With the advent of giant, high-resolution video screens, powerful lasers, ever-more-sophisticated sound equipment and acoustically superb sports arenas, it was only a matter of time before a band put all of these technological advances together into a show that would allow the band itself to recede into the background, unleashing the full force of 21st-century electrical engineering onto the assembled throngs. Tool is that band.
At the Xcel Thursday night, Tool’s guitarist, Adam Jones, stood stage left, the bassist, Justin Chancellor, stood stage right, singer Maynard Keenan stood on a platform behind them, next to drummer Danny Carey—and there they stayed for pretty much the entire show. You don’t get a lot of gymnastics and scissor kicks at a Tool concert. What you do get is an extraordinarily powerful and sophisticated brand of prog-metal rock that raises the arena experience almost to another art form, one that combines challenging, expertly performed music with brilliantly produced graphics, video, and special effects. It’s an all-out assault of light and sound that’s so well produced, it wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery at the Walker.
Tool songs are invariably anchored by a barrage of furious drums and a sinuous, churning bass line pegged to an odd time signature, on top of which the guitar adds a fuzzy triad or two and the vocals pull it all skyward. The drum and bass tones are so low that one feels the music as much as one listens. And a Tool concert feels like a thousand tiny fists pummeling your body for two hours straight. Exhausting, therapeutic, and undeniably awesome, Tool throws everything in their shed at you, then hits you over the head with the shed itself. Repeatedly. Relentlessly. With no remorse whatsoever. In fact, they seem to enjoy it.
But it’s the video that sets the band apart. Guitarist Adam Jones also happens to be a gifted video artist who creates surreal, disturbing images—of insects, eyeballs, bloodworms, jelly-skinned humanoids, apocalyptic moonscapes, and all sorts of other psychic wastelands—and turns them into artistically adventurous stop-time video paintings. When played with a song, the videos don’t make any literal sense; they’re just weird and cool. But when they are shown on half-a-dozen giant video screens and a 100-foot video wall, and pounded into your head with Tool’s formidable aural sledgehammer, they seem designed to short-circuit your rational faculties and kick up some subconscious demons of your own. If Hieronymous Bosch, William Blake, Carl Jung, and Max Ernst started a band, it would sound a lot like Tool.
On songs like “Stinkfist” and “Vicarious,” when the music is churning, the video slipstream is flowing, and the fan lasers are criss-crossing the arena, lighting up a translucent cloud of stage smoke, the cumulative impact is devastating. On “Intolerance” and “Schism,” they kicked it up several notches with an equally amazing cascade of video graphics. On "46&2" I could feel the arena shaking beneath my feet. And they closed with, “Lateralus” and “Aenema,” two songs that every Tool fan can sing along to, and did.
Here’s the entire setlist:
Eon Blue Apocalypse
No encore, just a few waves and goodbye. The only sour note of the whole show was the opening act, a hip-hop duo called Dalek, who were almost aggressively boring and lame. While they were playing, all anyone in my section could talk about was what a strange opening choice it was for a band like Tool. As in, “Tool is great; these guys suck.” I mean, Dalek was so bad that people were actually angry at them. The woman in front of me was pregnant, and told me that her baby hated the “music” so much he was kicking and squirming like he’d just been jabbed with icepick. Then she wondered aloud if music that awful and loud could cause brain damage?
She didn’t seem to worry about the terrible ways in which Tool might curdle her kid’s gray matter. But I’d like to see that kid in twenty years. If Mozart can affect a baby’s brainwaves, I can only imagine what a Tool concert might do to an infant’s embryonic psyche. I wouldn’t be surprised if that kid was born with his fist in the air, crying for more.