TOOL: Carrying the Psychedelic Torch

6 02 2012

We’re really excited to welcome another brand new writer to SUGAR -N- THUNDER: Ignas Bautrenas! An avid concertgoer and music lover, Ignas is going to crank out some killer show reviews for SNT, and we can’t think of a better band to kick it all off with than the psychedelic experience that is none other than TOOL live!

To experience the magic of TOOL has been on my bucket list ever since the sophomore year of high school. I say “to experience” because this alternative quartet from Los Angeles, California has always been notorious for using impressive visuals during their concerts and emphasizing the importance of the live performance to the overall artistic theme of the band. In simple terms – their show and the mystique surrounding it is an experience that is never the same twice. I had never been a fan of metal, and that is a category that TOOL frequently gets dumped into. However upon listening to their third studio album Lateralus back in 2001 I was struck by how different this haunting music was from anything else I had ever heard before. I became a fan, but I never had the chance to see them for myself until tonight…

February 1st of 2012: TOOL is storming at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey for nearly two whole hours.

First of all I would like to apologize for the lack of authentic footage. Usually the “No Cameras!” notice on the ticket gets treated as a joke, but not this time. The doors to IZOD Center opened up extra early and security drilled each and every single person stepping inside. No cameras, not even the small pocket ones. No drinks from the outside. Nothing dangerous, not even a wallet chain. And absolutely no drugs. Everyone found with any of these has to either throw it out or walk back to their car and leave it there. This is no joke and leaves me disappointed. I was looking forward to snapping quite a few pictures of the lasers and the band submerged within them, but that can’t happen. I guess I’ll have to do it next time, when TOOL come to New York City and security will be less uptight about it.

Inside – overpriced merchandise and overpriced beer. This is another stab, but it is rather expected from a gigantic venue that normally hosts sporting events and thousands of thirsty fans. Remember the prices at New York’s own Madison Square Garden? Everyone agrees it’s a bit too much, but oh well, Budweiser is not why I came here anyways.

The openers Yob, a doom metal band from Eugene, Oregon composed of two bassists and a drummer starts around 7:45pm and plays a short 40-minute set. All I can say is that this collective would probably be a whole lot more impressive in a small venue. I want to hear the details of their heavy droning sound, but lack of good acoustics don’t allow me to. But they are an opening band after all, so the soundboard operator has to make their performance less rather than more. On this particular night Yob is simply not equipped enough for the massive space of IZOD Center, but I do hope to see them perform again in a smaller and more intimate venue.

The break is short. The lines at the beer vendors had now quadrupled in length and width and the floor of the men’s bathroom is stained with blood.

Nobody knows what happened there.

Half an hour passes by. The stage gets cleared from Yob’s equipment and the lights dim.

And there they are.

Danny Carey sits behind the drums, Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor pick up the guitar and the bass respectively, and the short instrumental intro explodes into the first track of the night – “Hooker With a Penis.”

Only then I spot the one who most of the people are here for. The charismatic singer Maynard James Keenan is not a traditional frontman. He’s hidden somewhere in the shadows between Adam Jones and Danny Carey’s drumset. He cannot be seen clearly, but he knows every single pair of eyes at IZOD Center is looking at him. He claims that every single live performance of his is a spiritual experience for him and he chooses to concentrate on delivery instead of bathing in the spotlight. He remains in the dark for most of the show making weird gestures and straining his vocal chords. He is heard much more than seen.

“Hooker With a Penis” is followed by “Jambi” from the band’s latest studio effort 10,000 Days, and “Jambi” is followed by the infamous “Stinkfist” – a tune that haunted the MTV playlist in the mid-nineties. This chilling song lasts a lot longer than it does on the record. In fact that can be said about every track TOOL plays tonight. Improvisations and the dynamics these musicians are capable of are impressive to say the least.

With “Stinkfist” the first wave of psychedelic imagery emerges on the backdrop and the side-screens. The images of cold, white faces familiar from the aforementioned video clip color an entire stage, then turn to red. The rippling ribcage known from the cover of TOOL’s debut Undertow emerges as “Stinkfist” is followed by the only track from the debut album – “Sober.”

Where Yob lacked, TOOL overcompensates. The sound is crystal clear, even for such earthshakers as “Pushit” and “Schism,” the latter being the track I was looking forward to the most.

The spotlights turn onto the sea of heads all mesmerized with what’s happening on stage. Only then it occurs to me to look around, and I see the positive aspect of this strict “No Cameras!” policy. Nowadays every concert attendee is glued to the lit screens of his or her camera and forgets to actually live within the moment. This is not the case tonight. With their hands and eyes unoccupied the crowd is actually watching and experiencing, instead of trying to capture that experience.

Whereas TOOL is famous for the psychedelic visuals, their fans are just as infamous for consuming large quantities of mind-altering drugs before, during, and after the gig. But tonight because of the strict security policy there’s significantly less marijuana smoking and mushroom eating, thus explaining those enormous lines at the beer counters. But even without the substances there are just so many impressive props to look at! TOOL did their best planting lasers and smoke machines in the most unexpected places – on the ceiling, by the soundboard, on the sides of the venue, etc.

“Schism” is followed by “Intention” – another tune from 10,000 Days which later bleeds into “Forty-Six & 2” with the giant eyeball circling on the screens. Once the song ends Maynard James Keenan introduces the guest musician – Frank Ferrer of The Psychedelic Furs (and lately of Guns n’ Roses!) who helps the rest of the band with Lateralus. The backdrop parades the imagery of a blinking blue striped head that strangely reminds me of Bart Simpson on Acid. The song ends and the musicians all leave the stage.

What follows the departure of the band is by far the most impressive break before an encore I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. The lonely bright white light and the smoke circling around it create the illusion of an eye staring straight at me. It is moving. It is alive. And it is frightening. I even forget this is a break.

The encore is only one song – a long, expanded, and largely improvised version of “Aenema” that lasts for over ten whole minutes and fades into the darkness.

The lights go on. Bon Jovi blasts from IZOD Center speakers.

The show is now over.

No videos or pictures could capture what had just happened in East Rutherford, New Jersey. I admit I had excessively high expectations for TOOL, but those expectations were quickly washed away by the sea of lasers and smoke. I am now on my way home, feeling slightly disoriented from the lights and the sound. TOOL is clearly the rightful carrier of the psychedelic torch, the torch that previously belonged to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I now understand how important the live performance is for the overall appreciation of TOOL’s art. They are the kind of band that needs to be seen live to fully appreciate what they are about. And I still can’t believe I had a chance to see them. One thing is clear to me already – the next time these psychedelic art metal monsters come around, I will be there.

Ignas Bautrenas is a short story writer and journalist born in Vilnius, Lithuania who currently lives in Astoria, NY. He attended Hunter College from 2004-2009 and graduated with a BA in English. Ignas currently writes for sugarnthunder.com, manomuzika.lt, 15min.lt and other publications.

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