Tool is one of the strangest, most inspiring anomalies in pop music today. The “thinking man’s metal band,” as they’re called, crafts songs that are brazenly weird, cerebral and arty. They eschew trends, instead packing albums with sprawling prog-rock epics that have more in common with Rush and King Crimson than anything trendy on top 40 radio today. And they take their own sweet time between albums, having produced just four proper full-lengths in 18 years.
Yet, in the fickle world of pop, they’ve remained staples of MTV and mainstream radio since grunge was king. Hey, how’d that happen? And based on Saturday night’s appearance at KeyArena, Tool may be more respected and relevant than ever.
The Tacoma Dome was only about half full when I last caught the L.A. quartet in concert, way back in 2001. And that was with one of their biggest hits, “Schism,” all over the radio. But four years since the release of “10,000 Days,” and with no new album in sight, the Seattle show sold out in less than an hour, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that this is a band that still matters.
A late start and traffic forced me to miss opening band Rajas. But Tool’s set started with LSD guru Timothy Leary giving advice from beyond the grave: “Think for your self, question authority.” That mantra introduced Tools ode to psychotropic experience, “Third Eye,” a 13-minute epic that set the tone for a trippy, video-enhanced set.
Tool – singer Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey – was often a secondary visual focus to the psychedelic imagery displayed on six video screens. One screen was a long, horizontal strip that served as backdrop, and two smaller ones shifted into different configurations from high above.
Jones is also the band’s artistic director, and he is to varying degrees responsible for those freaky stop-motion and CGI-animated videos that helped Tool conquer MTV. They’re still some of the creepiest, most captivating music videos ever seen. And I found myself constantly distracted from the action onstage by translucent eels with human faces slithering from irises, embryos growing inside skulls and those pasty humanoids that evoke “Hellraiser” from the “Schism” video.
The band seems to prefer that its audience focus on such spectacle rather than getting caught up in the personalities of the rock stars onstage. Keenan is more primal and plays more of a traditional front man role with his other band, A Perfect Circle. But both times I’ve seen him with Tool he’s been comparatively subdued. Saturday, he occasionally performed from behind the short, wide platform that held him and Carey for most of the show, as if to further downplay the notion of singer as band leader. And he didn’t say much between songs, notably pausing for an informal survey of who in the crowd was 21 and under.
“You all were either five years old or not born when this song came out. Puts it in perspective,” he said, introducing “Intolerance,” the savage leadoff track to 1992 breakthrough album, “Undertow.”
But who needs all that banter, anyway? Tool lets the music do the talking, and it spoke loudly last night. Keenan’s expressive, cathartic vocals made palpable feelings of hostility, dread and, occasionally, peaceful self-reflection. Jones and Chancellor employed a number of effects petals as songs built from tranquil melancholy to intense, volcanic eruptions. And Carey galvanized the material with dynamic fills, and even got a little help from Rajas’ Gino Barboni who sat in for a dueling drummer segment in “Lateralus,” the first of two songs Tool delivered during the encore.
The set list was a lot more streamlined than I remember from nine years ago when I called Tool’s performance “refreshingly experimental (but) incoherent and self-indulgent at its worst.” The band didn’t play breakthrough radio hits, “Sober” and “Prison Sex” (too obvious.) But fist-pumping anthems “Stinkfist” and “Intolerance” – among the night’s shortest songs at about five minutes each – helped ground the set and keep it from straying too far into prog-rock excess.
The Jungian “Forty Six & 2” was the set’s high point, with Keenan’s vocals lilting at first then building to that intense refrain – “my shaaaadoooow” – before the pyrotechnic guitars that cap the song off. And evening closer “Aenima” was a toxic treat, with its apocalyptic imagery of that “great big festering neon distraction” of Los Angeles falling into Pacific. Nothing against the city (never been there, myself) but Keenan’s screed against sheep mentality and mindless consumerism has you praying for the Big One, too, if only for the length of the song.
Tool definitely delivered the goods Saturday not. Now if only we can get them to deliver that new album they say they’ve been working on these last four years