I saw Tool at the Frank Erwin Center last night and it exceeded all expectations. For them to sound this good seventeen years into making music is a testament to their dedication. As with their tours for Lateralus and Ænima the light show was in full effect with many songs accompanied by their respective music videos and some new material. Maynard's voice sounded great and the acoustics of the venue were perfect for Tool's expansive sound.
Following them through the years it has been interesting to see their evolving sound and the way that it informs their live performances. I know that there are some fans that feel that Ænima is the high water mark of their career; as good as that album is, I have to disagree with this sentiment. Last night was undeniable proof that Tool's transition from alt-rock vitriolics to prog-rock epics has been one for the better. Don't get me wrong, I love Ænima, along with OK Computer, it is one of the few true masterpieces of post-Nirvana 90's rock. The difference is one of cohesion.
One can certainly make the case that, taken individually, tracks on Ænima are better than tracks on their more recent albums but I believe that this is failing to see the forest from the trees. Tool albums are no longer about individual tracks, this is especially telling when one looks at which tracks are played on the radio. The radio format is all about three to four minute time slots for listeners with short attention spans and it has become increasingly difficult for their label to get Tool tracks on the air. When even the shortest Tool songs (excluding segues) often stretch to six or seven minutes the only option for radio play is to chose on of the shorter songs and hack it down into a four minute "radio-edit". The reality is that Tool has long since left the land of easily packaged, radio-friendly "popular rock" music. Tool's more recent work is not about tracks, but concepts.
Take, for example the "Wings for Marie (Pt 1)" and "10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)" song cycle from their latest album. What starts slowly with a quiet brooding over the course of seventeen minutes builds into a cathartic release that to experience live borders on some kind of religious epiphany. This is not about seeing your favorite band crank out rock songs so that you can sing along and wave your lighter. At the risk of sounding maudlin, this is about the experience of seeing a group of dedicated artists create something positive and beautiful. This is all the more powerful from being made in a medium that so often is just used to sell iPods and Volkswagens.
It's been a few years since I've gone to a big stadium rock concert and there is a new trend that has become disturbingly pervasive. Three of the people sitting in the row in front of me spent most of the night alternatively texting their friends (presumably about being at the Tool show) and taking video clips and picture snapshots with their camera-phones. Did I miss a meeting? Since when is it not sufficient to just experience something? I can understand the juvenile need to show off the fact that you were at a big rock show, but to spend the whole evening watching the show through the blurry two megapixel lens of your phone just boggles my mind. I must say the irony was certainly delicious to look out over a stadium thronged with thousands of fans, cell phones held aloft to capture the moment, singing along:
Cause I need to watch things die
From a distance
Live while the whole world dies
You all need it too - don't lie.