BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE
New music, new decade, same old Tool. At a sold-out show in San Jose, California on January 14, the revered prog rock titans showed that even with new music and new instruments, they’re still the grounding force of their genre.
For a band that prides itself on evolving musically, it’s remarkable the lack of change Tool’s live show has undergone since 10,000 Days was released in 2006. But then again, Tool does things a little differently than most bands. Like wait 13 years between album releases, as they did with Fear Inoculum, which was released late last year.
In this time of rapid change and disruption in the music industry, seeing an arena band who has been together for 30 years play a sold-out show and rocking just as hard or harder than they did two decades before is comforting. And in 2020, a big concert without a live shot closeup of each musician’s face on a giant screen, without confetti explosions showering the audience, and especially without eye-grabbing cellphone glow taking you out of the moment (thanks to multiple warnings before the show and vigilant security guards armed with blinking flashlights), is a beautiful, nostalgia-inducing thing.
This led to (mostly) everyone focusing on the music and art presented before them. The “no cameras” rule extended to the stage as well—rather than soak up the spotlight, enigmatic vocalist Maynard James Keenan kept his usual stage placement on raised platforms behind the band, to the right and left of the drum riser. The silhouette of his spiked mohawk against an LED wall of visual artwork was the only identifying feature.
This is the way Tool has historically done live shows, so it didn’t feel like anything was being taken away from the audience. The band gives those in the nosebleed seats a treat with lasers, moving lights, and intense animations created by guitarist Adam Jones and artist Alex Grey displayed on the video screen behind and as part of the risers onstage.
Drummer Danny Carey seemed especially animated in this performance. I’ve seen the band five times since the early 2000s, though the last time was over 10 years ago. His playing, which normally looks and feels free-flowing and smooth in concert, had more of an edge to it on this night. There was a little more flair in the fills, and he really seemed to be having fun during an extended drum solo toward the end of the show.
Let’s start with dessert, shall we? The encore began with the “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Carey began this drum solo-composition from Fear Inoculum in dramatic fashion, with his back to the audience and his massive wingspan eclipsing the massive gong in front of him. He proceeded to tap out rudiments and even gave us some drumline tricks with the butt of the sticks. Alternating between the gong mallet and sticks, he bathed the audience in overtone-rich sonic delight before moving to the kit for a proper drum solo. Here we saw the only camera work of the night, an overhead shot of Carey projected on the screen behind him—except it was effected to look like a kaleidoscope. Pretty darn trippy, indeed.
His extra vigor also shined through in extended solo sections during “Invincible.” Especially compared to the clean, crisp recording of this tune, the solo felt fierce and raw. It was good to hear him cut loose.
Bassist Justin Chancellor was locked-in all night, and Maynard’s voice, when it wasn’t being distorted by an unfortunate, unintelligible megaphone effect, sounded as beautiful and powerful as ever. However, there were a few moments where the band didn’t seem completely on the same page.
Tool’s music is so calculated, and they’re such good musicians, that it stands out on those rare occasions when it’s not spot on. It felt like Carey and Jones were off on a few cues, dynamically. In a couple places, it seemed like Carey didn’t quite finish a fill the way he wanted to, mostly on the newer songs. I guess that happens when you want to stretch out a bit and your songs are all in time signatures like 13, 9, and 7, with a touch of 6 and 8 every now and then, ya know, just to change it up.
Carey was playing on a new drum set as well. After having the same kit for a dozen years, he got a new Sonor kit for this album. (He also plays Paiste cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans drumheads, and Mandala drum pads.) It appears to be more than 50 percent comprised of electronics. It has an acoustic core of two bass drums, snare, and a few toms, surrounded by responsive trigger pads, a multi-pad, small gong, and a large, vertical, electronic marimba-type instrument behind the kit. Carey played this with mallets on “Invincible,” blending with Maynard’s vocals to create a combination of sweeping and percussive punctuations.
The audience was almost entirely dressed in black, and many seemed to have a similar strain of male pattern baldness. That will happen when most of your fan base is now in his 40s. Tool is getting older too—the members are now in or approaching their 50s—and their songwriting has matured along with them. But make no mistake, just because they’re not writing songs about wishing the whole of Southern California would sink into the ocean (though they did play that one at this show), the band still displays ferocious playing and incredible musicianship live. Knowing Tool, there’s no reason to think that would change one bit.
Set List, 1/14/20, San Jose, CA:
Forty-Six & Two
BREAK (12 minute countdown)
Chocolate Chip Trip (gong solo, drum solo)