1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore 06-08-07
For me, Tool is something of an experience. Sure, the atmospherics and mystical content are retarded at first glance, but there is much more depth in Tool’s music than most credit. I’m mostly talking about writers over at Pitchfork and Stylus who leap at the opportunity to cut an hour of writing time by pasting failing grades on the band’s albums and not much else. I can understand not liking modern metal, but reading verbose jargon about how Tool is somehow the epitome of shit because they aren’t an Englishman with crooked teeth and a Rickenbacker is particularly grating. Tool is a lesser Led Zeppelin, not only because of the mystique and lyrical content, but because Tool is a band of four musical virtuosos. Adam Jones is a modern hero of the rock guitar, pulling more effects out of limited pedals than magician’s tricks out of a hat. Danny Carey can pound drums like a Ben Hur slave-driver on speed. Justin Chancellor can make his bass sound like a screaming guitar, synth funk machine, or metal factory at the turn of a beat. And Maynard James Keenan can bellow out so much disgust, loathing, and incendiary blast furnace rage that he could make it an Olympic event.
Tool has amassed a gigantic following over the course of its fifteen-year career, mostly because they don’t give a fuck about modern rock convention. Even if they milk the King Crimson prog machine a bit too much at times, they have still been able to reach fans and get radio play with 7 minute songs (generally their shortest). They can attract everyone from modern thrash and ’80s metalheads to preppy indie dorks like me who listen to hours of R.E.M. and Sonic Youth in between office job stints. The Baltimore show was one of the first in a new wave of touring the band is doing to promote its album 10,000 Days which was released in May, 2006.
The 1st Mariner Arena has the feel of a high school gym with its shower-tiled corridors and bare cement. It’s a small arena, one which I felt would be bursting at the seams after the band put its tickets on sale there. After arriving half an hour ahead of schedule, we actually lucked out in getting moved to seats in the middle concourse. Apparently sales were not as high so as to require the upper seating tier.
The opener was Melt-Banana, a furiously jarring noise rock/hardcore band out of Tokyo that couldn’t be in a more hostile concert environment. Most Tool fans who attend shows are people who would listen to pretty much anything played by a man with a beard two feet long and a reverence for Sabbath and Randy Rhoads. It’s truly bizarre how much thrash metal fans hate hardcore, even though the two are basically bastard children of their rock parents. I’ve come to the conclusion that these metal-ites are the only music fans left who adamantly resist acknowledging that rock and roll has an androgynous, bisexual quality to it. You don’t have to be talking about Marc Bolan to admit that everyone from Zeppelin to Nirvana has elements of boys being feminine. To modern metal fans though, punk is faggy shit, classic rock isn’t angry enough, art rock is too hard to understand, and electronica generally sucks balls. I don’t hold any kind of overt derision for these people, but the no-necked, Doritos and video games-fueled lardasses who wear black shirts with evil clowns on them are the kind of people who were sold on the Iraq war because of the Godsmack soundtrack.
I can’t get into hardcore. I bought Zen Arcade, a kind of mythical Magna Carta of the style and I still can’t listen to it all the way through, despite its accolades. And although I like their genre, I cannot tolerate noise rock bands that I have not previously baptized myself with in the comfort of my own room. So, coupled with the universal hate emanating from all sides and my prejudices about their musical style, I was hoping for Melt-Banana to leave as soon as possible. Of the three times I have seen Tool, the band has had pretty dismal openers. Fantomas in 2001 and Isis in 2006 were achingly poor live no matter how effective they are in the studio. I suppose it made the main act all the more powerful, but the opening hour was nonetheless a chore. As the sweaty morons next to me were shouting out “you suck” and something about Japanese women only being good for one thing, I was certainly ready for the main L.A. quartet to suit up and steer us through the night.
The turnout was not all that impressive at first, at least not compared to the other packed sessions I’ve experienced with Tool in indoor arenas. I later came to realize that this poor showing was due to one third of the ticket holders milling about and drinking Bud Light in the corridors, or else loitering on the streets of Baltimore to wait out the opening act. Nonetheless, we still decided to move toward a better vantage point so that we could see the white screens behind the stage more effectively. We settled into a large, vacant section and waited out the charring blasts of sound coming from the stage below. When the sound crew was changing sets, the seats around our section started to fill in. In a combination of dehydration and indifference, we made no attempt to move and figured waiting it out would yield promising results. Finally, around 9:00, the lights went out.
