The music of Tool — and a concert review

Summary |

  • The music of Tool |
    • 2019’s Fear Inoculum |
  • Concert review |
    • No cameras |
    • The show |
    • Final thoughts |
    • Setlist |

I love music. I love going to concerts. There’s one artist on my list that I haven’t seen in concert yet. Sure, I never got to see Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, but I’m not old enough to have had a chance to see them anyway. I missed out on a few other bands along the way that I wanted to see. I’ll live. 

The elusive artist I speak of today is the prog-metal giants — Tool. I’ve been wanting to see them in concert for more than 20 years. That’s no joke. Since the first time I heard their music, I knew that I had to see them in concert. I had a few chances in the past, except fate had other plans. I didn’t know if the day would ever come. Earlier this week, it finally happened.

The music of Tool

It’s hard to describe Tool’s music. It defies borders and labels. Tool’s music is progressive. Some of it is heavy, but it’s also artful and transcendent. It’s atmospheric and introspective. Psychedelic at times, and even avant-garde at others. It’s unabashed and unapologetic. There’s a certain arrogance to it. It’s somewhere between prog-rock from the 70s and metal from the 90s. Yes, it’s that difficult to pinpoint, and in fact, Tool may even be their own genre of music.

If you want an upbeat, bubblegum-sticky pop song, then Tool’s music isn’t for you. If you want something moody and introspective, with ideas that challenge you on a visceral and emotional level, make you ponder and wonder — and make you shut up and listen — then maybe Tool’s music is for you. 

Their music demands an investment from the listener. One shouldn’t listen to Tool as background noise; it’s too imposing and evocative for that. It requires your full attention and repeated listenings to appreciate it. It’s filled with details and references. I often have to pause the song to reflect or research something for a greater context. That self-discovery often leads to enlightenment, which puts me deeper into the music.

I’m not a Tool fanboy either. I don’t automatically like their music because it’s Tool. After repeat listenings, it needs to keep challenging me. It has to earn my time, respect, and energy each time I listen to it. Tool’s music takes my mind to a different place — a place often deep within myself.

2019’s Fear Inoculum

I’m not going to dive too deep into Fear Inoculum. It’s been discussed ad nauseam since it’s release. I will highlight this, though: 

2019 was a milestone year for Tool. They finally released their previous albums on music-streaming sites. That lead up to the release of their first album since 2006. There was plenty of excitement and talk about the new album. Tool fans were more than ready. The album raced up the charts, debuted at #1, and even knocked Taylor Swift’s Lover album from the top spot. 

What ensued next was interesting. Swifties were incredulous. Someone knocked their beloved heroine from the #1 spot. Many of her fans didn’t know who Tool was. In fact, many were very young or not even born yet when Tool released their last album in 2006. 

Taylor Swift is a household name. Tool is far from it, although they’re not as underground as sometimes portrayed. (They in fact have quite a massive cult following.) Either way, it was an interesting commentary on 2019 music and pop culture. 

Here you have a group of older guys. They’re playing a niche genre of music, with long songs that often aren’t played on the radio. And, they haven’t released an album in more than a decade. They release their new album with little publicity or advertising. Their album beats out a young and talented pop culture sensation — who has and incredibly loyal fan-base of her own. It almost sounds like a weird social experiment, but it happened. And, you could say that it worked.

Concert review

Tool brought their traveling circus sideshow of freaks (Ænema reference, anyone?) to Dallas on Wednesday night. They’re on the second leg of their Fear Inoculum tour.

Their setlist felt like a career-spanning set. It included songs from their Ænema, Lateralus, 10,000 Days, and Fear Inoculum albums. In addition, there were a couple of rarities from Opiate and Salival. They played 14 songs over 2+ hours.

No cameras

Tool has a strict “No Camera” policy for their shows. The no camera policy included cell phones. For the most part, patrons adhered to the policy. There were some, of course, who couldn’t resist and pulled out their cell phones. Security personnel were quick to try to discourage their antics. 

I like the policy, and encourage other artists to do the same. It’s distracting at concerts when people are on their phone taking pictures or videos. What are you going to do with those shitty photos and videos, anyway? Look at them once and dump it on social media? Be in the moment, not on your phone! I would imagine it’s distracting for the artists on stage, too. 

(Lead singer Maynard James Keenan would later “lift” the camera ban for the very last song. He said something like, “You can take your phones from your pocket. Go ahead. Whip it out. Security stand-down. You can film this nonsense.” I thought it was hilarious and ironic that he would refer to it as nonsense.)

The show

The show began with the stage partially-obscured by a sheer curtain. The band would play the first few songs behind this curtain. I thought it was a cool effect. It created a barrier and mystique around the performance.

Maynard James Keenan is notorious for not interacting much with the audience. He kept the tradition alive, and may have said 50 words to the audience on Wednesday night. There definitely wasn’t a “thanks for coming out tonight” feel to his banter, either. I love it. Call it arrogance, indifference, shyness, or a precisely calculated stage persona. He knows what he’s doing and does it better than anyone. He lurks in the shadows onstage — never front and center. 

The group doesn’t parade around the stage, either. They’re more stoic than that. The band is fairly stationary — almost in the background — and lets the performance as a whole speak for itself.

Tool’s songs would be challenging to play in the studio. Performing these songs live truly shows the musicianship of these artists. Not only that, but they don’t stop. Many of these are long, heavy, progressive songs, with little break between them. The skill and endurance of these four men is incredible.

The music is fantastic, but the treat is seeing them live in concert.  If it was just the music, it would still be satisfying. But, it’s the music (in rich, surround sound by the way) and incredible visuals. Lights, lasers, and a giant video screen. It showed shapes, images, patterns, effects, and clips from some of their music videos. It’s a sight to see, and it’s top-notch professional quality. The visuals are trippy, psychedelic, thought-provoking, weird, and mesmerizing. Definitely one of the best light shows I’ve ever seen. The only rival may be Brit Floyd, the Pink Floyd tribute band from the UK.

Final thoughts

It was an unforgettable performance. Did I get my money’s worth? Absolutely. Did it crack my list of top 5 concerts of all time? Not quite. I’ve been to so many concerts that it needs to be the perfect storm to infiltrate the top 5. Plus, when you’ve waited so long to them in concert, the expectations are impossibly high.  

The setlist, while impressive, didn’t have too many of my favorite songs. I would have liked more from the Ænema album, but this isn’t 1996. I don’t dislike many of their songs, though.

Now, I didn’t like the 12 minute intermission followed by the drum solo of “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Drum solos are too self-indulgent, and often too long. Don’t get me wrong — Danny Carey is one of the most influential and talented drummers out there, in any style of music. He’s a beast behind the kit. But, the combination of intermission and then the drum solo slowed down the show for about 20 minutes. It was a lull that brought down my enthusiasm a bit.

Even with the flaws (and it’s nit-picky to even think of them as such) this concert was solid. It’s one of the best concerts I’ve seen in a long time. I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to see Tool again anytime soon, but if I did, I wouldn’t miss it.

Bottom line — you think what they do in the studio is amazing? Check out their live show. Tool is an incredible live act, and one of the best at what they do.

Tool setlist

American Airlines Center | Dallas, Texas | 01-22-2020

  • Fear Inoculum
  • Ænema
  • Parabol
  • Parabola
  • Pneuma
  • Schism
  • Jambi
  • Merkaba
  • Vicarious
  • Part of Me
  • Forty Six & 2
  • (12 minute intermission, in lieu of an “encore”)
  • Chocolate Chip Trip
  • Invincible
  • Stinkfist

An article by Jason S. Sullivan, 01-24-20

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