Where did Tool go wrong? It had to be sometime after 1997 (while promoting Aenima), when singer Maynard James Keenan arrived on stage during Lollapalooza’s Kansas City date dressed like a mime-transvestite (man to woman) with buxom breasts, white face paint, and hair stretched into a thick pony tail. That’s not all: drag Keenan sat atop the broad shoulders of a steroidal, beefy mountain man. It was not your typical entrance.
This dimension of the spectacular and provocative was quintessentially Tool. I’m not saying that their progressive alt-metal musicianship was secondary, rather that the sensationalism was a nice compliment to both the music’s intensity and the band’s character.
With regard to the Lateralus tours (2001-2002), one could say, sans a bit of disingenuousness, that Keenan didn’t appear on stage at all—he remained fixed in the rear. Past spectacle and outrage was downsized to short, morbid films of preternatural humanoid creatures, and, more importantly, two gaunt, tall, semi-clothed human contortionists climbing to the arena rafters and bobbling their heads endlessly. While these gimmicks were mildly amusing, they served as a reliable indicator that the band was seeking more and more to de-emphasize its own peculiarity. Tool’s aesthetic of controversy and provocation had been subcontracted out to cheesy horror films and the antics of lanky, hyperflexible, three-ring-circus types.
These days Tool proffers the bare minimum in terms of ornate theatricality. The Hollywood films were still present—humanoids and all—but, again, Keenan spent the bulk of Tool’s 110-minute, 13-song set partially concealed, as if he were some sort of hermit hidden within a minute bubble space. He leveled some vitriol at the scalpers and made 666 allusions, but as far as provocation goes, delivered nothing substantial. To give Keenan credit, he did have the country bumpkin look down pat—he wore a funky cowboy hat, jeans, and no shirt.
The basic stage atmosphere was minimalist, and the occult emblem that once backed drummer Danny Carey had been trashed—no idols here. The obvious absence of theatre intimates that Tool wants its other facets to be taken more seriously—namely, its musicianship and scathing lyrical diatribes. OK, let’s give it a shot.
The band is playing a series of sold-out warm-up dates in unusually small venues before it embarks on a sunny European vacation in support of the recently released 10,000 Days. This performance began with a dimming of the lights and sirens screeching. Guitarist Adam Jones opened with dirge-like prophesy “Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann)”, hinting at tempests to come. This brief, brilliant set-piece, however, led into a disastrous and uncontrolled metallic fervor of “Rosetta Stoned”, a song that is desolate and unrefined on record and no better live.
Jones was most active on the guitar, hitting all the nuances, but exhibiting little showmanship. He was, for all purposes, behaving as if he were a resuscitated cadaver. Maybe Jones is one of those creatures on film? No, can’t be; they can walk.
Bassist Justin Chancellor played excellently, and shook about somewhat, but he to noticeably lacked animation. The only bit of true spirit and might came from über-drummer Danny Carey. His rhythmic force may be matchless, and his passion and loud precision emboldened the set. At times, he became the lone locus of attention.
The set, meant to introduce these new songs, also showcased classics like “Stinkfist”, “Lateralus”, and “Sober”, all of which got rave reviews from devotees. The five new songs were built around a theme of apocalyptic social commentary: from the repetitive, machinelike guitar sound of “Jambi”—during which Keenan imagined himself a dissipated king (how unrealistic!)—to the current single “Vicarious,” with its rant against TV and moral cowardice (“I need to watch things die / From a good safe distance”).
These songs were intense and potent, but not cathartic. There was no spark. The sum of Tool’s traits was overwhelmingly exemplified in the immaculate performance of “The Pot”. The song kicked off with Chancellor’s heavy bass, soon joined by Jones’s subtle guitar, with the cohesion reaching its apex in the titanic thrash of Danny Carey’s drums. This domino effect was fantastic as Keenan sung with religious fervor, stressing lyrics that reminded folks of the dangers of maladroitness. If only Tool had matched “The Pot”‘s live paradigm with all its songs and shown similar energy and conviction throughout the set.
So, perhaps where they started to go right also leads us, finally, to where they went wrong. The band doesn’t realize that its theatricality was, indeed, the cornerstone of its DNA. The Tool of old was, at its very core, a theatrical and psychedelic Pink Floyd-esque band with illustrious, capable musicians. In its attempt to restrict what is most fundamental—in this case the spectacle—the band has made an imprudent self-sacrifice. And, in the process, they’ve lost a lot of energy. And, in choosing to take themselves “seriously”, the band has seriously lost touch with who and what they actually are.