Tool is one of rock music’s truly enigmatic bands. Notoriously secretive, wildly successful and unremittingly artistic, they are one of the few hard rock/metal bands to actually achieve massive success. They do so while mostly refusing to play by the rules that generally drown, embarrass and destroy most conventional bands. The band’s four members (Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Maynard James Keenan and Adam Jones) jealously guard their privacy. Interviews regarding the band are scarce, their image and likeness is rarely used for any marketing purposes (never mind for much in the way of press coverage). And what’s more, they refuse to conform themselves to anything even remotely akin to the conventional make-an-album-tour-repeat process that typically cycles for bands every three years or so. While their popularity has not waned in the time that has passed since, the band has also not released a new album of material (nor even confirmed a timetable for one coming) since the 2006 release 10,000 Days.
All photos by Marv Watson
Fans hunger for new material from the foursome, but beyond scant responses indicating songwriting has been taking place no firm statement has expressed that a new album is on the horizon. The best anyone has heard is that lead singer Maynard James Keenan will write and record vocals for the album once the band’s musicians complete crafting all the songs, and maybe work on that has begun, but also maybe not.
So one has to ask, “Does it even matter?” In a day and age where the concept of a single play collection of songs being released means less-and-less, it begs the question over whether the fuss over whether something “new” can be brought forth is worth even thinking about. For serious Tool fans–and to any doubter reading this believe us, they are legion—the band’s four full-length albums have enough remarkably thoughtful material that one could spend as much time contemplating the meaning and artistry in their songs as music listeners did on Pink Floyd’s albums in the ‘70s. Open the door, tumble down the rabbit hole and there’s a whole world in there. The material touches on everything from religion to self-reliance to aliens to mortality. While fans have waited eagerly for word on new material, Keenan has kept himself busy on a variety of projects. His bands Puscifer and A Perfect Circle (with Billy Howerdel) have regularly been active, Puscifer most of all releasing a new album every few years and more with each go illuminating the evolving state of Keenan’s mindset. The output has been variously humorous, wildly philosophical and when it comes to freedom of speech, directly confrontational.
All the while, ever year or so, Tool would return to do a short run of tour dates or headline the occasional festival. This month-only run of dates ended with a special one-of-a-kind event: a massive bill featuring friends, inspirations, contemporaries and cohorts alike. Along with a full, two-hour headlining set from Tool, the band was joined by longtime friends The Melvins, Fantomas, Clutch and Primus (and DJ sets from The Crystal Method layered throughout they day). This all took place in the blazing hot summer sun at the Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino. A passenger plane literally buzzed the venue in the sky above dumping flame retardant on a wildfire a few short miles away. Was a bevy of rock’s best counter culture artists worth braving insufferable near-one-hundred degree heat? The tens of thousands in attendance was enough to make you believe that nearly any price was worth being paid to experience this event.
The Melvins had the unlucky timing of being the very first act on in the midst of the blazing heat. Longtime friends with Tool, their influence of Tool’s sound and vice versa is readily apparent. Having gone through numerous lineup alterations in the recent years (incarnations include Melvins Lite, Melvins 1983 and with the Big Business members Jared Warren and Coady Willis affectionately referred to in that form as Big Melvins) this particular formulation featured Steve McDonald of famed L.A. alt rock band Redd Kross. With not much time on the clock, the band ripped through ‘70s thrash versions of their 2008 song “The Kicking Machine” and The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The band ended earlier than they expected with a medley of their old noise song “Lovely Butterflies” and more recent song “Onions Make the Milk Taste Bad.”
Fantomas came next, and for the small contingent of the audience who truly knew this band already, what an amazing treat this was. While sporadically active the last nine years or so, the band has played no shows in the U.S.A. since December 31st 2008. This being their first show back since then, it also featured a complete performance of their beloved album The Director’s Cut. For the unfamiliar, this is a band widely described by all members as “Mike’s band,” referring to lead singer, songwriter and sonic architect Mike Patton. Formed initially right around the break-up of Faith No More in 1999, Patton recruited Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne, Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. Their first, self-titled album was a concept album, loosely composed as 31 tracks as if 31 pages of a comic book. Their third album Delirium Cordia was a masterful and haunting single 75-minute track, more-or-less the soundtrack to a deeply comatose surgery. Their last album Suspended Animation was another 30-track affair, this time each song named for a specific day of the calendar month of April 2005.
