By Mark Guarino
Tool tooled at the intersection between heavy metal and progressive rock Monday. At a sold-out show at the Allstate Arena, the band demonstrated why its dual nature works so well in sports complexes: It plays long, sophisticated songs that take their own sweet time to fill up the ample space until the inevitable roar of thunder.
The band is now in its 16th year but unlike Metallica, Primus and other Ozzfest veterans of its generation, the band seems like it was solidified just last month. Nothing about Tool seems to have aged and instead of phoning in the details, the band seems unusually engaged. That includes minor details like CD packaging. Its recent album, “10,000 Days” (Volcano/Zomba) is elaborately designed with 3-D images and even includes the glasses.
This is also a band where the lead singer refuses to embrace the spotlight. Maynard James Keenan stayed put at the back of the stage in a space aligned next to Danny Carey’s drumkit. He was more a character in the songs than the guy chosen to sing them. For this tour he was dressed as Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro’s character in the film “Taxi Driver”: bare chest, sunglasses and, when he took off his cowboy hat, a partially bald head topped with a slim Mohawk.
With a different singer, Tool might sound like a bonafide metal band. But Keenan goes in a different direction: Instead of gruff vocals, his are emotionally vulnerable and smoothly crooned. He lyrics tackle morose subjects like war, aliens, paranoia and drugs, but he is not so tortured. Frequently, he’d lean back and pretend to ride the music like it was a bull. It was just that fun.
The set concentrated mostly on the new album, which further takes the band into the progressive rock world of old-timers King Crimson or Pink Floyd. Several songs started with ambient soundscapes that eventually bled into a crash of power chords and a surging chorus designed for group chants. Songs like “Forty-Six & 2” and “The Pot” were sophisticated marvels — guitarist Adam Joes countered syncopated notes with bassist Justin Chancellor while Danny Carey often doubled or even quadrupled his meters back and forth.
Even though the songs were long — just 12 were performed under two hours — they kept up suspense. The music dragged only when the playing sounded like aimless jamming and, during “Lost Keys,” when Keenan further obscured his voice with a megaphone.
Spectacle is something that cripples most bands, but here’s one that could use a little more. The show was decidedly stripped of much visual effects even though lasers showed up near the end.
Tool’s refusal to take itself seriously outside their playing was clearly evident during its encore. They never left the stage, but chose to sit down and watch the audience for a few minutes. Chancellor raised his lighter and the entire crowd followed suit. Then the band went back to work.