It’s the rare arena-filling band whose singer avoids the center stage and a spotlight for the entire two-hour concert. But Tool are that atypical group who manages to make a show work on their own terms, curating an experience that, on this night, began with a “no photo” policy, skipped one of their most popular songs —1993’s “Sober” — and concluded with an on-stage guest during “Stinkfist” — Alex Grey, an esoteric visionary artist whose videos and artwork comprise an important part of the Tool story — who was largely motionless.
Grey’s oeuvre, “spiritual renewal through contemplation of transformative art,” dovetails perfectly with Tool’s own unstated mission: a musical and visual immersion that’s a psychological, spiritual and aural deep dive — with doses of sly wordplay — that, on paper, might seem to have limited appeal. Yet the packed arena proved the singular approach worked numerous levels.
The quartet — singer Maynard James Keenan, drummer Danny Carey, guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor — kicked off the show with the title track from their recent, 13-years-in-the-making “Fear Innoculum” album. The release itself is an anomaly: the 86-minute conceptual-leaning epic debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in September, knocking off Taylor Swift off the top spot.
Keenan, in plaid pants and sporting a Mohawk, alternated singing from risers on either side of Carey’s drum kit, with the intended effect of making each bandmember equally important. Diaphanous stage curtains in front of the band and the screen behind provided the backdrop for the hypnotic projections, which, according to the song, ranged from scenarios featuring H.R. Giger-esque figures, stop-motion animation, creepy “Slender Man” images and a pulsating psychedelic red miasma.
Drummer Carey is a powerfully creative backbone for Tool, who, not unlike influences and former tour mates King Crimson, utilized powerful, precise and progressive rhythms to often-mesmerizing effect, with bassist Chancellor his perfect aural foil and companion. While the more amorphous songs went over surprisingly well, it was the tunes with more singalong potential that whipped the on-its-feet crowd into ecstasy: 1996’s “Aenima,” (a portmanteau of enema and anima) rocked, as it lyrically addressed the band’s early era, coming up alongside friends Rage Against the Machine in the post-hair-metal era: “I sure could use a vacation from this bullshit three-ring circus sideshow / Of freaks here in this hopeless f—ing hole we call L.A.”
Other highlights included the Grammy-nominated “The Pot,” and the earliest cut of the night, 1992’s “Part of Me,” which, Kennan told the audience, was written before anyone under 30 in the crowd was born. Yet Tool’s music proved ultimately timeless, even as they’ve segued from (slightly) more traditional metal-leaning rock to, on “Fear Innoculum,” often personally triumphant lyrics, and instrumental segues that include ocean and bird sounds. Keenan is deservedly renowned for his deliberate and unique phrasing; stretching words into multiple syllables and his wide vocal range. While some vocal subtleties were lost in an arena setting, the frontman’s delivery was at once passionate yet technically uber-precise, a trademark all Tool members share.
Instead of a traditional encore, the band left the stage after the rhythmically challenging “46+2” (a song that may or may not be about a chromosomal deviation initially posited by Carl Jung) and a countdown clock set at 12 minutes appeared on the screen. Carey led the band back onstage with a typically atypical drum solo: standing in front of a huge gong to perform the “Chocolate Chip Trip,” one of several instrumentals from “Fear Inoculum.” For the last song of the three-tune encore, Keenan made sure that Tool artist-inspiration Grey — who the New York Times praised as a psychedelic realist with a “clinical approach to cosmic consciousness” — received his due, putting the 65-year-old’s name on the screen as Grey sat side stage during the nearly six-minute song. It was also the only moment in the show where Keenan told Barclays’ security to “stand down” to allow the audience to record or take photos. The sudden influx of phones held aloft provided a sharp contrast to the previous rapt, screen-free audience.
Though Tool has only released five albums over its nearly 30-year history — Keenan is also in Pusifer and A Perfect Circle, lauded side projects — the band has consistently challenged rock conventions, lyrically and musically, while managing to appeal to rock, metal and prog-rock fans. A Tool show can be enjoyed prima facie, or, as befits the band’s own creative process, with a deep, protracted dive. Either way, Tool triumphs.