A friend and I are amongst a stream of people migrating towards the Brisbane convention centre on a Monday night. Night fell during the train ride out from the city, a long trip that must have lasted at least 40 minutes. Generalisations incoming: Tool fans are easily picked out: white male, black t-shirt, jeans. Some are surprisingly accompanied by girls, who are either clammy brunettes or pirate hooker imitating types. This is my first Tool concert but I have some idea what to expect, and I don’t really want to talk to the other fans. There is a level of excitement in the air but it’s strangely restrained and these people are strangely quiet. We all sort of journey silently towards the venue, all knowing why we’re coming and all focused on what’s ahead.
Tool is a band I’ve always enjoyed privately. The music demands that approach. You can’t really sing along to it and you can’t dance to it. It sucks you into a thoughtful trance which you don’t pull out of until the song closes. It’s psychologically manipulative and it toys with the listener on a base level. Deciphering that has always been a source of joy for me. Every person’s interpretation of the songs is different. The lyrics, often vague and open to wide interpretation attract people with a diverse range of opinions and outlooks.
The show is divided into two parts with an intermission in between. At first I find myself incredibly distracted by everything that was going on – the lights, the screens, the general atmosphere, the people sitting next to me, the people in the pit. It’s hard to follow all of it at once. Or maybe that’s just the ADD from the large coffee I had just drank. The band starts and it barely pauses, there isn’t a down moment. If you missed what Maynard just said or still hadn’t swallowed the visuals of that last song you were lost. The band marches forward without you.
The rhythm of the music is hugely jarring. Danny Carey’s drumming is near impossible to time yourself to. Adam Jones screeching, gyrating notes seem to form their own words. Justin bounces back and forth in his place, his bass forming the dark undercurrent. Maynard’s vocal tones change from song to song, both electronically and naturally, and he swaps words around, and sometimes he’s barely understood. Because my ear is accustomed to the album versions I find myself mentally deconstructing the live versions, comparing footnotes into how they are different, how the band is performing, how Maynard’s voice is doing. While concentrating on that my mind is also being bent by the visuals projected on huge screens that all but dwarf the band, and which also do not move along in time with the music, so what you’re seeing on that screen toys with your natural sense of rhythm, which is I said before, is already being screwed with.
The high point for me in the first section was when the band wound back a gear and performed one of their slowest songs. Pink glitter showered down from the roof as spotlights and lasers of every colour beamed across the stadium. For me that is when Tool really transcends itself, when the jarring rhythms give way to more reflective fare. The song with its themes of human evolution and personal willpower brings Tool into a zone of pause, a timeout. It feels more personal and much more like classical storytelling, but on a huge, awe inspiring scale with visuals to match.
But, like my friend reminds me, Tool is a metal band and people don’t come to see Tool to get nice stories told to them.
After intermission and some much needed food we return to our seats ready and waiting. I find myself sinking into the atmosphere now and loosening up. The band runs through their most explosive and powerful songs, and nails them. The crowd loves it. There is barley a pause in the second set, aside from Maynard’s jokes. The band closes spectacularly in green lasers and swirling fog. The crowd gives a standing ovation and huge applause.
The next day on the train ride back to the airport I start thinking about the fans of the music. The guy sitting next to me didn’t speak much before the show, and while the band was playing he tapped his foot occasionally and mouthed silently along to the words. He was enjoying it in his own way but I couldn’t help but think that he was a victim to all the pitfalls and tragedies that Maynard so completely describes, in a sense fulfilling some kind of destiny.
Tool is a great experience. The band continues to fascinate its fans and it continues to mess with their heads. It’s a band that is equally as worshiped as it is misunderstood. The music is an elaborate construction meshing art, sound and psychology. I’ve tried to sum the band up with a phrase or a short description before but I’ve never been able to get it. The band remains dark and ethereal, hard to explain and difficult to pass on to new listeners. Even now, trying to bring this article to a close, I’m struggling to find an encompassing closing statement. The band leaves the mind open, as if waiting for more information to come through. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe that’s the psychology of the thing. We’re given enough to open our minds up, but never enough to close it again. An interesting thought.
What will be the next thing that challenges us? That makes us go farther and work harder? You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers we touched the face of God.
"They’re just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response… Shall we continue?"
Claude VonStroke - Eastern Market. Best enjoyed with headphones.