Having waited many years for Tool to do a Birmingham show, I took whatever Ticketmaster could offer me in the inevitable crush for tickets in order to honour my teenage self’s love of their difficult, rewarding prog-metal. Packing mountaineer’s kit, I began the climb to my seat at the very back of the National Exhibition LG Genting Retorts Hurled Arena, in the knowledge that by the time this goes up it’ll have changed names again.
Openers Brass Against are an absolute treat: a rock band with a multitude of brass instruments, doing brilliant covers (and one original): Kashmir, Bulls On Parade, My Own Summer (Shove It) to name a few. The brass also extends to their necks: they win the crowd instantly with superb covers of Tool’s own Stinkfist and Forty Six & Two, and tease the intro of Lateralus before launching into a spirited cover of Killing In the Name.
Sometimes unfairly dismissed as archetypal narcolepsy-inducing snob-prog, Tool’s music is unabashedly hard to get into and truly appreciate. Labyrinthian, complex grooves and patterns can sound underwhelmingly nothing-y and inspire only indifference on the first listen, but over time become great cathedrals and awe-inspiring widescreen tapestries of sound. Like a bleak metal Zeppelin/Floyd midpoint, the average song can be at once pulverisingly heavy, hypnotically repetitive and complex without losing essential emotion and expression.
Unfortunately, tonight all of this is turded-over by a PA system that BBBVVVVMMZZZZZDDDs every few seconds, so as soon as any real intensity is reached it BVVVMMDDDZ under the FNNNNZZZZ of the MMMMMMMMMZZZZZZ, turning an otherwise gob-smacking presentation of real musical art into an endurance test. It continues throughout the entire FFFFFFFFFFFFing set, blessedly absent for the acidic humour of Hooker With a Penis, then returning for the encore.
Another sore point is Tool’s long-held no-camera policy, with posters taped all over the venue (even in the men’s – very absorbent). Them’s the rules, but if the point is apparently to protect the audience’s immersion in the show (fair), then putting the bloody stage times on the posters as well would stop a good chunk of the audience trying to get back from the bar while the band try to unfurl new album Fear Inoculum’s title track as an opener.
Ancient single Sober then swings in and is a pleasant surprise, accompanied by the usual Tool nightmarish stop-motion imagery. Danny Carey’s drumming punctures your kidneys at a distance and is impressively complex, Adam Jones’s signature guitar tone is still searing and retains its ultra-dry crunch, Justin Chancellor’s bass still sounds atmospheric and unique.
The main set continues with a generous run through choice back catalogue cuts, with the jarring realisation that when previous LP 10,000 Days came out, mobile phones could barely take a picture anyway. Nevertheless, Right in Two reaches out across the packed Arena with grace and power, and the deathless emotional climax of Pushit is superbly rendered and is nostalgic, futuristic and timeless all at once.
Through it all, singer Maynard James Keenan lurks behind the band in darkness, still proving an utterly sincere and captivating narrator and reaching for an impressive number of old high notes. Only The Grudge and The Pot appear in downtuned form, with the pleasant bonus of making them sound heavier. A dullard’s observation yes, but it is another reminder not only of the age of these songs and Maynard’s impressive ability to still belt them out, but of how long we’ve all waited to hear them. ‘It’s been a minute since we were last here,’ he quips appreciatively, ‘So thank you all for coming’.
Other new ‘uns Pneuma and Descending are deployed amongst the main set, and nestle in with the oldies perfectly well. A ten-minute timer counts down the break before the encore (paradoxically only visible to us who have stayed in our seats – those who have nipped to the bar again can’t see it in order to know how long they have left, effectively rendering it useless), before a trio of other new tracks close the night: drummer Carey’s Chocolate Chip Trip solo, Culling Voices and the rare sight of the whole band grouped together at the front of the stage for its beginning, and Invincible’s potentially metaphorical tale of an ageing fighter reflecting on the loss of youth.
Ever a self-contained phenomenon, Tool are still a testament to the slow rise and organic growth of real artistry in music. Utterly uncompromising and brimming with sheer power and quality, it’s tragic that this is their first run of UK dates since 2007 – yet even if we have to wait another 15 years, the imprint of tonight’s experience will not fade in the minds of the gathered for a long, long time.
Review – James Stokes
Photograph courtesy of Speakeasy PR