For me, Tool fandom occupies the same incomprehensible terrain that Juggalos and rabid Rush lovers inhabit. It isn’t that Tool are bad. On the contrary, they’ve put out their fair share of absolute rippers.
But I have no desire to join the cult of Tool after listening to Ænima or Lateralus. Whatever it is about their music that ignites an all-consuming fire in people only throws a few stray sparks in me. I was an agnostic among the faithful last night at Gila River Arena. The venue was jammed with the devout who were eager to experience the twin sacraments of “Stinkfist” and Maynard James Keenan dick jokes.
The crowd filtered in in full force after post-punk heroes Killing Joke finished their short but savage opening set. It was their loss. They missed the thrilling sensation of "Youth’s" bass lines thumping against their chests, a bass sound as elastic as dub but with the heaviness of metal. Jaz Coleman barked through the deafening roar of Geordie Walker’s guitar and Paul Ferguson’s car-crash-loud drums, singing Killing Joke staples like “Eighties” and “Complications” (which he introduced by saying, “I didn’t realize 80 percent of Americans are two paychecks away from homelessness”) with his arms thrown out at his sides like a dark-haired scarecrow.
A prerecorded message warned the audience before Tool’s set that photography was not permitted for this performance. Around 8:40 p.m., a sheer curtain made of thin hanging strands wrapped around the stage. It looked like the inside of a piano with taut, thin filaments spaced with precision.
Wearing a Suns jersey, drummer Danny Carey took to the stage first, mounting a riser as haunting video projections of faces with exposed muscle and bulging eyes floated across the curtain of strings. Bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones came out next, flanking Carey on the ground floor of the stage.
Tool singer and wine impresario Maynard James Keenan came out last. The band’s outspoken frontman, Keenan spent much of the set hanging back, often disappearing in the swirl of video imagery and smoke onstage. Crouching on the upper level with Carey, Keenan looked like a gargoyle with a rooster comb of a mohawk crowning his head.
The gargoyle comparison isn’t much of an exaggeration. Tool are not a very animated group live. There are Terra Cotta soldiers who are more lively than three-quarters of Tool.
While Keenan would stroll from one side of the stage to the other, crooning, and singing, and howling with his voice (still as potent an instrument now in 2019 than he was when he first started howling about L.A. sinking into the sea in 1996), the rest of the band are too busy plucking, and banging, and strumming their respective instruments with the kind of intensity bomb-squad members reserve for snipping the red wire.
Luckily, the (very) impressive visuals helped keep the show engaging and lively. Flowing magma, bursts of red light, naked aliens with skin the texture of kitty litter prying their guts out, gravity-defying waves of water, and Alex Grey art drifted across the curtain and lit up the back wall. Anyone who’s watched a Tool video or looked at one of their album covers could immediately recognize their patented The Joe Rogan Experience screensaver aesthetic. It was like they were playing their set inside a lava lamp that was high on salvia.
Seeing the band live, I started to see the appeal. Their music was dense and dynamic — proggy and complex at times, but with enough head-thumping fuck-yeah riffs and beats to keep it from getting too esoteric. While Keenan’s the most famous member of the band, the sound mix didn’t elevate him above the others. If anything, he was a bit quieter — ceding the spotlight to Carey’s forceful drumming and Jones’ knotty guitar playing.
Older numbers like “Ænema” received the most rapturous response from the faithful, but newer numbers like “Fear Inoculum” were also well-received live. Tool played a cross-section of their work, touching on almost all of their records for their hour-and-some-change set.
The curtain parted for “Parabola” as a large star descended from the ceiling and hung over the stage for the rest of the set. Closing their set with “Forty Six & 2,” the band stood silently onstage for a moment before walking off. A ticking clock counting down from 12 minutes was projected onto the stage. It was around this point that I lost my faith.
Encores are tedious waiting games whose outcomes are almost always predetermined, but hats off to Tool for finding a way to make encores even worse. I wondered if this was a troll job, and they’d just hit the house lights as soon as the clock hit 0:00. That kind of hilariously dickish prank seems like it’d be right up Keenan's alley.
Tool kicked off their encore with Carey banging a gong and going ham on his drumkit. Not many bands would use their encore to put on a one-man experimental drum clinic. The rest of the band rejoined Carey for “Invincible” and “Stinkfist.” Keenan dropped the “no filming” rule so people could tape the closing number. A sea of blue squares instantly lit up as countless phones flew out of their owners’ pockets to capture “Stinkfist” in all its gnarly glory.
As I left the venue, I felt exhausted by the experience. It was a good show, but there was just so much of it. All that noodling, all that intense music, and that onslaught of freaky bad-acid-trip imagery was a lot to take in for over an hour without any kind of major digressions.
Yeah, I get that Tool don’t do ballads or disco songs, but one can only hear so much tribal-prog heavy metal DMT rock before you yearn for a little variety. It made me appreciate Killing Joke’s brevity; their music was just as harsh and relentless in its own way as Tool’s, but they cut bait and ducked out before they wore out their welcome.
But what do I now? I'm a nonbeliever. I listened to the faithful whooping it up in the parking lot after the show. For them, it was a very good church service.
"Forty Six & 2"
"Chocolate Chip Trip"
Last Night: Tool with Killing Joke at Gila River Arena in Glendale.
The Crowd: A damn-near sold out crowd, 90 percent of whom were clad in dark shirts. It would have been impossible to find Goth Waldo in this monochromatic crowd.
Overheard: “It’s weird — almost all the hot girls I’ve been with have been lousy lays and all the mediocre-looking girls are great in bed. Must be the lack of self-confidence.” Ah, the joys of sitting a row in front of a pair of douchebags talking shop.
Random Notebook Dump: Loved listening to all the folks outside the venue after the show grumbling that the opening act was “too abrasive.” Makes me want to get real weird with it and slip a Merzbow tape into their cars.