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Tool’s psychedelic ‘Fear Inoculum’ tour hit Barclays Center (pics, review)

Tool have been regularly playing massive venues and headlining festivals for a while now, but for the past several years, seeing a Tool show meant seeing a set entirely made up of songs that were at least a decade or so old, with maybe a preview of an unreleased new song worked in. They were massively crowdpleasing sets, but they were fueled by nostalgia and you pretty much knew what you’d be getting going into it. But Tool are clearly not ready to settle into becoming a nostalgia act. This past August saw the release of their first new album in 13 years, Fear Inoculum, and now they’re supporting it with some of their most extensive touring in a long time. For a lot of bands nearing the 30-year mark of their career, new songs mean drink and bathroom breaks, but as we witnessed at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Tuesday night (11/19), Tool’s new songs were monumental highlights of their current live show.

They opened the show the same way Fear Inoculum opens, with its title track, and from the moment the lights and visuals came on and the intro melody of “Fear Inoculum” started playing, we were transported to some other place entirely. For a long time, Tool shows have used the same creepy sci-fi body horror visuals as their classic music videos, and the older songs played at Barclays Center still used those, but as they performed “Fear Inoculum,” the stage was drenched in psychedelic, technicolor, kaleidoscopic visuals. They had a transparent screen in front of the stage (that didn’t come down until after the third song) and a bigscreen in the back, immersing the entire stage in the trippy visual experience. Tool have been a psychedelic band for a long time, but the Fear Inoculum era really sees them diving head-first into psychedelia more than ever before. Even without any enhancements at all, the lights and the music provided the full psychedelic experience. (Though, judging by the aromas surrounding me, much of the crowd figured a little enhancement wouldn’t hurt.)

Two other proper songs (and one instrumental) from Fear Inoculum would follow throughout the night, making for a total of at least 40 minutes of new music. They played “Pneuma” about halfway through the set, and they returned for their encore with just drummer Danny Carey on stage to play drums, gong, and samples for the psychedelic instrumental “Chocolate Chip Trip,” which went into “Invincible.” And every single time, the new songs (and the new visuals) were major standout moments. When Fear Inoculum first came out, a lot of its detractors complained that it was just a little too boring, but I think it’d be hard to feel that way about hearing these songs in person. Live, Tool take these more atmospheric, meditative songs and make it clear that they’re as catchy and as gripping as any of Tool’s classics.

As impressive as it is for a band around this long to be pleasing packed arenas with new material, it’s also impressive how vital and relevant the old songs still sound next to the new ones. Right after “Fear Inoculum,” Tool went into their 1996 classic “Ænema,” and the band looked as hungry and inspired during this song they’ve played 600 times before as they looked during the song they had just started performing this year. The same thing happened when Tool went from “Pneuma” to “Schism,” and from “Invincible” to “Stinkfist.” As they rotated between old songs and new songs throughout the night, every song felt as consequential as the last. Tool have been hugely established for decades, but they are also still a force within current music. A lot of longtime fans were in the house, but you could tell Tool weren’t just playing this show for the diehards. You could have walked into Barclays Center as a Tool skeptic and you’d probably walk out as a fan.

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Tool are also — and I don’t say this about a lot of bands — a great band to see in an arena. They manage to be a rock band with command over the entire arena without being arena rock. Arena rock bands tend to be overly bombastic and theatrical, but Tool remain dead-serious and all about the music, while still filling the entire 19,000 person venue with lights and sounds. On one hand, they still act like the kind of band who plays small rock clubs — Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor tune their own guitars on stage, they don’t use wireless cables, they have their normal amp setup right behind them like any club-playing rock band, not worked into some elaborate arena stage setup; and all four members always seem locked into the music, not focused on being crowdpleasing entertainers — but they never feel too small for an arena stage. They make the arena adapt to the essence of a Tool show, not the other way around.

And as anyone who has seen Tool before knows, but which I was again reminded of on Tuesday night, Tool shows really make it clear how equally significant each member of this band is. It feels wrong to call Maynard James Keenan a “frontman,” not only because he is never once in the front of the stage, but also because Tool come off like a democratic group that could never be dominated by one individual member. It’s a cliché at this point that rock bands put the spotlight on the lead vocalist 80% of the time and the lead guitarist the other 20, but with Tool, the bass and drums are just as likely to take the spotlight as the vocals and guitar at any given moment. For a band with this much popularity, they’re truly a rare breed.

As a side note, in case you were wondering how serious Tool are about ejecting fans who film or take pictures during the show, they are very serious about it. Upon arrival, security told attendees no camera use, every other seat in the arena had a no cameras sign, they announced it over the PA three times before Tool went on, and I saw a handful of people get ejected for that reason throughout the show. For those of us who made it to the end, Maynard told everyone they could film right before playing the very last song (the classic, crowdpleasing “Stinkfist”). Also, right before that song, Tool brought on stage psychedelic artist Alex Grey, who’s responsible for a lot of Tool’s album artwork and live visuals, and they put the words “Thank You Alex Grey” on the screen behind them. Alex remained on stage for the entirety of “Stinkfist,” helping Tool go out with a bang. Yes, phones were in the air for this one, but also the whole place was going nuts and yelling along to one of the catchiest songs in Tool’s catalog. Perfect ending to a perfect night.

Before Tool played, the show was opened by post-punk/industrial legends Killing Joke, who are joining Tool through the end of November (and who we just interviewed). The place was sadly still pretty empty as they played, and Killing Joke aren’t really as well-adapted to an arena stage as Tool, but they sounded fantastic and the chance to see this legendary band in action was a real treat. It’s awesome of Tool to be taking them out, and if you’re going to one of the remaining four shows (Connecticut, Atlantic City, Raleigh, DC), don’t miss ’em.

UPDATE: Pictures from Tuesday night’s show are in the gallery above. We’ll have pictures of the show very soon. Check out video of “Stinkfist” and the setlist below. Pictures of the recent Chicago show here. All remaining tour dates here.

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Tool at Barclays Center – 11/19/19 Setlist (via)
Fear Inoculum
Ænema
The Pot
Parabol
Parabola
Pneuma
Schism
Jambi
Vicarious
Part of Me
Forty Six & 2

Encore:
Chocolate Chip Trip
Invincible
(-) Ions (played over PA)
Stinkfist (with Alex Grey)

photos by Mathieu Bredeau

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