From their inception, Tool has evaded coherence in the best possible way. Whether that refers to an album 13 years in the making (worth the wait) or the calculus of their dizzying meters, Tool performs its name. As a tool, the band performs a function but not a deterministic one. Like a 12-dimensional wrench, Tool doesn’t require knowledge to use it, you just need to appreciate the marks it leaves when you throw it at the wall. Sunday at Staples Center was no different and the marks go deep.
After Killing Joke imprinted its pulsing throb onto the arena, the place slowly reached capacity in the moments before the house lights dropped. The vibe at a packed Staples show is Thunderdome-like when it is filled. The scale of the darkened venue, across which phone screens are reduced to tiny blue pinpoints, is massive, and this is abundantly clear when sold out. Packed with seating on a floor often occupied by squabbling athletes and three stories up, the arena was a bowl filled to the brim, frothing with people.
Chimes announced the eponymous first track of this year’s Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first in thirteen years. Waves of heavily processed voice, thick with esoteric echo effects transported the sweetened alienation of Maynard James Keenan’s distinct voice, bouncing off all corners and then returning in time for the next lyric.
Somber wails overlapped frantic swells. Veiled at times by what appeared to be a sort of chain mail scrim, the video projections, always dark, always surreal, were doubled, appearing on the scrim and above the band, which was also occupied by a seven-sided star, seven being a prominent theme on the new album. The shifting light induced by the haunting video imagery, diverse in the sorts of high contrast that characterizes the artwork of sometimes-collaborator/psychedelic guru Alex Grey, was completely penetrative. In short, it was a totally committed spectacle.
From there, rather than carry forward with new material, Tool instead reprised the title track from 1996’s Ænima. The bewildering, pounding polyrhythms invited clumsy moves to those attendees who hazarded the attempt to dance along. Progressive rock tends to have that effect. The unusual, almost uncanny experience that non-standard time signatures, whether in pure form or layered on top of each other, is bodily. Watching it performed, however, it almost becomes a spectator sport.
Throughout their set, whether revisiting songs from the apocalyptic Ænima (the monolithic riff-work of “Forty Six & 2” sealed the main set with explosive bolts), or the more contemplative 10,000 Days — when Keenan’s writing became more personal and reflective, wishing it all away on “Jambi”, or ruminating on the need to watch things die on “Vicarious”–the tapestry stitched with his words was woven with a studied aversion to convention. Rather than right angles and straight lines, the fabric is wrought by threads coming from all directions and dimensions. The resulting mesh rejects easy angles and geometry. The recordings are great, to be sure, but seeing this happen live, it feels like there is something more at stake. Will this confluence of apparent disagreement reach a resolution? Often it never does, which really isn’t the point.
One after another, the lengthy epic structures that don’t waste time so much as exploit what time can do for music that at first glance is repetitive, glazed by CGI and stop motion visuals, maintained that lack of resolve. The final chord when a song ends doesn’t always bring closure, it just suggests it could go on indefinitely. Watching him rock uncertainly on his heels as he belted resolute vocals over Adam Jones’s wailing guitar, Danny Carey’s bewildering polyrhythms and Justin Chancellor’s dependably brutal bass, it became increasingly astounding that this was merely three instrumentalists and a vocalist, saturating a stadium with a dense, insurmountable sound. They had plenty to spare.
Forty Six & 2
Chocolate Chip Trip
All Photos by Marv Watson