Photos and video recordings were not allowed during Thursday night’s sold-out Tool concert at the Fiserv Forum. It’s a hip policy these days, ostensibly to force an audience to be present and focused on the stage rather than through a digital lens, distracting everyone else with that smartphone glow. It serves another purpose as well: You can play the exact same set night after night and nobody on the internet gets a sneak preview. It’s a good idea all around, although in Tool’s case, there have been few surprises year to year for close to two decades.
It may have ultimately been a shrewd move, waiting 13 years between albums. With the release of the new Fear Inoculum in August, fans and critics welcomed Tool back with open arms, garnering the group the best reviews of its career and another Billboard chart-topper. Having spent the ’90s honing their distinctive mathy prog style, they basically ceased to evolve after 2001’s Lateralus; their songs have simply become more drawn-out extensions of the same formula, but that formula was clearly something that people missed, or else forgot about to a degree that it somehow sounds fresh in 2019.
Following a heavy, caustic opening set by post-punk/industrial legends Killing Joke, Tool emerged with the stage shrouded in a curtain of shimmering streamers and performed the title track off the new album. Psychedelic videos covered the stage backdrop and swirled throughout the curtain, carrying on a long tradition of distinctive trippy visuals intrinsic to the Tool experience both live and on record. Although they’ve been embraced somewhat by the Bonnaroo crowd, anyone anticipating any significant improvisation would be disappointed; the unorthodox rhythms of these songs don’t leave much opportunity for jamming, although the band has been known to mix up arrangements of older songs to keep fans on their toes. Vocalist Maynard James Keenan, sporting his usual Mohawk and dark glasses, sang from a platform flanking the drum riser, with guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor commanding the main stage floor by themselves. It’s always been a somewhat bizarre dynamic, like four technicians operating independently, trusting that it’s all coming together.
Despite the long gap between albums, Tool hasn’t been inactive, and sporadic touring seems to have kept them essentially at the top of their game; through the complexities of shifting time signatures and drummer Danny Carey’s extensive array of percussion, each member of the band played with undiminished precision. Particularly for anyone seeing this band for the first time, it was a virtually unassailable production, the epitome of brazen arena-rock power. Oddly enough, Keenan’s performance on the new record is relatively unambitious, a fact which is all the more puzzling considering he can still sing the older songs at full throttle.
Keenan isn’t coming at this Tool reawakening lacking in self-awareness, though, as evidenced most blatantly in the song “Invincible”: “Beating tired bones / Tripping through remember when / Once invincible / Now the armor’s wearing thin / Heavy shield down / Warrior struggling to remain relevant,” it goes. Watching Jones play the main riff of this song, an overly simplified reduction of his signature chug, it became apparent how much of the Tool mystique is a matter of being able to count. He barely has to move his fingers to play this song; it’s a matter of style and tone, the action of the hardware and software that he’s dialed in over the years. As basically the only American rock band to survive the ’90s alt-rock explosion intact, the question of relevance becomes moot; whether you look at this tour as a mere nostalgia trip or not, no other band is on this level and still making new music. (Your move, Pearl Jam?)
Besides, if this were a nostalgia trip, Tool would be rolling out a lot more oldies. Instead, they’re sticking with entirely too much music from 2006’s somewhat tedious 10,000 Days, as if to drive home how homogenous Jones’ riffs have become in the new century. The main set was made up almost entirely of post-millennial material; the only exceptions were the blistering “Ænema” in the two-slot, a song that becomes increasingly relevant with time, and a late-set rendition of “Intolerance,” the lone representative from the band’s 1993 breakthrough, Undertow. “Hands up, all of you under 30,” Keenan said by way of introduction. “When we wrote this next song, you were not even sperm.”
In an unusual twist, the band left the stage with a clock projected above the stage, counting down twelve minutes until the encore. Carey, perhaps rock’s most worthy successor to the legacy of Neil Peart, showed just how difficult it is to perform a drum solo in time with a pre-programmed electronic beat; even if you hate drum solos in general, this one was especially terrible.
The night then ended with two more from Ænima. “Forty Six & 2” was a good reminder of how impactful Chancellor was when he joined the band in 1995; more than any other song, this is the one that set the template for the rest of Tool’s career. Jones, resplendent in a hilariously accurate Dwight Schrute costume, has probably earned the right to coast on this accomplishment for as long as the market will sustain him; there was nothing else like this when it came out and now there are a million things like it. Heads were banged, devil horns were raised, and Keenan (now in a Packers t-shirt) gave the crowd the go-ahead to whip out their phones for “Stinkfist.” “Something kinda sad about / The way that things have come to be / Desensitized to everything / What became of subtlety?” sang Maynard, himself the very beacon of over-stimulation, but you would not want him any other way.