Prog rock is back. The slumbering, lumbering behemoth of '70s arenas has awakened in the guise of Tool, a Lollapalooza-era band that has stayed true to its muse of heavy, moody rock since its inception in the early '90s. The dedication seems to have paid off with a loyal following of fans, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who packed the Petersen Center on Tuesday night.
Yes, Tool is a progressive rock band, not just metal or hard rock. All the signs are there: odd time signatures (I counted measures of 5, 7, 9 and possibly 11), multi-part six-minute-plus songs, and arty visuals courtesy of computer-generated videos and lasers. The group also takes a long time between album releases and has toured with King Crimson. But the boomers who grew up on Yes, Genesis, and Rush weren't out in force, because Tool's prog is filtered through the bleaker mind of Gen-X, touching upon grunge, goth, metal and hardcore punk.
Los Angeles-based post-hardcore quintet Isis was a solid choice as tour support. Its muscular "intelli-metal," with prominent, ominous keyboards, extended song length, and buried, gravelly vocals, reflects the influence of underground heavies Neurosis and Godflesh, while the instrumental, atmosphere-laden sections harkened back to '90s shoegazers such as Slowdive.
When vocalist Maynard James Keenan (also a member of alternative supergroup A Perfect Circle) emerged wearing his cowboy hat, the crowd erupted, and Tool's gloomy fun was afoot, beginning with the familiar metallic riffs of "Stinkfist" from its triple-platinum 1996 release, "Aenima." Tool barrelled almost nonstop through a predictable set list that mirrored the other shows on the tour, playing most of the tracks from its latest release, "10,000 Days," bookended by two more selections from "Aenima" (including the title track as closer) and two from 2001's "Lateralus."
Keenan never roamed much of the gleaming white stage, preferring to maintain his solitary perch to the left of the drummer. Highlights included "The Pot," with projections that looked like marijuana smoke and a noticeable smell in the facility which WAS, and the double dose of "Wings for Marie" and "10,000 Days," which slowed the proceedings to a brooding, contemplative drone. Combined with beams and smoke, the explosion of color and majestic minor-key dirges resembled Bauhaus meets Laser Floyd, displaying the full potential of this band's dynamic power and draining so much emotion from the band that it had to briefly pause afterward for a group hug.
"Vicarious," another song in 5/8, used spacey synths and soft pink and blue lights to channel the spirit of the cosmos not unlike Tangerine Dream.
Marring the experience were the dull reverberations that always seem to plague arena venues like the Petersen. To anyone who didn't know the bulk of Tool's lyrics (and admittedly, there seemed to be few who didn't), Keenan's vocals were almost completely unintelligible at the back of the venue.
Someone should ask Keenan to use his perceptive "third eye" and some of his training as a former interior designer to improve the place for concert sound. Until then, it deservedly merits Sports Illustrated's recent mention as the "Toughest Place to Play."
Manny Theiner is a freelance writer.