While all four albums are incredible in their artistic creativity, fans generally respond more favorably to the (relatively speaking) straightforward songs on The Director’s Cut, each a reworking of a classic movie theme. The ominous notes of Nino Rota’s Godfather theme greeted the crowd before the manic metal breakdown they mutate into and out of half way through. The ultra brief “Night of the Hunter (Remix)” aims for the creepiest of the creepy while Henry Mancini’s “Experiment in Terror” is half jazz pop and half brutal onslaught. Most impressive in the array of covers are their fantastically ominous take on Krzysztof Komeda’s theme to “Rosemary’s Baby” and their hypnotic approach to the theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
The band’s technical acumen was without error, but for Fantomas, Patton uses an elaborate bank of keyboard, samplers, effect pedals and microphones. It’s hard to see at a distance, but either the main output or some connector between his elaborate configuration and the main house speakers was badly shorting out, causing random effects and vocals to bleed into utter static. Also, for the curious, this performance featured Osborne, Dunn and Patton, but no Lombardo. The Melvins’ Dale Crover filled in on drums. Even though Lombardo is no longer with Slayer—and is in another new band with Patton, Dead Cross—he was curiously absent.
Maryland rock band Clutch followed and were a stellar representative of the less prog-y, straight rock sound that Tool was once decidedly a part of. Compared to everything else on the bill today, Clutch is the least experimental band for certain. They are also one of rock’s wonderful modern-day success stories. The first eight of their eleven-album catalog came out on various indie and mainstream record labels. Since 2008 though, the band has released all their records on their own through their Weathermaker Music label. And though always relevant (fans aware of Tool at the time “Sober” truly first came out might remember “A Shogun Named Marcus” on rotation on MTV) the band’s stature and fan base has steadily increased since taking their career fully into their own hands.
It would be unfair to apply labels to them such as “blues rock” or “stoner rock,” but there is something special to their approach to what we regard as modern-day rock music. It seems to have force and conviction that regular rock music can’t seem to summon, and yet there is a groove to it that gives it more swing than hard rock ever can seem to fathom as being technically cool and appropriate. The crowd is enraptured quickly as the cuts “Noble Savage” from most recent album Psychic Warfare and the title track from the 2013 release Earth Rocker show the unbridled energy the band has. Things got loose in a good way on “D.C. Sound Attack” where the band employs a liberal use of cowbell percussion. It’s impressive to note the band has had the same lineup (minus a brief addition of a keyboardist) since they formed in 1991: Neil Fallon on vocals, Tim Sult on guitars, Dan Maines on bass and Jean-Paul Gaster on Drums. They dial up the blues with harmonica on the semi- Mississippi Fred McDowell cover song “Electric Worry” and then end strong on “X-Ray Visions.”
Primus followed shortly thereafter and delivered a phenomenal set of classic songs. The trio of bassist/singer Les Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and Tim “Herb” Alexander have long been considered paragons of their respective instruments. Since Claypool makes masterful use of a variety of alternative bass playing styles– most notably the highly compressed technique of slap bass originally pioneered by early funk bands–Primus has long been one of the few bands that sonically truly defies any genre or label. Nobody would say, “Primus is a metal band,” or, “Primus is a funk band.” Primus is just Primus. Whatever it is the kind of the music they do, they’re doing it. Strap yourself in because there’s really nothing quite like it. If anything, their ascension to a stature of being arena sell-out heavyweights has been handicapped only by the appearance that for quite some time Claypool and Co. just don’t take themselves too seriously. If they concentrated on their music with the sincerity that they’re capable of at the best of times, there isn’t a band in music that could match their skill.
This set showed just how much this could truly be possible. The band nonchalantly took the stage to the famous Danny Elfman score from the evil clown scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure “Clown Dream.” They slowly thumped into their seminal song “Those Damn Blue-Collar Tweakers,” patiently rendering the twang-y melodies until working out the song’s finale into improvised solos. A similar motif from Claypool was slapped out in the unforgettable ascending notes of “Too Many Puppies.” It’s an excellent manifesto as the memorable vocal refrains of “Too many puppies” from Claypool and the LaLonde’s slightly sludge-y riffs are indicative of the elements the band has always used to great effect on numerous songs. For good measure they throw in a segment of “Sgt. Baker” in the middle before bringing the song home.
