“Still here for now, Los Angeles,” Tool’s Maynard James Keenan said to greet his audience Sunday night at Staples Center, and what a Tool-ish welcome that was: Going on to refer obliquely to California’s “shaky” geological state, the doom-obsessed frontman was beginning a sold-out comeback concert by evoking — what else? — the inevitability of the end.
In August, not long after finally making its catalog available on streaming services, this veteran art-metal band from L.A. released “Fear Inoculum,” its first studio album in 13 years. The record — an 87-minute behemoth full of winding guitar riffs, intricate polyrhythms and Keenan’s bleak if vivid lyrics about disease and ruin — fared well enough in its first week, with more than a quarter-million units sold or streamed, to knock Taylor Swift’s “Lover” from atop the Billboard album chart. Now, Tool is touring arenas in North America, with a second Staples gig set for Monday.
At a moment of reduced visibility for rock, you could look at this success as a sign that the group had managed improbably to penetrate the mainstream. But really, the numbers demonstrate the scale of Tool’s cult following, which worships the band precisely because it holds itself apart — and which had nothing quite like Tool to satisfy it in the decade-plus since “10,000 Days” came out in 2006.
Tool played up that mass-niche vibe in Sunday’s show, with Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey (the last wearing a yellow Lakers uniform) performing behind a see-through curtain that looked to be made of long dangling chains. And the band put in place a strict ban against photography of all kinds; The Times wasn’t allowed to shoot the concert, while security guards used flashlights to single out fans, including one they hustled out, attempting to take pictures or video with their phones. It was as though Tool wanted to block out the world beyond the venue — to create its own hermetic environment in which it could revel in the eccentricities of its lush yet forbidding music.
Wearing red-plaid pants and sporting a spiked mohawk, Keenan growled, bellowed and shrieked the alternately punchy and arcing melodic lines of songs like “Fear Inoculum” and “Aenema” — the latter about “this hopeless ... hole we call L.A.” — as he prowled two raised platforms on either side of Carey’s elaborate drum set.
He’d occasionally crouch down, slapping his inner thighs in a way that fulfilled at least part of the definition of dancing. And behind the band was a giant video screen that showed creepy-vague animated visuals — some from the music videos that briefly made Tool a MTV presence in the mid-1990s — mostly concerning bodies in distress.
But the draw of the performance wasn’t what you were seeing; it was the chance to hear the group’s intricate, multi-movement songs at a pulverizing volume that still had shape and detail thanks to an impeccable live mix. By the standards of Tool’s current commercial peers, that’s no less a radical proposition than the old-school drum solo Carey played, complete with gong, during Sunday’s encore. Sometimes, as in the new album’s darkly pretty “Invincible,” the music repaid your attention; the carefully sculpted sound smashed into you with physical force equal to any nostalgia it may have triggered for clear prog-rock predecessors such as King Crimson. Other times, you found yourself thinking longingly about that time Travis Scott built a roller coaster into his arena show.
In “Invincible,” Keenan sang about a “warrior struggling to remain consequential,” and for all of Tool’s proud insularity here, the frontman did give in once to the always-on reality of pop stardom in 2019. Before closing with a long rendition of the band’s old hit “Stinkfist,” he told the crowd they could use their phones to record the song.
“I know you’ve been itching to take it out and play with it,” he said — proof, after Keenan’s own fashion, that he’s thinking about how to keep sticking around.