By Cameron Lee
January 22, 2024
Photo: Jeff Howlett
The enigmatic progressive metal band, Tool, made their first appearance in Charlotte in nearly eight years Sunday night. The Tool Army (the band’s devoted fan base) was in full force for the band’s long-awaited return to North Carolina after a canceled April 2020 show. Since 2019’s critically lauded fifth studio album, Fear Inoculum, fans have been clamoring to see the metal rock audiophiles, and it was evident as the crowd, donning mostly black Tool garb, flooded the merch stands throughout the venue.
If there is one thing that you can expect from a Tool show it’s that the audio will absolutely pierce your brain. Rarely will you hear such keen and precise sounds from a four-piece rock band, and that high-quality production extended to opening act, Elder. With simple spotlights and the band’s name lit up in red behind them, the mostly instrumental progressive rock band journeyed through their short set with face-melting guitar riffs and heavy-hitting drums. Mixing a blend of complex guitar progressions, psychedelic soundscapes, and head-banging doom metal sensibilities, the band served as an ideal opener for Tool. By the end of their set, the Spectrum Center was nearly full.
At 8:30 p.m., Danny Carey’s massive drum kit was revealed as the centerpiece for Tool’s set design. It was elevated in the middle of the stage with a colossal three-panel screen behind the band members projecting skulls and anatomical imagery reminiscent of the artwork of longtime Tool collaborator, Alex Gray. Gray, who designed Tool’s last three album covers, serves as the inspiration for much of the psychedelic and geometric design patterns displayed during Tool’s live shows.
Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan entered the multi-level stage during the first song of the evening, “Fear Inoculum,” the title track of their latest album. In a white shirt and black vest, he walked in circles, preparing himself for the near two-hour-long set ahead. Following the opening song, Keenan set the mood for the night asking for fans to put down their cell phones. “Ready to take a trip? Stay present, stay connected.”
Their patented heptagram glowed behind band members Carey (drums), Adam Jones (guitar), and Justin Chancellor (bass) and was accompanied by a complex lighting rig projecting lasers through the crowd synchronized to their music with mind-bending imagery– the concert certainly felt like a psychedelic trip. Signs all over the Spectrum Center clearly stated the no cellphone policy and ushers scanned the aisles for perpetrators. There was no question that concertgoers were going to be fully immersed for the show ahead, although Maynard did say fans could break out their devices for their finale.
The 11-song set featured a heavier dose of their latest album with lesser but equal attention to their debut, Undertow (“Flood” and “Intolerance”), 2001’s Lateralus (“The Grudge” and “Schism”), and 2006’s 10,000 Days (“Jambi” and “Rosetta Stoned”), but it was Carey who wowed the audience. With each transition, tempo change, and atmospheric interlude, Carey– who was donning a Hornets jersey all night– displayed his percussive mastery throughout the evening. Following an intermission three-quarters of the way through, the Kansas native came out sporting a Travis Kelce jersey– likely after finding out about the Chiefs playoff win– and struck a large gong repeatedly before going into the spectacular drum solo for “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Jones and Chancellor also displayed their instrumental proficiency as well– it was a rock show that definitely made you admire the depth of sound that can be created from both the electric and bass guitars.
As the sonic trip reached its epilogue, Keenan called on the audience, “Charlotte…hope you remember where you are at,” as many were in a trance-like state from intense sound, visuals and lasers, as he told the sold-out crowd it was okay to break out the phones, but with no lights. He cheekily pointed out a concertgoer exclaiming, “take your f*cking light off dumbass,” as only Keenan does, before going into their final song of the evening, “Schism.”
Tool, a band that bridged the eras of American metal and grudge in the ‘90s, are often perceived as music intellectuals, but also very facetious in nature– it was only in 2019 they released their catalog on streaming services. A rare spectacle in today’s live music landscape, utilizing mainly traditional rock instrumentation, their live shows are for music purists who appreciate deep audio and visual experiences.
While most concerts and bands rely heavily on superficial hype and snappy hooks to create memorable experiences, there is no doubt that a Tool show is more of a mind trip that makes you contemplate the depths of mathematical patterns in rhythms, sound, and art. It’s a much-needed reprieve from a world dominated by self-absorbing and mindless entertainment.
“Chocolate Chip Trip”