In the age of flash-in-the-pan internet sensations, where consumer interest in artists can last about as long as their single SoundCloud EP, there’s something deeply satisfying about the longevity of Tool. A band that, on paper, shouldn’t have gone beyond their niche and yet here they are, 30 odd years later playing sold out arenas for fans begging to hear the third ten-minute song of the evening.
They are, in some ways, an antithesis to the modern music industry. Where new artists need to drop fresh singles every six months, fans waited patiently while Tool took 13 years to release their latest record, Fear Inoculum. You’d be lucky to hear one of their songs on any Australian radio station, and when you do it’s usually after a call-in request. The over the top, extremely limited-edition CD edition of Fear Inoculum not only sold out in days, but thrust them to the top of the Billboard 200 chart.
Tool as a remarkable ability to buck industry trends and hold their fans in a cult-like grasp, from the moment they hear Tool song for the first time. They’ve stuck to their niche, but people have spent three decades digging out space around it to wriggle in, become part of the mythology and stay there forever. And nothing represents this simultaneous hardcore dedication to art and fandom than when Tool takes their show on the road.
Mechanical engineer turned one-man industrial musician Author & Punisher opened the show in Sydney. Wrapped in a wall of custom-built musical machinery with “these machines kill fascists” emblazoned across the frame, Punisher belted out dense, dark, doomesque blends of Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein and Tool to create extreme, bone-shattering sounds.
Steeped in slow builds, bassy textures and heavy drops, Punisher’s music conjured up feelings of an intense, cold, metallic future held together by scraps of humanity desperately trying to be heard through tearing mechanisms.
Though the Tool fanbase skews older, the sold-out crowd at Qudos Arena still showcased the bands longevity. The old school fans in faded black shirts reminiscing about Tool tours in the 90s outweighed the rest, but there were more than enough young twenty-somethings to prove that long-term listeners were doing the lords work by passing records through the generations. Tool’s music attracts that kind of dedication.
Draped in gargantuan screens, lasers, smoke machines and a semi-transparent curtain, all four members quietly strolled on stage to the tune of “Fear Inoculum” opener. A strict smartphone ban meant Sydney did not have to look through a sea of floating screens to catch a glimpse of their heavy metal heroes, and the impact was immediate. Everyone was locked in to Adam, Justin and Danny, that is until the lilting tones of Maynard James Kenan floated from a shadowy mic towards the back. He was quickly drowned out by a deafening roar.
The adoration for Tool is infectious, electric, and deeply engaging. The otherworldly images on screen and atmospheric lighting drew everyone’s attention away from the world while Kenan exuded extensive tomes ala “exhale, expel!” And yet, they do have a reputation for being something of a reserved out, though it seemed Sydney was getting something special.
“Supposedly Sydney,” Maynard said after the song. “Huh, I thought this was Melbourne?” That cheeky remark meant jovial Tool were in town and the usual stoic stares were replaced with a group much more relaxed and willing to play around with the fans.
After showing off a new song, Maynard’s pig squeals tore through the stadium signalling the start of “Ænema,” much to Sydney’s delight. It kicked off an evening that combined the somewhat longer, slower, introspective Tool tracks against the harsher, angrier alternatives from their younger days. Credit where credit’s due, age is seemingly just a number because the guys nailed every song from across their discography.
The ever evolving and alternating stage show shifted to craft the mood of each moment. “The Pot” peaked with laser lighting projected on the curtains, “Pneuma,” another new cut, gradually added more lights and lasers that erupted violently and chaotically around the musicians as the song built up to its explosive conclusion. The surprise addition of “Part of Me” from the Opiate EP had comparatively little production, a perfect match for a song written before the Tool show became a visual spectacular.
Where other bands use lights, screens, smoke and so on to enhance the experience, Tool uses it to create something bigger, and more significant, than themselves. Sure, the songs sound fantastic on an album, but bring that into a live setting where you can feel the music, and throw an intense, inescapable visual experience on top and suddenly the songs make a lot more sense.
New tracks from Fear Inoculum captured this perfectly. Where some of the more extensive jams can feel somewhat longwinded and repetitive on the album, they absolutely thrive in a live environment where your engagement extends beyond auditory senses. Combine that with the shared experience of screaming along with thousands of new friends, and Tool becomes an entirely different band to the one you hear on CD. Is it a bit on the nose? Sure. Is it over the top? Definitely. But does it work? Absolutely!
But while there was no room for showmanship, each member let their hair down and had a good time. Justin Chancellor had a blast tearing his bass to shreds during “Jambi,” which guitarist Adam Jones seemed to enjoy as he strolled over, put his arm around Chancellor and pointed at him until the crowd cheered itself hoarse. Keenan had been bitten by the comedy bug as he cracked more deadpan jokes from his pulpit, including the introduction to “Part of Me.” “Raise your hand if you’re under 30” he asked, before telling drummer Danny Carey to “sit the f**k down.” “When we wrote this song,” he continued, “you weren’t even sperm yet.
Other Maynard moments included; sneaking down and stealing Jones’ cab during “Pneuma,” strutting around most of the stage (though not quite down to the front) when it was time to sing with the megaphone and constantly bopping and air drumming in time with the music. All that, and his signoff before closing with “Stinkfist.” “Shout out to the time travellers that still think it’s 1991 with the whole mosh thing,” he said, which only encouraged them to kick off an even bigger circle pit.
These reactions really sum up the Tool live experience. Everyone knows that they’re an extremely tight live band with impeccable audio and visual production, but you can enjoy their show in so many different ways. Some people go to mosh, others go to fold their arms, stand still and quietly enjoy the experience. Then there are those that lock into one member for the entire set, eyes glued to Jones’ guitar or Carey’s ten minute octopus-like mastery of his colossal drum kit that kicked off the encore. A good number of people thought they can sing along with Keenan during Vicarious, only to find that they would be dealing with a sore throat for the next three to five days.
In any case, everyone left Qudos Arena in one of a handful of states. Some people were tired, others were fired up and ready to kick on at the nearest pub. Some were quietly satisfied, others were utterly overwhelmed and excitedly messaging their friends to tell them what they just saw. But everyone left knowing that they had witnessed a one of a kind show that they would hopefully get to enjoy at least once more in the not too distant future.
Actually, Tool’s longevity isn’t all that surprising when you think about it.