Tool to hammer eardrums

Los Angeles quartet Tool has released merely five albums, one extended player and one box set in the 30 years since its recorded debut in 1992. The album that the band is only now able to tour, 2019’s “Fear Inoculum,” took 13 years to complete. For a metal band, even a so-called progressive one, its output is not exactly prolific, and tours have been similarly sporadic. Still, a short European tour will see them at Papp László Budapest Sportaréna on May 24.

Budapest will follow shows in Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, Berlin, Krakow, Antwerp and Prague. Before these, the band’s show at AO Arena in Manchester on May 3 was its first non-festival UK date in almost 15 years, save for a performance at Download 2019 in Leicestershire. Their concerts are described as intense and brooding, and the visuals are said to be mesmeric.

For the first quarter of their shows, the band performs behind a translucent curtain that mirrors the visuals displayed on the towering screens at the back. Something resembling the Eye of Sauron – Sauron being the primary antagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” – appears to swallow the stage whole, while singer Maynard James Keenan prances around the drum riser like a mohawked Gollum.

Tool formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1990, the line-up comprising Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey. They emerged with a heavy metal sound on their first album, “Undertow”, in 1993, and became a dominant act in the alternative metal movement with the release of the second effort, “Ænima”, in 1996.

When grunge faded and nu-metal began to rip through rock’s hierarchy in the mid-1990s, 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. They endeavoured to unify musical experimentation, visual arts and a message of personal evolution. The objective continued with “Lateralus” (2001) and “10,000 Days” (2006), bringing the band critical acclaim and international commercial success. Albeit unwittingly, the 13-year gap between “10,000 Days” and “Fear Inoculum”, the fifth studio album, only intensified Tool’s myth.

This newest album garnered further general praise. Before its release, Tool had sold more than 13 million albums in the United States, plus worldwide sales. Their albums have topped charts in several countries and they have snared four Grammy awards and toured the world. “7empest”, the longest song on “Fear Inoculum” at 15 minutes and 44 seconds, is the longest song to win a Grammy, scooping the award for Best Metal Performance at the 62nd ceremony in 2020.

Tool began writing “Fear Inoculum” a decade ago and worked on it in fits and starts over the years. In concert they play nearly the entire album – a dense collection of seven lengthy songs that span nearly 80 minutes – devoting more than half of the show to the new material. Or at least most of it is new, as Tool began playing two of the songs, “Descending” and “Chocolate Chip Trip,” in concert long before they were officially released.

Per usual, Keenan spends the evening delivering his salvos while lurking in the shadows on two small, darkened platforms at the rear wings of the stage behind drummer Carey. He is deep in focus over the lyrics he wrote. Guitarists Jones and Chancellor stand up front but are focused on their instruments rather than the audience. The main non-musical entertainment comes from the series of trippy, custom films shown on the large screen behind the band.

A stringed veil wraps around the entire front of the stage, not only sheltering the musicians but, according to at least one critic, also blunting the essential visual effect of the videos. Jones and Chancellor stand at the outskirts of front stage, with Jones especially reticent of the rare spot that comes their way.

This focus on the music and visual spectacle, rather than the personalities on stage, echoes many prog rock acts from the 1970s. Tool’s complex songs are said to draw plenty of inspiration from acts such as King Crimson and Pink Floyd but add a much darker, at times nihilistic, mood. Although there are flashes of twisted wit in Tool’s music, they’re far from a feel-good band.

The songs mostly clock in close to 10 minutes. In just over two hours running time for a concert, not counting a 12-minute intermission, the band normally plays only 13 “tunes”.

As said, Tool’s musicians are not ones to lap up the spotlight on stage. The four band members range in age from 50 to 60 and are perfectly content to write, record and perform music completely on their own terms. In 1994, Carey said the band name stands for how they want their music to be a “tool” to aid in understanding lachrymology. Lachrymology is the art of crying as a type of therapy.

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