Tool don't have a lot to prove at this point in their career, and Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center, they sounded like it.
The notoriously reclusive band hasn’t released an album since 2006’s 10,000 Days, yet 15,000 fans packed into the sold-out arena, anxious to reconnect with the L.A.-based quartet who boldly redefined metal in the '90s with a thunderous combination of art-rock, prog, and alternative angst.
But the band sounded too comfortable with their success, delivering a safe, predictable, at times even listless performance that lacked the ferocity of their past local shows. Instead of learning to swim, as frontman Maynard James Keenan ferociously instructs on “Ænima,” the band seemed content to tread water for much of the 110-minute set.
Rather than providing any meaningful glimpses into material they have been working on over the past decade (other than a meandering new instrumental “Descending”), Tool performed the roiling anthems of outrage from earlier in their career with a raw vehemence that hasn’t aged well, and without a fresh edge or any distinctive sparks.
Keenan may have been dressed for combat, donning what appeared to be SWAT team riot gear, but there wasn’t much fight in him. The quirky lead singer kept to the shadows toward the back of the stage, like he typically does, content to let guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor, and drummer Danny Carey lead the way.
Self-satisfaction doesn’t suit this band. Tool can reemerge every few years from the creative netherworld (or vineyard, in Keenan’s case) to remind everyone that they still exist, trot out the same batch of songs that first captured everyone’s attention, and know that fans will flock to see them. But that routine has grown stale. The sinister unpredictability of the band's sound, look, and stage set has been replaced by a show that resembles a conventional art-house film set to the music of Tool, and the musicians are like actors in a carefully choreographed song-and-dance routine.
The backdrops were filled with images we've come to identify with the band over the years: animations of claustrophobic, dystopian nightmares, stained glass renderings from the gates of hell, and gruesome, torn anatomy. But for a band that has continuously offered their fans a modern twist on how metal can sound, look, and make you feel, a mere retread of past work – both musically and visually – comes off as a tepid disappointment, as though the band is frustratingly frozen in place. They even cut a song short from their standard encore, skipping a version of either “Vicarious” or "The Pot,” though there was still plenty of time before curfew.
Plenty of moments during the set reminded everyone of Tool’s untamed musical potency. The slow-burning, textured menace of “Schism” ignited the early portion of the show, and was followed by a combustible version of “Ænima” whose apocalyptic visions of the Pacific Ocean swallowing up California took on an added significance in the days following the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
To that end, Maynard did get philosophical during his only time speaking to the crowd (other than thanking us) during a breakdown in “Opiate”: “The world is a fucking mess. But I see a way out. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, it’s going to take some introspection, and it’s going to take each one of you to get it done. Here’s where I start. I assume that I’m wrong about everything. I get so much done questioning myself, assuming I’m wrong; I get more done than most people. So that’s what you have to do. Look inside, assume you’re wrong, and start from there. Good news for me though, I’m usually fucking right.”
Heady advice for a world grown so wrong, but “I get more done than most people” is a bit farcical when you consider Keenan’s band hasn't released a new album in almost 11 years. Still, impatient demands for new material quickly faded when confronted with old songs that still hit as hard as “Third Eye” and “Forty-Six & 2.” That dynamic combination, closing out the main set, was the night's clear high water mark.
Those heights were not to be reached again during a rushed encore, which came after a 10-minute break between sets and kicked off with an indulgent drum solo. Confetti cannons went off toward the end of “Stinkfist.” Confetti cannons. The old Tool wouldn’t have had anything to do with fucking confetti, which made the event feel more like a circus than a hard-hitting metal show. Here’s to hoping that Tool rediscovers that old magic on their long-awaited new album, and bring back a live show that does justice to their raucous, volatile roots.
Forty-Six & 2