TOOL’s Melbourne Show Was A Blessing To Metalheads And Bonglords Everywhere

I am eighteen and I am taking a train to the TOOL show. I am twenty-one and I am taking a train to the TOOL show. I am twenty-seven and I am taking a train to the TOOL show. 

That’s a lie. I am twenty-seven and I am taking a train replacement bus to the Tool show. It’s Saturday, February 22, 2020. The trip to Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena has been disrupted by track work, forcing dozens of us, black-clad and anxious, onto a substitute service. We share the trip with Elton John fans. By coincidence, he is playing at the same time as TOOL in a stadium across the road. 

It is 7.30pm and industrial musician Author & Punisher performs before a rapidly-filling arena. I am still on the bus, marooned in traffic. Author & Punisher is an engineer who creates his own instruments, all pistons and levers, which translate brute force into noise. The bus passenger who just sunk a pre-mix rum and coke is now banging on the door and begging the driver to let him off. He needs to use the toilet and isn’t shy about it. He, too, is trapped in a machine, shoving metal and glass, wailing at a captive audience. I consider trading my ticket with a fidgeting Elton John fan as some kind of peace offering.

I’m in the arena, just, as TOOL launch into Fear Inoculum, the title track of their first record in 13 years. I am not wondering if that guy pissed himself. Instead, I am thinking about whether the band’s ardent fans have accepted TOOL’s new material, after decades of decoding, and personally encoding, their hefty back catalogue. 

The band — that is, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor, drummer Danny Carey, and vocalist Maynard James Keenan — build their songs through repetition, deploying fractal mantras which usually terminate with a tectonic riff or a drum blast. It’s those spiraling patterns, that cranked tension and explosive release, which propel TOOL’s acolytes, and the audience is already heaving. Fear Inoculum does not yet have the clockwork familiarity of TOOL’s earlier work. Judging by tonight’s response, it will.

Voices spark up between tracks. “He’s a machine,” says some bloke of Carey, TOOL’s timekeeper and propulsive force. He is a machine, sure, but tonight the machine is also having fun, a descriptor fans wouldn’t often use for TOOL’s music. Carey’s playing is both sledgehammer and scalpel. If it were just him under spotlights, the show would still draw a crowd. At one point, we see exactly that: after a short intermission, Carey returns to the stage, faces a gong, and stands with arms outstretched. He resembles the Vitruvian Man, if Da Vinci sketched him in a full University of Kansas basketball kit. That goofy moment slides into drum solo Chocolate Chip Trip, and Carey wilds out, without fear of overpowering the temporarily absent Jones and Chancellor. 

Image via Duncan Barnes / Frontier Touring

That’s not to say they’re slacking, though. This is, honestly, the best I have ever heard the band. More focused than 2011, more energetic than 2013. Cheers go up for Chancellor’s warbling opener to Schism, a shopworn riff given new urgency at the hands of its creator. Jones’ playing is articulate and churning in equal measure. With their emotional guard shattered by the noise, I watch two men spontaneously hug in front of me; it’s a gesture soon mirrored by Chancellor and Jones, the latter of whom smiles and points to the bassist, drawing more cheers from the crowd. 

I am watching Keenan lurk next to Carey. He crouches and stares. He ventures from his riser to the stage floor, where he picks up one of Jones’ speaker cabs and takes it back upstairs, using it as a throne as the band rumbles beneath him. He has always been the band’s most divisive figure, the impish edge to TOOL’s more esoteric sensibilities. 

His voice is still capable of surprising with its clarity, but it’s what he doesn’t sing which stands out most. On Vicarious, the band’s attack on voyeuristic media consumption, Keenan recites “Killed by the husband… That’s my kind of story / It’s no fun until someone dies.” Yet at the song’s apex, Keenan, stooping and facing the audience, lifts his hand like a sock-puppet to mime “Vicariously I / live while the whole world dies / Much better you than I.” The audience fills in the blanks. I’m unsure if Keenan knows that on Wednesday, one day before TOOL performed in Brisbane, a local woman and her three children were murdered by her estranged partner. If so, I wonder if the news gave him pause — or if he read some recent headlines as the song’s proof of concept.

Image via Duncan Barnes / Frontier Touring

Keenan maintains some distance, ironic or otherwise. TOOL’s lyrics oscillate between the base and attempts at the mystic, but I find Keenan the most compelling when he touches on the personal. Those moments veer between grief and resentment; 2006’s Wings for Marie, a non-believer’s ode to his ailing and deeply religious mother, finds Keenan curbing his more arrogant impulses in search of understanding. And 2019’s Culling Voices, with its sharp rebukes of “Imagined interplay” and “Altercations we’ve never had,” is difficult to read as anything but the response to an anonymous allegation of sexual assault leveled against Keenan in 2018 — an accusation which Keenan has strenuously denied. Those discomfiting moments, hinting at the inner workings of the man hiding under a mohawk, go unheard in the set. Instead, TOOL launch into a graphic fan favourite. As Stinkfist closes out the show, I think I can hear Keenan mocking a fan for having his camera flash on. 

I am eighteen and leaving a TOOL show, worried I ‘missed’ something. I am twenty-one and leaving a TOOL show, feeling guilty for nodding off during an extended interlude. I am twenty-seven and leaving a TOOL show, side-stepping buoyant Elton John fans and celebratory clouds of weed smoke. I am thinking about the two heshers I saw in opposite stalls, thrashing out above the stage, finding communion across the arena and feeling some sacred pattern repeat itself.