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Time and again, Tool have proven themselves masters of the album format, crafting cinematic records that ensnare the listener in their atmosphere. To achieve this effect, the recordings are dense and textured, combining virtuosic instrumentation with exploratory songcraft. Recreating this musical experience in the live setting is no easy task; however, Tool have proven themselves to be just as captivating live as they are in the studio. When the band release a new album, they always tour it extensively, employing the surgically precise musicianship demanded by the songs while retaining the moods and atmospherics of their recordings.
Tool enjoy one of the most devout followings in music in part because they bring this expectation of perfection to all aspects of their brand — and especially their live shows. The captivating impressionism of Tool’s material comes not just from the music itself, but from the artwork, the words, the mysteries, and the subversion of their artistry. The band challenge the listener to look inward, to approach the music spiritually and viscerally. Whether through the aid of ambiguous visuals or the diversion of rock and roll tropes, Tool manage to conjure the emotions and meditation of hearing their records when you see them live, bridging the chasm often felt between performer and audience. The band offer you the chance to experience the song with them, as they play it, entering into their world and their art.
Early in their career, Tool didn’t have the massive stage sets they do now. Playing smaller clubs and venues, the separation between band and audience was much thinner. Prior to his notoriety as a shy frontman, performing his parts in the darkest corners of the stage, vocalist Maynard James Keenan could be seen shirtless, channeling Nick Cave circa The Birthday Party. It was provocative and almost sexual, yet not self-aggrandizing or macho like the typical rock and roll frontman of the post-grunge era. Nor did it actively seek to distract from the performance. Instead, it seemed to fit with the sinister alternative metal of Tool’s early years.
As Tool’s status grew through extensive touring and the success of 1996’s Ænima, the band graduated to bigger stages with more versatility for creative freedom. With the ability to apply visuals to their performances, Tool took cues from the prog-rock legends that came before them such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, bringing an impressive and utilitarian light show to their headlining sets. Thus, Tool gained the ability to visually cast the moods and ambiguity of their aesthetic in the live setting. It wasn’t just cool lighting; it was how that lighting was implemented.
Eschewing the stadium rock tropes of pyrotechnics and the glitz of the spotlight, Tool used their visuals to actively divert attention from themselves. In an effort to escape into the emotions of the song, Keenan began to sing in the darker recesses of the stage, facing his bandmates and often turning away from the crowd as a means of artistic refuge. Guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor often appeared as silhouettes, the lights being more a feast for the eyes than a means of illuminating the musicians. These traits continue to define Tool’s concerts, as the band puts the focus on the music itself.
As documented on the 2000 live album Salival, Tool are an airtight and intensely rehearsed unit. There’s little room for error in a Tool song. Rhythmic cadence and repetition are vital to the psychedelic, trance-like effect their music creates — especially on their post-Ænima output, which further embraces lengthy prog-rock epics. Yet, drummer Danny Carey is liable to add percussive flourishes and accents not included on the studio recordings. Jones never strays too far from the source material, but occasionally an alternate syncopation on a riff or solo offers a twist for astute listeners. The version of “Pushit” from Salival is arguably the finest example of the band’s live prowess, building to a kinetic grandeur that’s subdued on the studio version. These live renditions feed the band’s most devout fans with satisfying variations on tracks they’ve heard countless times, leading to Tool shows being taped and traded in the online bootleg circuit. Although the band have only issued one proper full-length live album, audience recordings from throughout their career reveal a band that is constantly pushing itself to perfect its studio material in the live setting.
The band just began their extensive North American tour in support of the long-awaited Fear Inoculum, and songs from the album are gradually seeping into setlists. Aside from Keenan’s ever-changing hair style, Tool remain consistent in their live approach. They entreat concertgoers to experience their songs and the sonic worlds they create rather than fall back on forced stage antics and props. They might be playing stadiums, but Tool is anything but a stadium rock band in the traditional sense, subverting cliché in favor of theatrical minimalism and a respect for the captivating nature of their own music.
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