Tool’s Sydney Show Proved That Metal Is Alive And Stronger Than Ever
Commercial rock may be staring down the barrel of its own extinction, but metal has firmly proven it will never die.
Commercial rock might well be going the way of cigarettes — a hazardous, anachronistic industry supported only by a fragile, ageing population and spurned by the youth in favour of the cutting edge of hip-hop — or vapes, if I’m going to keep going with the nicotine analogy. But as commercial rock stares down the barrel of its own extinction, metal has firmly proven it will never die.
In fact, it’s only getting stronger as time goes on — and that’s because of the idiosyncrasies of the genre, not in despite of them. Rather than pandering to the radio, metal has always followed its own strange, obtuse whims, and even the best-selling heroes of the form are out-and-out weirdos, resistant to commercialism and obsessed with the niche. While the middle ground gets wiped out, metal’s essential weirdness has kept it alive.
Just take Tool — or “The Tool” as the band are introduced over speakers at their Sydney show. The group peddle Fibonacci sequence-inspired marble staircases, not songs, and their music has always displayed a flagrant disregard for most regular sensibilities, both aesthetic and sonic. A group with songs titled ‘Stinkfist’ and ‘Aenima’ wouldn’t normally be selling out the Qudos Bank Arena. And yet here we are.
More than that, Tool actively shy away from the regular promotional tricks their contemporaries rely on. As the crowd shuffle into the show, a voice comes over the loudspeaker to announce that photography and video of any kind is banned, and that those on their phones will be immediately ejected from the premises with no opportunity for a refund.
At the time, I imagine that might be all bluff and bluster, and that the theatre will be a mess of illuminated devices. But from my position in the wings, I can’t see a single mobile pulled out for the entirety of the two-hour long show. When Maynard James Keenan asks his audience to do something, they do it.
The musicianship is unparalleled; the sound quality unmatched; the band efficient and no-nonsense.
There’s a reason the man entertains that cult-like following, of course — he is one of the most commanding frontmen in metal, no exceptions. For most of the show, he’s only barely visible, seen in silhouette, his iconic mohawk the most definable part of his shadowy get-up. But even still, he holds the attention of the entire room, in no small part thanks to his distinctive dance moves. In-between vocal blasts, he slowly weaves back and forth in a half-squat, his legs splayed apart, looking like a gremlin bobbing about on a PS2 character selection screen. Two rows in front of me, a young man copies him precisely, jumping up as Keenan does, a perfect mimesis of his hero.
Then there’s Keenan’s voice. Nobody sings like Maynard, with his eerily melodic howl, and the gig is nailed in place by that unbelievable vocal range. Somehow, the man can even make gasps sound like music, and the iconic opening to ‘Aenima’ prompts screams of appreciation from the audience.
That might also be thanks to how early the song appears in the set. At a gig like this, audiences come prepared to hear the new stuff first, the classics relegated to the encore. But the band know how to make a crowd feel loved, and they front-load their performance with hits: ‘The Pot’ is the third song, rolling effortlessly into ‘Parabol’, the screen behind the band lit up with janky videos of desperate aliens crawling through icy corridors, and multi-eyed skulls.
Much is made of the distance between performer and audience. For the first 20 minutes or so, the band play behind a string curtain, and when it’s pulled back, plumes of smoke are shot out from the side of stage to take its place. Keenan barely talks for the gig’s first hour, making only one joke. “Raise your hand if you’re 30 or younger,” he says. The audience dutifully oblige. “If you raised your hand, you weren’t even sperm when this next song was written.”
But who needs banter when the band is this strong? Despite their reputation as a gimmick-heavy act, Tool have always been admirably unpretentious, just as eager to let their complex, delicate music do the talking for them. The musicianship is unparalleled; the sound quality unmatched; the band efficient and no-nonsense. Everything else falls to the wayside. There is only the music, and the crowd, oddly still, drinking it all in.
Then it’s done. ‘Stinkfist’ closes the show; the band take their leave. The Keenan impersonator two rows in front of me turns to his friend, his face flattened into a look of pure pleasure. I realise for the first time that he’s no older than 13. Like I say: metal will never die.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.
Photo Credit: Duncan Barnes/Frontier Touring