Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Chris Minor

In a just world, Killing Joke would be headlining this tour, and it’s not impossible that Maynard Keenan would say the same thing. He showed respect just bringing them along, and the tenured, post-punk innovators proved why they belonged.

Jaz Coleman, clad entirely in black, remains as captivating a frontman even as he approaches sixty years of age. His screams during “Tomorrow’s World” rose above his trademark drone as he affected curious poses, the same as it ever was. His disjointed mannerisms still perfectly fit the band’s twitchy death disco.

Having the original lineup intact lends an air of authenticity that assists the recreation of songs nearly four decades old. Youth and Paul Ferguson being the same rhythm section that blasted out the syncopated “Complications” all those years ago were both amazing and completely appropriate. Watching Geordie Walker kick that grinding riff to “The Wait” was a religious experience.

They didn’t play anything newer than 2003’s eponymous disc, but that’s okay. If any setting was perfect for a classic set, it was here.

If any of the youngsters wondered why they did a Metallica song or maybe why they nicked Nirvana’s “Come as you Are,” Coleman didn’t bother explaining. He shouldn’t have to. If it takes Spotify to get some of the neophytes in the crowd to realize after the fact that they were in the presence of greatness, there are worse uses of the internet.

There are few stories, and even fewer of them that can be deemed success stories, like the story of Tool. After emerging during the fertile Lollapalooza alt-rock explosion of the mid 90s, Tool blazed their own path, turning dour, down-tuned, thinking-man’s metal into ponderous prog rock. The formula was not one that others could easily follow, and even the side projects bandleader Keenan joined never had quite the same flair. But it was compelling enough that a whole new generation joined the previous one that waited thirteen years for Fear Inoculum to come out.

It’s strange to witness music that sounds this opaque, this convoluted, this overwrought, and so far removed from pop music norms playing in front of a packed basketball arena. Keenan likely feels the same way. Not that he doesn’t enjoy the benefits of stardom (not many musicians have start-up wineries), but he played the part of the reluctant rock star quite well.

He didn’t get a spotlight. He spent his time around drummer Danny Carey on platforms towards the back of the expanse, letting guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor each get half of the stage more or less to themselves. How he manages to operate within the shadows while still being within full view of tens of thousands is quite impressive, especially considering how his mohawk and red, plaid pants makes it look like he dressed up as a class of 77 punk rocker for Halloween and decided to keep wearing it.

The projections on the backdrop alternated throughout the set. Some harkened back to the Claymation of their earliest videos; there were unsettling images of semi-human creatures, terrifying alien insects, and sometimes they flashed updated versions of the psychedelic spin wheels seen on TV appearances from the 60s. All of it fit into the noir-ish nourishment that is Tool.

Despite a career of self-indulgence, they seemed quite happy to give the people what they wanted when it came to the setlist. Hits such as “Ænema” and “Schism” were performed, though the latter was drawn out into a jam that felt like it was three times the original length (though they’re not playing “Sober” these days). The one-two punch of “Parabol” and “Parabola” off Lateralus showcased the deeper cuts longtime fans craved. It was a surprise to hear “Swamp Song,” as the band didn’t go back to “Undertow” every night of the tour; it was allegedly the first time Tool played the song live since 2007.

Unsurprisingly the new album was well-represented. They started the show with the title track and closed it with “Forty Six & 2.” The most revealing was “Descending,” which must have been like what Rush sounded like right when they discovered keyboards. The long climax had Jones’ guitar approximating synthesizers while Carey made use of his ample kit with the delicate ferocity of Neil Peart. There’s a lot of Rush in Tool—the stubbornness, the way they turn subversive melodies into mainstream fare, how they refuse to conform or be cast out—but here it was especially cogent.

Rather than solicit applause for a few minutes before coming out to play songs they were always going to play like every other band, the stage lit up, and a clock was projected onto the rear screen. The 12-minute countdown was too short for an intermission and was not close to the middle of a set that would last two-and-a-half hours, but was way too strange to be an encore. Even when toweling off backstage, Tool’s gotta Tool though the countdown, and it did add an unexpected New Year’s Eve celebratory feeling.

After the break, Carey continued to channel Neil Peart with the instrumental “Chocolate Chip Trip.” He started off hammering on a huge gong, the back of his custom Philadelphia 76ers jersey turned to the crowd, before an extended and very strange drum solo that sounded like it was recorded on an early space shuttle orbit. It was a little anticlimactic after the countdown clock but drum solos pretty much always are.

The penultimate song, “Invincible,” allowed the whole band to shine with Jones’ delicate picking, a post-punk rhythm barrage, and Maynard’s plaintive lyrics—“Warrior struggling to remain relevant
Warrior struggling to remain consequential”—that were probably allegory for the uncertainly he felt as Tool readied their comeback. After the prerecorded buzzing static that was “(-) Ions” Keenan finally spoke.

“You may now take out your cellphones and take photos and film the last song,” he said. “Security, stand down.” This may seem like a small concession, but he didn’t do it when A Perfect Circle operated under similar restrictions in 2017. As a result, videos of the provocative but relatively concise “Stinkfist” will be posted throughout social media. There are worse tracks to be memorialized with.

The triumphant return of Tool is one of the biggest music stories of 2019. The tour is their victory lap. It’s even possible that way in the back, all by himself, Keenan is finally allowing himself to enjoy it, just a little bit.

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