Over the span of a three-decade career, progressive metal juggernaut Tool has, from a commercial and artistic standpoint, become the envy of almost every contender in the genre. In a 13-year stretch, Tool belted out four entries in a timeless discography that serve as metal benchmarks: Undertow, Ænima, Lateralus and 10,000 Days. During an equally long period, they were completely dormant. This 2006-2019 era finally ended with the band’s latest full-length, Fear Inoculum.
The album didn't win universal praise, but in Tool’s defense, they have managed to corner themselves into a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” quandary. If Tool doubled down on their experimental tendencies, they would alienate some fans and risk coming off as contrived and pretentious. If they decided to give their sound a bit more commercial appeal, they’d be compromising its integrity. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should apply, but stagnation, especially in Tool’s case, is a creative weakness.
These stagnant tendencies have been probably the biggest areas of criticism to come Tool’s way after the release of Fear Inoculum. The album’s accompanying tour, which made its way through American Airlines Center on Wednesday night, gave them a chance to showcase some versatility or personality that maybe wasn’t readily detectable on the album. They fell short in this respect as well.
This was probably Tool’s most calcified performance yet. It wasn't irredeemable, but it reeked of complacency.
Tool’s strengths lie in meditative instrumentals, obscure song structures and labyrinthine time signatures, but somewhere along the way, these qualities have lost their luster. This was evident as they took the stage around 8:45 p.m. and kicked off with Fear Inoculum’s title track. Other cuts from the album, such as “Pneuma,” didn’t do Tool any favors.
These songs were delivered with enchanting visuals, but not even Maynard James Keenan’s vocals were able to add to this presentation. Keenan hasn’t lost his ability to maintain a delicate tone, and he still manages to economize his breath in such a way that lends consistent delivery across his broad vocal range, but even while performing classics like “Schism,” his vocals come off as disappointingly stale.
Still, Keenan exuded more personality from his voice than from his demeanor, though not for lack of trying. During numerous instrumental breaks, he danced around like a monkey, and as minimal as the stage banter was, Keenan dedicated the Fear Inoculum single “Invincible” to Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, who died Tuesday. As the band closed their two-hour set with the Ænima single “Stinkfist,” Keenan finally let his guard down, saying, “You can put your cameras up to film this nonsense” (Tool enforces a strict no-camera policy.)
During the Lateralus twofer “Parabol” and “Parabola,” Keenan maintained rich tone color throughout and was able to meander between vocal registers as effortlessly as he did in the songs’ recordings, yet the instrumental breaks sounded even more sonically raw. These two tracks served as the set’s ultimate saving grace.
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Perhaps the set’s biggest sin was that each song overstayed its welcome and overestimated the novelty of a formula that has had three decades to be perfected. Even when Danny Carey performed a King Crimson-esque drum solo leading up to the encore kicker “Chocolate Chip Trip,” the instrumentals lost their steam. Not that Tool shouldn’t showcase their instrumental prowess, but there’s a way to honor the same formula without taking everyone’s attention as a given.
What makes this all so infuriating is that Tool spent 13 years teasing us under the pretense they would come back only if they had something to say. Now they have something to say, but they seem to be trying to milk the spotlight as much as possible, even at the expense of substance.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and while Tool has had a witty discography, their set at American Airlines Center was anything but.