It doesn’t seem right. There are only four of them on stage and it’s difficult to comprehend how just four people can create something that large. It’s almost as if the four of them, playing with such career-hardened precision, have the ability to invoke a separate entity, something greater, which takes their sound and presence to something more than it ought to be.
This phenomenon has long been a staple of Tool, and they’re certainly not the only band in history who has been capable of creating the aura of something more than the sum of its parts. Led Zeppelin comes to mind. Pink Floyd. The Mars Volta. And yet with Tool it feels different.
There’s something ritualistic about this invocation. Maybe it’s part of the bizarre mythology of sacred geometry and magickal rhetoric that the band has steeped themselves in over the decades of their existence. It’s certainly entrancing, the way the band can weave their harmonic magic into a sonic tapestry that is, in all ways, larger than they are. Larger than life.
Whatever it is, it’s special. The magic they cast certainly held the 20,000 attendees of San Antonio’s AT&T Center on Friday night (10/25/19) deep in their thrall for over two hours as the band played a career spanning spectacle that solidifies them as one of the most intriguing live acts working in metal today. Perhaps ever.
Tool evokes an almost religious response in the hearts and minds of their faithful and they seem to have long since come to terms with the depths of their fans’ adoration. Rather than fight against it, they’ve made it a part of the live experience. The crowd stood at attention, holding their hands in the air in a revivalist fervor as the band, appearing at first behind a sheer curtain, took the stage one by one.
Drummer Danny Carey was first, sitting behind his massive kit wearing a Spurs jersey for the San Antonio crowd, and set the arena aflame with the opening hits of “Fear Inoculum,” the band’s first single from their recent album of the same name. The intensity heightened as each member successively took the stage, adding layers of sound to the song, reaching a fever pitch by the time the group’s shadowy front man, Maynard James Keenan, took his place behind the band. The pieces set, they began their evocation.
So began a monstrous set of both sight and sound as the group, who notoriously interacts very little with their crowds, took fans on a psychedelic odyssey across their 27-year career. Backed by stunning visuals, both old and new, and an incredible light and laser experience, it became a kind of performance art, “a show” in the truest sense of the word.
Which is, of course, how Tool wants it. A common theme running through their musical career is the destruction of the ego. It makes sense, then, that there’s so much more to look at than just the band at a Tool show. With visuals designed by Alex Grey flashing in the background, mixed with clips of the band’s beautifully bizarre music videos, there’s plenty to watch and see beyond the band itself. As individuals, they take the back seat choosing, instead, to let the music and the art do the heavy lifting of creating the experience
And what an experience it is. Tool is a band which is by design best listened to loud, which means that live is arguably the optimum way to hear them. Even over the roar of 20,000 excited and fervent individuals, they transcend the noise and trappings to create heart-thumping sonic engagement that sounds impeccable. It doesn’t matter if it’s an old song or a new one, Tool pulls out the full force of the music and channels it directly into the soul.
Live, you gain a new appreciation for both their sound and their composition. Tool is a notoriously tight band, a necessity for a band who plays in the odd time signatures they do. Hearing that on an album is one thing, where changes in time and melody can be masked by editing and production tricks, but that doesn’t exist on stage. The veer-on-a-dime changes in “Pneuma,” another song off Fear Inoculum, for example, are more impressive on stage. It feels illusory; no one should be able to make those kinds of changes but, somehow, they do. And so it was with “Invincible,” one of the proggiest tracks off their latest album, which threatened to collapse the building with sheer sonic force.
Alongside those newer tracks, Tool hit highlights from 10,000 Days, Lateralus, Aenima, and even one from Undertow. It’s truly stunning how well these old tracks, like “Schism,” “46 & 2,” and “Intolerance” work alongside each other and the newer tracks. While the setlist doesn’t seem to change much from night to night this tour, it’s a well-crafted mix of old and new, crowd-pleasers and deeper cuts, that creates a magical experience for old fans and new.
And it works well with the magic they weave. The evocation of the greater Tool is something they have honed to a science over the years and it never fails to be a unique and provocative live music experience. By the final moments of the two hour and 10-minute set, 20,000 fans were as one, receiving the mystical metal vibes and feeling the connection to the band, the music, and to each other. That, ultimately, feels like what they intended, and we were all the better for it.
See photos from Tool’s two-night stint in Denver here.