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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Tool review – master musicianship and mesmerising prog-metal | Metal

Save for a festival performance at Download 2019, this is Tool’s first UK date in almost 15 years. Though time has not softened frontman Maynard James Keenan: “If grandpa can stand up and dance around like an idiot, so can you,” he levels at a mostly seated Manchester audience. That soon changes.

When grunge faded and nu-metal began to rip through rock’s hierarchy in the mid-90s, Los Angeles quartet Tool offered something entirely different. The band’s transcendent union of visual arts and stormy, offbeat prog-metal secured their status as one of the genre’s greatest enigmas. Albeit unwittingly, the 13-year gap between 2006’s 10,000 Days and 2019’s Fear Inoculum only intensified Tool’s myth. Tours have been similarly sporadic.

None of this is lost on tonight’s spectators, who are already at fever pitch by the time Fear Inoculum’s opening strains fill the room. For the first quarter, the band perform behind a translucent curtain that mirrors the visuals displayed on the towering screens at the back. Something resembling the Eye of Sauron appears to swallow the stage whole, while Keenan prances around the drum riser like a mohawked Gollum.

Mohawked Gollum … Maynard James Keenan.
Mohawked Gollum … Maynard James Keenan. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

On Pneuma, unassuming guitarist Adam Jones and staggeringly talented drummer Danny Carey combine to pulverising effect. When Keenan isn’t singing, he’s marvelling at Carey and trying to tap along to his impossible polyrhythms. Often hitting the 10-minute mark, these are better understood as miniature opuses rather than songs. The Grudge twists and turns from fierce, lunging riffs to ethereal bass passages. Each section receives frenzied, arena-wide roars.

Their track Descending swells with metallic bombast and dazzling guitar work, but it’s Carey’s defiant gong blast that sees it over the peak – emphatically expelling 10 minutes of existential tension. Sometimes it feels like performance for the sake of it, but whether it’s the master musicianship or mesmeric visuals, the sensory assault never lets up.

“It’s been for ever, but it’s great to see you,” Keenan says before closer Invincible. He ponders the band’s shelf life as he sings: “Beating chest and drums / Beating tired bones again.” Doubtless by design, it lurches along to a spectacular, riff-soaked finale. By this point, Carey has abandoned the off-kilter beats in favour of dizzying, incalculable drum fills. Keenan needn’t worry: there’s plenty of life in them yet.

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