The raking guitar and pounding double bass drums might hurt your mom’s ears, but when the lyrical content contains everything from Jungian and Melchezekian philosophy to a disturbing sexual metaphor for social numbness, it’s worth a listen.
Last Saturday, when Tool ended its summer tour with a show at the Mark of the Quad Cities, those who were fortunate enough to experience the band’s sonic genius were also treated to one helluva visual ride. Tool has established itself as the epitome of progressive music, utilizing as many sensory stimulators as it can as the catalyst for its message. As if it weren’t enough to operate at volumes that shake fillings loose, two gigantic screens sublimating the exploration of every square inch (inside and out) of the human form pulsed nonstop, creating a multimedia extravaganza.
Despite the fact that this particular venue was hardly sold out, it was apparent that those who chose to spend the $35 for tickets were enjoying themselves. After Tomahawk left the stage and the lights came up, practically two-thirds of ticket-holders in The Mark’s lower bowl took to the floor as the rest of the venue cheered them on. This set the stage for the rest of the evening, as the band did what they do best: put the performance out front while they hang in the background.
Taking cue from the artistic visions of guitarist Adam Jones, Tool has since its inception chosen to use media beyond the music itself to connect with its listeners. Jones, a former makeup artist in Hollywood, has used his skills as a sculptor and special-effects designer to incorporate Brothers Quay-esque stop-motion camera techniques and an obsession with the human figure to illustrate the band’s subject matter. Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics are the core of that subject matter, and they encompass a bizarre gene-psyche relationship that both suspends reality and pushes it so close to you that your retinas need security blankets.
Tool’s music, which lies in that ethereal realm where pleasure cannot exist without pain, is effectively paired with these other media because of the simplicity and execution in each segment. This whole really does exceed the sum of its parts, and that’s because although each contributor isn’t necessarily mind-blowing, he plays with an extraordinary amount of skill that extends beyond plain virtuosity. Everything is a factor, from Keenan’s brilliant application of vocals as fourth instrument, to Jones’ saw-toothed riffs, to Justin Chancellor’s subterranean thundering, to Danny Carey’s inflection on both electronic and acoustic drums, to that freaky 30-foot-tall image of a scalpel repeatedly slicing a forehead, revealing a third eye. This is a complete package, and the band did it as well on stage as it does on screen.
Some might think this is arguable, but these guys are human beings, and I think that they were a bit relieved that this was the last show of this tour and that they’ll have a few months off before they do it all over again. That’s not to say that the performance was at all lacking energy, just a little stamina, and it seemed to eventually roll itself to a stop. But this might very well have been intentional, as it appears that everything Tool does is at a contemplated pace. The group’s songs are put together without any particular nod to conventional arrangement, and its albums are notorious for petering out. (How about a 16-minute piece featuring chirping crickets and the zapping of some electrical mad-scientist contraption as the finisher for an album?)
No matter what you view as a drawback, nobody tells Tool what it should and shouldn’t do. And it’s worked perfectly for these anti-establishmentarians. They’ve managed to step beyond the usual trappings of the business of making music, and it’s ironically afforded them the ability to use whatever means necessary to share their ideas with those who appreciate the notion of “prying open my third eye.”