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Tool's AT&T Center Performance Evolved Into a Behemoth of Sight and Sound 

click to enlarge JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
Tool brought its Fear Inoculum tour to the AT&T Center on Friday night, showcasing both the band's cerebral progressive metal and its enigmatic stage design.

Though Tool first hit the scene in the early '90s at the same time as grunge, they were never entirely a fit for that musical style. And as the decade wound down, it became clear that Tool aspired to something closer in spirit to Rush than Nirvana or Melvins.

From the get-go Friday, it was clear that the band intended a focused evening, as signs and stage announcements indicated phones weren't allowed and that anyone seen using one would be ejected. No second chances.

Legendary, influential post-punkers Killing Joke took the stage at 7:30 p.m. on the dot, with a set that mixed pounding, grey riffs and grimy industrial beats with drones and some surprisingly accessible new wave-style melodies. The powerful music filled the auditorium for 45 minutes, although the band members struggled at times to project themselves visually into the massive space, making for a difficult connection in the nosebleeds seats.

Bands with cult followings like Tool's are notoriously difficult to open for, but when Killing Joke departed, the group received a warm, if muted, response.

When the lights went down for Tool, things changed, however.

The crowd exploded as the band appeared behind a huge, shimmering curtain, giving the stage an opaque air. Drummer Danny Carey began the percussion of sounds that begin the title track of the new album Fear Inoculum. “Fear” is mostly subdued and only starts to get heavy in the last few minutes. As psychedelic visuals swirled across the band, the song unfolded, anchored by Justin Chancellor’s repetitive, hypnotic bassline. The curtain captured some of the front-projected imagery, illuminating the stage with a style oddly reminiscent of '90s mindfuck sensation — and low-rent coffee table tome — Magic Eye.

Perhaps the most striking element of Tool’s live show is lead singer Maynard James Keenan’s anti-frontman posture. As he has for much of the band’s career, he remained a shadowy figure on Friday night, stalking the two platforms flanking the drum riser. His presence in the wings served as a visual reminder of the psychedelic goal of becoming egoless, part of a collective. What could be more egoless than a band without a frontman, a singer usually identified as the band’s personality?

And despite his oversize persona, Keenan rarely spoke from the stage. Indeed, he rarely interacted with his bandmates at all, and was seen at the front of the stage on less than a handful of occasions.

Chancellor’s playing was immediately apparent as the heartbeat of Tool. He could easily play more complicated fills, but instead relied on a steady pulse that feels meditative in its repetition. Guitarist Adam Jones’ riffs had a similar flavor, allowing Carey to play in a “lead” style that gives the band a unique rhythmic signature.

click to enlarge JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon

After Keenan welcomed the crowd in a jokey fashion, the band moved into “Aenema,” a heavier but equally challenging number. Tool did a good job of bringing in material from across its catalog, made easier by the limited number of releases. The selection highlighted the band’s progression through the years, towards longer, more-intricate releases.

Keenan’s acapella intro to “The Pot” produced a rapturous response and provided some lyrical humor. The title would lead many to assume that the song is about, well, THC. However, the “pot” of the title refers to a blistering attack on hypocrisy — the pot calling the kettle black. But just when the listener accepts this misdirect, along comes the chorus: “You must have been high!” Keenan’s winking humor is, regrettably, an overlooked aspect of the presentation. It offsets some of the band's fairly mocked pretension and is an important part of its appeal.

The interlocked “Parabol” and “Parabola” from Tool’s first prog masterwork, Lateralus, were up next. As the song’s message of transcendence wound down, the curtain parted and the lights took a step up. It wasn’t just that the band was behind a curtain. The lighting design had not been fully revealed.

This kind of surprise is Tool’s most potent visual weapon. Most bands would have brought down the curtain before the first song, or during. However, at five songs in, the audience could be forgiven for thinking it was a permanent fixture — it fit their history of obfuscation.

But nah.

As the opening of Fear Inoculum’s incredible “Pneuma” rang out, it was clear Tool had pulled some visual punches. The brightness and color palette the lights projected during “Pneuma” was almost overwhelming.

click to enlarge JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon

“Pneuma” is heavier than “Fear Inoculum” but relies on long instrumental passages for some of its heft. Where a band like Rush would use this as an opportunity to show off chops with elaborate fills, Tool simply hung onto a riff and let it percolate, giving a feeling of a song without words. The piece climaxed with massive drum fills from Carey, who invoked Neil Peart’s legendary drum work on “Limelight.”

The production values continued to increase as the entire arena was illuminated with lasers. Tool proceeded into a barrage of signature songs, including “Schism” and “Vicarious.” The visuals continued their abstract march forward, at times alluding to art from different eras of the band's career. It wouldn’t be a Tool concert without those kooky, Alex Grey psychedelic Easter Island heads, so everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they popped up on the video screens.

The Alex Grey visuals typify the band's aesthetic. For people versed in psychedelic art and culture, they have a broadness reminiscent of a druggy, high school Thomas Kinkade. But Tool isn’t some underground art/psych collective, despite the essentially non-commercial nature of its music. It's an arena-rock monster. To play for this type of crowd, a band needs broad, accessible imagery, and that's the secret to Tool’s massive popularity: enough. Just weird enough, but just accessible enough. Just long and trippy enough, but also just riff rockin’ enough.

Tool also pulled a sleight of hand by taking a 12-minute break after a powerful reading of “Forty Six & 2,” including a projected clock to help everyone who sprinted to the bathroom or beer line. The band returned for three more songs, one of which was “Chocolate Chip Trip,” a song that would be called “Drum Solo” for any other group.

click to enlarge JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon

The highlight of the 30-minute “encore” was “Invincible,” also from the new album. The song is from the middle of the record, so its subtleties are easy to lose. But giving it a spot near the end highlighted the strength of its pacing.

Finally, it was time for “Stinkfist,” arguably Tool’s most best-known song outside of the rarely played “Sober,” its early MTV hit. Keenan advised the crowd that “you’ve been good, so you can take out your phones and do stuff with them, you crazy kids and your phones.” The crowd had been extraordinarily respectful of the no-phones rule, and the arena was immediately filled with thousands of small screens.

This visual was a testament to how successful the phone ban had been. No worries about peering around your neighbor taping the entire show for a video that would likely never be viewed. Tool is about the here and now, and without “the precious,” it was a moment to appreciate the intricate music going down onstage.

By the time Tool ended its set after two hours and 20 minutes, no one needed pics. The imagery was seared directly into brain stems and the insides of craniums. Just like those crazy Alex Grey anatomy dudes that decorate Tool album covers and dorm room calendars.

Long live Tool.

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