Tool delivers a crushingly cinematic night at Staples Center

Tool at Staples Center in October (Photo by Josh Beavers)

Throughout the drudgery of a long tour, a few shows will stand out above all the rest. When the members of Tool reflect upon what occurred at the Staples Center on Sunday, they’ll get warm-and-fuzzies at how they were received by the rapturous audience that witnessed their first L.A. show in nine years. 

This was a home game for Tool, and they were playing with a lead. The first of a two-night home stand saw them play four songs from their latest release, “Fear Inoculum,” with the rest of the set heavy in career retrospective. The aged warhorses “Sober” and “Prison Sex” didn’t make the cut, and just as well. Newer material — “Pneuma,” “Chocolate Chip Trip” and “Invincible” from the new album — is far more representative of the current band than the Tool of yore, a bunch of film geeks surviving in the bowels of Hollywood in the early ’90s.

The evening’s festivities started fast and furious, with a group of veteran Englishmen called Killing Joke doing the honors. In penning them as the opener, Tool was paying respect to a band that had been on the forefront in the early days, and thus more influential than popular. The prototypical post-punk band has left a wake of their dominion far and wide. Be it industrial, metal, industrial metal, punk, post-punk, Jaz Coleman and the lads delivered a furious set that was a fitting precursor to the overwhelming show Tool was to deliver. Unfortunately, there were many fans roaming the hallways during their set, ignorant to the fact that they were missing out on seeing a band that drew up much of the blueprint. Having seen Killing Joke play in much smaller venues over the past two years, it was a revelation to see them in an arena setting, where like a fine, vintage glass of wine, they were allowed to breathe. Geordie Walker’s battered Gibson ES-295 rang out loud and true.

Tool opened with the title track to “Fear Inoculum,” an album that stunned the mainstream (and Taylor Swift fans) when it burst forth at No. 1 on the Billboard chart on the initial week of its release. The opening cello-like progression moved like a fog over Danny Carey’s playful Middle Eastern meanderings. Building in intensity, the jester appeared from the shadows, in spikey mohawk and punk tartan pants. Yes, it seems as though the band was able to pry Maynard James Keenan from his vineyards long enough to do a proper tour.

Tool are deeply hypnotic and formulaic. They are a one-trick dressage horse that is mastered in every competitive versammlung. Yes, there is a screaming contradiction there, and that is what makes Tool such an inherently interesting band. Pounding one signature sound at a crowd for 135 minutes should be mundane and tiring. And yet Tool was just the opposite. It was enthralling, disturbing, uplifting and crushing. Like the best bands, they take you on a journey, but with these guys you’re going to outer space inside your physical being. And that is special.

Like the best prog bands, they don’t overwhelm the ears with incessant unnecessary noodling. Initially, guitarist Adam Jones comes across as a conservative player, but after a time you can deconstruct the insanely complex chord structures he’s playing around even more complex rhythmic structures. Not flashy or showy, he simply crunches his drop D chunka-chunk with the sort of mastery that you’d expect from a fine craftsman. He has the unassuming demeanor of that cool high school calculus teacher you knew who played in a metal band at night. 

Jones is an extraordinarily talented man, as he’s not only wielding the axe, he is responsible for the band’s elaborate and intense visual signature. With a lighting rig that simultaneously resembled a megachurch and “War of the Worlds,” Jones’ cinematic set served as the backdrop for a retina searing display of power and glory.

Let’s be truthful, if not for the lights and film, Tool would be about as interesting as watching paint dry. Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor are hardly glam rockers, and Maynard prefers to supplant himself far above the fray, alternating from risers on either side of Carey. Gone are the confrontational years of crazy wigs, fake breasts, plumage and heels, this Maynard is about the emotive quality of his vocals, which now display a feminine tenderness and vulnerability alongside a roar that mates with the disturbing visuals of emaciated sex pests and festering wounds. Jones is an auteur when it comes to the music video, marrying their strain with all sorts of extraordinary imagery. There is liquid fire and molten water, there are splashes of DNA and stardust, there are sperm and ovum, plasma and dermis, maggots and leeches, shapeshifters, djinns, succubus, skinwalkers and, oh my … all a reminder that indeed, nature is so metal.

If Ginger Baker was a metal drummer, he would have been Danny Carey. Clad in his finest Lakers gold and looking so much like that lumbering lurching white guy 12th man power forward the coach sends in to foul the other team’s best player, Carey was actually the deft point guard by which the offense flowed. Tool is a metal band that twirls their audience with a variance of ragas, dirges, and 6/8, 5/4, 9/8, 13/16, 27/16 time signatures that make you just surrender if you’re vainly attempting to drum along. 

Chancellor is the least spoken of, but his signature rubber band tone and lockstep mating with Carey are paramount to their incessant and brutal tone.

Like the best of their ilk, if one closes their eyes and listens to the structure of the composition, one can easily imagine a world class symphony replicating these songs. They have the grueling heaviness and cacophony of Wagner, with undercurrents of the most delicate nomadic and melodic plot twists of Mahler. With the relatively meager output of five albums over 26 years, they’ve chosen to approach their career on the idea of quality over quantity, and their audience worships them for it.

Tool is in the midst of a 27-date U.S. tour that sees them finish in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25.