Next, Claypool donned a pig mask and an upright standing bass. He crunched out the opening notes of their otherworldly “Mr. Krinkle.” While Claypool is guiding the song with his simple bow strums he marvelously rendered the lyrics with surprising delicacy, LaLonde and Alexander peppering every moment with precision licks and fills. It’s so odd in its approach it’s easy to forget there is sheer genius going on for every moment of the song. “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” upped the ante on this considerably where the three musicians literally sound as if they’re having an immaculately choreographed musical fight. There was so many stupendous ideas in this one it’s hard to ponder how they even came up with them in the first place, much less found a way to put them all together. It occurs in watching them work so effortlessly as a band that Primus is far more talented than they even let on. They ended with the strongest two songs from their canon possible, “My Name is Mud” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” the former a methodical story built around the mind of a fictional dim-witted rube boasting of murdering a friend, and the latter another tour-de-force showdown of their impress technical abilities.
In addition to all this craziness, the day featured DJ sets from The Crystal Method sprinkled in between the bands. This seems a risky pick given Tool fans’ proclivity for proggier metal, but the band’s Scott Kirkland (yes, The Crystal Method are no longer a duo, Ken D. Jordan has apparently left the band) had the audience dancing at nearly every turn. In the brief interludes he made expert use of classic Crystal Method songs such as “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do,” “Name of the Game” and “Busy Child” remixing them on the fly and sometimes blending them with other essential songs such as Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” and Daft Punk’s “The Grid” from the TRON soundtrack. In a disappointing bummer right in Kirkland’s final appearance before Tool’s headlining set, something went wrong with the sound in the venue. Kirkland teased he had a special guest for the crowd and was primed to unveil him, yet immediately after stating as much all the sound on his gear just dropped out. For a moment it came back, but then promptly cut out again. Kirkland left the stage after that, the technical failure apparently not possible to recover from or fix. Unfortunate, but the parts beforehand the crowd all seemed to enjoy profusely.
All that remained was Tool’s headlining set. Each seat visible finally filled up. The venue looked as close to sold out as possible, though it’s hard to ever say for certain when referring to an amphitheater with an endlessly scalable lawn. True to form, the band emerged from darkness jumping right into the opening notes of “The Grudge” without statement or proclamation. Bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones took the front level of the stage at stage left and right respectively. On the back level was drummer Danny Carey and singer Maynard James Keenan. Not surprisingly, Keenan was ensconced in shadows while the other members would occasionally have lights shined on them. Keenan would undulate and dance in frenetic motions, but never really left his spot at the back corner. “The Grudge” fits as an appropriate intro, neither being a patient song nor a short one. It’s all crescendo, from the opening notes to the final mounting smackdown. This would be the first of four songs from their 2001 release Lateralus played to start the show. The next two were the two-song suite of “Parabol” and “Parabola,” an epic pondering on the impermanence of life, Keenan singing in ever escalating fury “This body, this body holding me, feeling eternal / All this pain is an illusion.” It takes little more than these three opening songs to put the band’s unnerving skill in stark relief. There’s really no hard rock group that can compose and perform at this level and keep a massive audience elated. It just doesn’t happen anymore. They follow-up with an elongated take on “Schism” but then delightfully shift gears to one of their oldest songs.
Keenan takes a moment to comment on world affairs offering, “After a while you start to wonder if the pieces actually ever fit at all.” He continues, “The world is a fucking mess. I see a way out. Pick your battles. Rather than right fighting left and vice versa, and up fighting down and colors fighting each other and genders fighting each other. Start with the first enemy, ignorance. Fight ignorance. Everything should fall in place. If you don’t believe me, this next song is for you.” With that they launch into “Opiate,” the title track of their 1992 pre-Undertow EP. It’s stunning in its simplicity, but the template for all Tool material would become nearly thirty years later is evident even in this early career composition. Things go absolutely bonkers from there as the opening chords of “Ænema” are slammed out. A palpable sense of excitement consumes the audience, as the song is something of a sonic juggernaut. A searing indictment of vapid Los Angeles culture and a song literally planted on a ten-out-of-ten in terms of tension until its final hammering notes. Given Keenan’s previous comments about the world being a mess and a real-life Donald Trump presidency the song takes on a scary poignancy.
