Now regarded as one of the best metal vocalists of all time, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan never intended to be a singer. But looking back at the masterful isolated vocals for the band’s smash hit ‘Vicarious,’ it’s easy to assume he was a seasoned pro at the time of recording.
After joining the army right out of high school, leaving to attend art school in Michigan, working a short stint as an interior designer, then moving to Los Angeles and working on sets where he met Adam Jones, Keenan’s path to stardom was anything but organised. When Jones had somehow gotten hold of an old demo Keenan did in college and wanted to form a band, Keenan was reluctant.
“I kind of wanted to do it to prove a point,” remembers the Tool singer, “but I also ended up saying yes to it just because, you know, I wanted to fucking shout; I just wanted to let it out, all the frustration of having been fired, and I lost my apartment, my dog got run over, my girlfriend left, car got repoed—you know, all that shit like within the space of a month or two. So I was ready to scream. Ready to ’emote'” Keenan shared in an interview with AV Club.
This cathartic release was still present four albums deep into Tool’s career with the seven-minute song ‘Vicarious,’ which debuted on Keenan’s 42nd birthday (April 17, 2006). The song touches upon the American obsession with television and violence, which allows the public to live vicariously through the screen in their homes. Keenan perfectly captures the frustration behind the lyrics with his incredible vocal performance.
In an episode of Rock & Roll Road Trip with Sammy Hagar and Keenan, they touch on his unique vocal style. Hagar says, “The thing that impresses me most as a singer and lyricist is that you have a phrasing ability that is genius … You get words that work rhythmically, and they’re so oddball… Is that a struggle for you, or does it just come naturally?”
Keenan replies, “I remember running cross-country in high school, and everybody has their own breathing rhythms, right? It’s just supposed to be in-out, right? I was actually running to [my footsteps]. So, if you’re going over hills, or down hills, or in chuck-holes, or whatever, my breath would follow those rhythms, which is weird.”
This unique style proved to elevate the song to incredible heights that included number two on both the Mainstream Rock and Alternative Songs charts, a spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 guitar songs of all time, and a nomination for ‘Best Hard Rock Performance’ at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards. But even with the song’s impressive guitar accolades, Keenan’s vocals are the real force behind the magic result, and without their authority, the song would feel flat.
Listen to Maynard James Keenan’s powerful isolated vocals for Tool’s song ‘Vicarious’ below. It not only adds extra potency to the song but lends yet more respect to Keenan as an underrated frontman.