When Tool last released an album, George W. Bush was president, Silent Hill was the number one movie at the box office, and Consequence of Sound was years away from existing. Yeah, 10 years is a long time; just ask the Dixie Chicks, who also released their most recent album the same year. But the difference between Dixie Chicks and Tool (besides, you know, everything about their sound) is that the country trio is not really considered an active project. A more comparable active band that works at a similar pace is Modest Mouse, whose frontman operates a label named Glacial Pace, but even they’ve released two LPs since Tool offered up 10,000 Days.
Still, despite a brief break from 2009 to 2012, Tool play shows most years. Sometimes it is just a few scattered dates across the Southwest. Sometimes, as we are witnessing at the beginning of this year, it is something more ambitious, as the hard rock group is scheduled for the entire month of January with dates around the southern half of the country. Of course, the hope when this jaunt was announced is that it might be the beginning of something more. A new Tool album has been expected for the past three years, with a legal battle against an insurance company standing in the way for some of that time, and perfectionism accounting for why there still isn’t any sign of a record. Just a couple months ago, guitarist Adam Jones indicated that the album was coming along great but wasn’t completed.
Thus, this new Tool tour is likely spurred by a combination of funding their recording and getting the band in tune with each other as they plug away with it. And on both fronts, it should be a big success. Both their opening date in San Francisco and their next gig in San Diego saw demand so high that second performances were added. The point being that Tool continues to draw a crowd, their fans every bit as rabid as they were at the four-piece’s prime in the late ’90s and early aughts, when the pair of albums Ænema and Lateralus cemented Tool as one of the best and biggest rock bands of their generation.
And there is something to be said about a show that celebrates that, which thousands of fans witnessed on Saturday night at San Diego’s Viejas Arena. Sure, the inclusion of new song “Descending” did point towards the future, but the instrumental was more of a segue than a focal point in the set, the spotlight remaining primarily on the band’s best known tunes, providing a cathartic display of why Tool is a band still worth caring about.
Songs frequently extended well beyond their recorded versions (surprise!), including stretched-out versions of “Stinkfist” and “Opiate”. On the latter, frontman Maynard James Keenan joked while his bandmates jammed, telling the Southern California faithful that he had to change the song’s lyrics so as not to offend the “vegans, male feminists, and the like” in the Bay Area. If you’re wondering, the lyrical change was from “rape” to “metaphorically rape you with a rhinoceros horn,” but it sounds more crass on paper than in person. Keenan has a deadpan delivery in his banter that mixes disgust and self-amusement, which makes even the most tired of references land with grace, like his show-opening Anchorman reference: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one … The Whale’s Vagina.”
And maybe it goes without saying, but all four members of the band haven’t lost a step as transfixing musicians, including bassist Justin Chancellor’s iconic riff throughout “Schism” and percussionist Danny Carey’s working of the double bass drums as “Ænema” built to its explosive conclusion. But it’s the pairing of Jones’ art projections and Keenan’s inimitable voice that is the glue holding the band together. And it’s funny because one supports the other, the large-screen displays shadowing the singer’s preference at lingering in the stage’s shadows. Dressed in police riot gear and sporting a faux Starbucks patch, Keenan relished the moments in which the songs let him wail, happy to gain attention for what came out of his mouth rather than his (lack of) frontman moves.
But maybe the most encouraging element of the show is in the setlist, which except for lacking “Sober”, hit on the band’s most widely appealing music. With Tool currently crafting an album that is 10 years in the making, their awareness of what has been their most all-around successful output might hint that their next release can live up to fans’ long wait. Whether that comes this year, next, or even further out remains to be seen. But we’ll still have these Tool shows in the meantime. And that’s not a bad consolation prize.
No Quarter (Led Zeppelin cover)
Forty-Six & 2