A bizarre clash of music fans took place this past summer, when the hotly anticipated, decade-plus return of Tool got Swifties all upset when Maynard and company’s Fear Inoculum banished Taylor Swift’s Lover from the top spot on Billboard after one short week, by far her shortest reign at the number one spot. And in the process, he had a bit of fun with the whole surrealistic aspect of it all. (Predictably, the Swifties got all up in the tweet’s comments.) I didn’t see any TS shirts in the sold-out TD Garden but there were plenty of Tool shirts; these fans couldn’t care less about breaking the soft rule of never wearing the band’s shirt that you’re about to see.
Maynard’s never been a traditional front man, and tonight’s performance would be no different. He’s not one for basking in the spotlight; he’d rather hide in the shadows to the side of drummer Danny Carey, occasionally darting from stage left to right atop two large box structures, his red-tipped mohawk complementing his red and black plaid trousers. Another piece of the stage design that obscured the band was a scrim of thin strands that hung around the edges of the stage, finally removed after several songs were played. They got right down to business with the title track of their last record, Fear Inoculum, a fairly straightforward Tool song that doesn’t stray much from the template. It’s hard to believe they’ve risen to the popularity level they currently enjoy, as the songs are long, complex and often repetitive. A weak parallel to Rush could be made as prog rock is a central source of inspiration to their sound and both are anchored by excellent drummers, but Geddy and company are far better at crafting memorable melodies. Tool’s appeal comes from equal doses of heavy groove (in fact, they could be seen as one of the early progenitors of djent) and a cerebral take on rock music that is fairly unusual. They’ve come a long way since sharing Lollapalooza side stage duties with obscure footnotes in rock history such as Truly, Eggs, Ritual Device or Cell; not bad for a band whose breakthrough song’s video was creepy as fuck and the next single was titled “Prison Sex.”
About the only words Keenan addressed the crowd with was “Dunkin’ Fucking Donuts” in an ersatz Boston accent but people don’t come to Tool shows for the stage banter, and the sounds and visuals provided plenty of fodder for attraction. And undivided attention was abetted by the very strict ‘no phones/photos’ policy, which while a bit draconian offered a pretty nice alternative to small glowing rectangles blocking your vision all night. As noted above, Tool’s music videos are a surreal mix of quasi-humanoid shapes in unsettling situations, and the backdrop was filled with these images for the majority of the show. Sperm-like creatures piercing spheres and blasting fire from their tails, into eyeballs? Check. Tool invite you into their world of sound and imagery, and while it’s frequently inscrutable, it’s never boring.
Post-punk veterans Killing Joke were hand-picked for tour support, continuing Tool’s reputation for selecting interesting bands who would normally never play on that large of a stage. Jaz Coleman is a compelling front man, his white face and blackened eyes providing a counterpoint to Youth’s casual stage attire. Forty years and counting, the original lineup has a lot of songs to pull from but focused mainly on the two self-titled records. I was surprised to not hear “Requiem” or “Wardance,” but “Eighties” from 1985’s Night Time was played, its iconic opening guitar line from Geordie Walker sounding a lot like the inspiration for Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” The main complaint of their set was the sound; it was one of the worst-mixed sets I’ve had the displeasure of sitting through in a long time. Way too much bass, the low end totally dominated the sound and completely drowned out Walker’s dry, acerbic guitar tone which is a pillar of their sound. Tool’s mix sounded great, so I’m not really sure what was going on for Killing Joke’s set.