The explosive kiss-off of so many types of people in the song’s monumental bridge and the repeated response, “Learn to swim / learn to swim / learn to swim / learn to swim” along with the outro refrain “Cause I’m praying for rain / And I’m praying for tidal waves / I wanna see the ground give way / I want to watch it all go down / Mom, please flush it all away / I wanna see it go right in and down / I want to watch it go right in / Watch you flush it all away,” just simmers off to some truly frightening stuff. The world’s never been more unstable than right now and what seemed like an angry missive in the mid ‘90s now plays like a fatalistic portent.
The only new song anyone has heard tell of from the band “Descending” makes it appearance next, playing almost as if an instrumental interlude for 10,000 Days cut “Jambi.” For the record the band has been playing versions of this song live the last two years, so it’s both not exactly new, but also not entirely being presented in its final form. The main set proper ends on an absolutely chilling one-two punch. If “Opiate” and “Ænema” delivered on confronting darkness and stupidity, “Third Eye” and “Forty-Six & 2” were the shining lights of optimism. They are the shimmering beacons insisting that one’s connection to the purity of the self and a relentless pursuit of evolution are all that is necessary to find happiness in this universe. “Third Eye” opened with the standard sample of the late Timothy Leary and dove into its thirteen minutes of interlocking madness. Before it’s all over Keenan’s howling scream of, “Prying open by third eye,” was enough to invoke sheer awe and amazement. “Forty-Six & 2” lived up to its reputation as quite possibly the band’s single most incredible sonic achievement. Chancellor’s serpentine bassline warmly greeted the crowd while Jones expertly weaved melodic interplay building up energy as the song’s true point unfurls. It was a vulnerable and determined plea that the world itself along with self-love and self-reliance can be the ultimate path to truth and joy. There’s not one second wasted, each successive twist and turn brings it all to a breathtaking conclusion. If Tool was to have a “Stairway to Heaven” level masterpiece, this is surely it.
The band leaves the stage and Carey sets a limited degree of electronics in sequence, taking the opportunity for an immense drum solo. Carey is the band’s not-secret-at-all weapon. His patterns, rhythms and approaches are just unparalleled in hard rock. For bands comparable to this level of notoriety, none have a drummer quite this good. Nobody even comes close. The drum solo serves as the opening for “The Pot” and the night’s final sequence. It’s paired with fellow 10,000 Days track “Vicarious” and together they worked well at setting the stage for the final songs of the night. The band dusted off another solid rarity in “Sweat” (also off Opiate), a song played routinely the last two tours, but prior to that rarely ever played since 1998. The bridge on “Sweat” was another chance for Carey’s drum rolls to astound and confound aspiring drummers everywhere. The venue P.A. played a short snippet of “(-) Ions” and the band ended off with Ænema track “Stinkfist.” A fitting end for the massive show and a straightforward song right where it was needed most.
Nearly ten hours of music later and it’s all over. While festivals may be overwhelming the live circuit of America, this event played like rock festivals everywhere should aim for and never quite achieve. This was a top-to-bottom just flawless collection of talent. If the least impressive thing you saw on the day was The Melvins, you can call that one of the better days on record. This is what rock music really has in it to be. With luck and hope, thousands of eager up-and-comers are in attendance and take this as a cue for what ingenuity, purity and talent can do for you. Tool themselves live up to their massive acclaim with aplomb. The old cliché “they make it look easy” would apply, but nothing is intricate and polished could possibly be that simple.
There’s decades of practice, lifetimes of soul-searching, and nerve and determination the likes of which music has never seen before. Something this amazing doesn’t happen without a thick backbone and as much willingness to say “no” as there is to say “yes.” For all the worry and concern that fans have displayed regarding Tool’s lack of album output in recent years, it does beg the question, “What’s the hurry?” There hasn’t been anything this good in rock music in decades. We’ve got plenty of time to sift through all that it is. Fifty years on from now scholars will still be picking apart every one of these compositions. These songs are only going to get better as the years go by.
All photos by Marv Watson