There are very few modern arena bands that draw this amount of crowd noise. A once complacent sea of black tees and fugly hair suddenly came to life below, like some undulating carpet of movement. The tidal wave of sound was overpowering, something I thought, if channeled, could probably solve the energy crisis. Chancellor in his warm-ups and shaggy Mike Inez hair took his position followed by the Viking-esque Carey with his usual basketball jersey. Stoic Jones strode in his unassuming manner to his post. Finally, the diminutive, demon-voiced Keenan took up the rear with his characteristic cowboy hat and blue jeans topped with a red hoodie. After soaking in the battle cry of the surrounding crowd, the band launched into the relentless second track off of 10,000 Days, “Jambi.”
Usually Tool opens with “Stinkfist,” a thunderous amalgam of crushing sound and riding dynamics that is best described as a runaway Amtrack plowing through main street. This time, it was the second song, and followed Keenan’s biting jibe about it being dedicated to a recently jailed Paris Hilton. Though the song’s meaning is debatable, one cannot exactly shake the lyrical imagery of a sex junkie getting fisted one too many times in one too many orifices. Well, at least you’re going to lady jail, Paris.
Three songs into the set I realized that we were about to get ousted from our new abode. A frumpy-haired teen who looked like he kept porn in his saxophone case and went to school wearing socks with dried semen still on them tottered up with his equally goofy friend. After mustering the courage for five minutes or so at the advice of two nearby meatheads, he finally told us to get the fuck out of his seats. Rather than tell him to find a better seat (there were still about 300 empties) like we had done, I chose to go back to our side-view theater with the guys who smelled like armpit liquor. In my mind I was formulating some bygone comeback essentially telling him to go fuck himself for coming to the main event 25 minutes late and demanding a seat like it was an inheritance.
You can’t help but gyrate, buck, and headbang furiously at a Tool concert. I’ve been described as looking way too stoned while at musical events, lolling my head dreamily and swaying in the breeze like a weathervane. But Tool is another story. There’s something primal about the merciless charge of Carey’s drums and Chancellor’s evil bass that shoots invisible chains in you and makes you spasm, like some kind of Clive Barker sadomasochism. It was bloody hot in there. After a 96 degree day (probably 100 in the city), a couple thousand sweaty-ass dudes and goth girls can add up to create a jungle of steam and stink. As the band took a breather before soaring into the sister songs, “Wings for Marie (Pt 1)” and “10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)”, I found myself sinking into a seat, exhausted and as wet as a slip-and-slide.
Five minutes and a half gallon of drinking fountain later, I was back in my seat for the laser show to accompany the two songs. These tracks are arguably Keenan’s most personal, recounting the struggle of his late mother who suffered a stroke in the 1980s and was left paralyzed as a result. The vibrating synthesizer and Jones’ swirling guitar constructed a song that was both intensely individual and genuinely emotional.
I was a little irritated with the timing of the band on certain tracks. Sometimes Chancellor’s bass would outpace the drums (a big no no) or Keenan’s voice would lag behind the rhythms. I couldn’t tell if it was the shoddy acoustics, technical problems, or miscues, but it was very much apparent. When you have a wall of sound pounding your eardrums that has been carefully crafted in the studio in an almost obsessive Metallica-esque way, then you need it to fit properly into place.
The high point (like the other two times), was the performance of the wide, epic “Lateralus.” Every Tool fan knows this song. It was the penultimate performance in this particular show, preceding “Vicarious.” With its opening march of Jones’ clean, delayed progressions and Carey’s thunder thump, it flew joyously out to its crushing power chord conclusion. Behind the band, images of geometric trippiness and fractalized evolution unfolded to create a backdrop of color, light, and movement.
Tool is a band that has remained dedicated to delivering a level of quality to fans that has remained high for the past decade and a half. A former Stan Winston effects man, a Midwesterner accepted to West Point, a sessions drummer fascinated with the occult, and a Norwegian born rhythm wizard make for odd bedfellows. Fifteen years later, the combination is still as potent as it ever was.