process, hoping that my gift back would be to share that path and hope that I could help somebody get past that spot.”
It filled all the Tool boxes: lofty concept, existential pondering, space. But when 10,000 Days was released in May 2006, there was one song in particular that turned heads. Well, two.
10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2) had been debuted in its embryonic, unfinished form in 2002, on the tour for Tool’s previous record, Lateralus. This track and its sonic sibling, Wings For Marie (Pt 1), were eked out in painstaking detail in the studio.
They were both originally housed under the working title ‘Lost Keys’, because Tool’s bassist Justin Chancellor misplaced his car keys somewhere in the rehearsal space. During these sessions, guitarist Adam Jones had the band work late into the night; they’d not quite gotten the song right, and he believed it was one of the best Tool had ever written.
He wasn’t wrong. As musical journeys go, this is one of the more well-rounded, immersive they’ve traversed. Initially slated to close the record, the Wings suite ended up sandwiched between muscular metal single Jambi and The Pot’s ludicrous prog-pop.
The finished product bubbles away for more than 10 minutes before really kicking off, Justin’s bass leading the way for a white-hot, oppressively heavy crescendo. The two songs are pensive, dynamic and rooted in dense riffs and musicality that make you feel.
Aside from the instrumental spine of the band, that raw emotion is achieved thanks to two people. One is dark ambient artist Lustmord, who adds a level of drama with his crackling thunder and rain effects. The other is, of course, Maynard.
10,000 Days can be traced back to the Saturn Return, sure. But it’s also the approximate amount of time between the debilitating stroke suffered by Maynard’s mother, Judith Marie, and her death in June 2003.
Judith was a devout Christian before the stroke, which happened in 1976 when Maynard was 11 years old. Judith’s faith remained steadfast during her condition, which left her paralysed and unable to read, write, speak, walk or tell the time. Towards the end of her life, Maynard’s mother could no longer breathe unassisted.
Maynard had previously dedicated music to his mum, most notably on Judith, a single by his side-project, A Perfect Circle. Released in the year 2000, while she was still alive, it opens with a scathing lyrical salvo aimed at the perceived futility of her faith: ‘You’re such an inspiration for the ways that I will never ever choose to be / Oh, so many ways for me to show you how your saviour has abandoned you / Fuck your God, your Lord, Your Christ, he did this / Took all you had and left you this way.’
Six years later, and three years after Judith’s passing, 10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2) approaches the topic with a more reflective mindset than Judith’s chorus of ‘Praise the one who left you broken down and paralysed’.
It’s a song that finds Maynard wrestling through stages of grief and acceptance. As the clouds break and thunder cracks, he details ‘ignorant fibbers in the congregation’, referring to the local parishioners who had convinced Judith that her paralysis was a punishment from God. Judith, the woman who’d attended church four times a week for as long as she was physically able. They knew nothing of real faith, and as 10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2) progresses, it seems that Maynard embraced the comfort of his mother’s belief. Putting his scepticism to one side, there’s an overbearing finality as the levee breaks and Danny Carey lets out a fully euphoric drum fill: ‘Set as I am in my ways and my arrogance / Burden of proof tossed upon non-believers / You were my witness, my eyes, my evidence / Judith Marie, unconditional one.’ It’s steeped in religious parlance, with lines like ‘10,000 days in the fire is long enough / You’re going home’ acting as heartbreaking details as much as they are eulogies.
Maynard’s reputation as sarcastic and deadpan precedes him. He’s described as chilled-out by those who know him, prickly and stand-offish by most journalists. He’s clearly a private man, and in this song, this moment, he shares more than one could ever needle out of him in an interview. When asked about the recording process, 10,000 Days’ mixer and engineer, Joe Barresi, cites Maynard’s Wings performance as more than just a vocalist laying down tracks.
“The only spiritual moment for me [when making the album] was when Maynard sang the song Wings For Marie,” Joe said in 2016. “He didn’t have to say what it was about. I got chills because his performance and the lyrics were so emotional. He really delivered a memorable vocal, and we both had to take a break after that one.
“You try to get the vibe right, and you have the singer sing, and a lot of times you get an amazing performance, but sometimes singers go in thinking, ‘I’ll just do it five or six times, and we’ll comp[ile] it’,” the producer added in 2019. “But he sang that song, and you could tell he was drained because it meant so much to him.”
The album shot to the top of the US Billboard 200 upon release, securing a No.4 slot in the UK along the way. It was swiftly certified platinum in the States, and bagged the band a third Grammy for its trippy 3D packaging (which fans could experience with the nifty goggles attached to the case).
Arena tours followed, and while Tool did play both Wings pieces together, it’s not something they’re in a hurry to repeat. Since 2007, the band have only partially noodled Wings For Marie (Pt 1) once, without Maynard, during a guitar clinic.
“I think probably the stupidest thing I could have done on 10,000 Days was put myself out there as much as I did with the tracks Wings For Marie (Pt 1) and 10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2),” the singer admitted in an interview to promote the record. I’ll never make that mistake again. It just took too much out of me – too much emotionally, mentally, physically – all those manifestations. Those songs were exploited and misconstrued; people were flippant and dismissive. I won’t be doing that anymore. And technically, Wings is very difficult to pull off. If any one of us is off, it falls apart and makes that thing tragic, and that’s not a good song for me to have fall apart. It’s just too personal.”
Maybe Maynard’s reluctance stems from people in the crowd calling for the band to play radio single The Pot while he delivered an ode to his late mother. Understandably, we may never see Wings in flight again. And that’s all right. It’s one of those instances where a band completely defies expectation; they’d written emotional material before, but nothing quite as naked and open-book as this.
Despite Tool fanatics determined to find deeper meaning in the song – Wings For Marie (Pt 1) and Viginti Tres played atop 10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2) reveals a new track? Sure, it sounds great in that tin-foil hat – there just isn’t one. Because it’s not needed. Wings isn’t about maths. It’s as heart- on-sleeve as you’ll ever hear this band, and it’s one of their finest moments.