It’s called synesthesia, and the man on the other end of the phone makes his living attempting to instill it in you for a night.
“It’s a condition that some people have where they can see sound, taste, colors,” explains Breckinridge Haggerty, video designer and director for alt-metallers Tool. “It’s where people get their senses crossed up. In a sense, what we’re doing is that for everybody all at once. We’re making our own interpretation of what we hear and creating a visual experience to go along with it. I’m connecting the senses, connecting the ears with the eyes.”
It’s a connection that dazzles, envelops and often overwhelms.
Few, if any, contemporary touring acts boast a more elaborate and immersive visual presentation to their live performances than Tool, whose concerts are a transportive plunge down a rabbit hole of light and sound.
The band’s very stage setup heightens as much, with singer Maynard James Keenan performing in the shadows on a platform next to the drum riser, as opposed to commanding attention out in front.
The emphasis is placed on all the pupil-constricting lasers and luminous video walls. The latter often pulsates with art of a surrealist bent, animated or otherwise, a significant portion of which is normally indebted to the works of artist Alex Grey, perhaps best known for his incandescent, anatomical paintings of the human body.
There’s nothing else like it.
A visual narrative
The idea is that the visuals tell a story in unison with the music.
To this end, Haggerty, who’s worked with the band since 1998, begins by crafting a script of sorts based upon the set list.
“I start identifying cue points and different themes and melodies that repeat and just start creating a catalog for myself as a script,” he explains. “I try to analyze the script as much as possible before I put any content to it. And then there’s a whole other element of listening to the director, which would be band members, and other design collaborators, like the lighting designer and the laser director, and we all just kind of put it together as a group.
“It’s a bit of a long process,” he continues, “just kind of letting all the information percolate and see where it all goes. There are also content directors for individual songs, where video artists, animators, will put something together where I’ll receive new content and a map of what was intended. I’ll take that and form it into a live show, make it work with the lighting and the lasers and whatever else we’ve got going on.”
New album, new show
With the band hitting town for the first time in support of its latest record, “Fear Inoculum,” released 13 years after its predecessor, “10,000 Days,” Tool will do so with a whole new production as well.
“Fear” is arguably the band’s most grandiose, deep dive of an album, with no song clocking in at less than 10 minutes, save for the octopus-armed drum clinic that is instrumental “Chocolate Chip Trip.”
From Grammy-nominated standout “7empest,” an album-closing epic that crests into a tidal wave of sound, to the martial churn of “Invincible,” which is full of sonic head fakes, it’s a record of songs within songs, the musical equivalent of a series of Russian nesting dolls.
If “Fear” took a long time to complete, so did the stage show designed to bring it to life.
“It started quite awhile ago,” Haggerty says. “The lighting designer made some drawings at least a year ago, which ended up being the basis for what we undertook. There are also content creators that I work with. I work with the band to see what they’re interested in creating and try to put it all together.”
A 3D development
The big new addition this tour? An all-encompassing video dimension.
“The one major element we’ve added is a large string curtain that comes out in front of the band, so we can project images in front of them and behind them as well,” Haggerty says. “We get some interesting 3D effects and they seem to like it a lot. It was a new element that the band was interested in seeing.”
And so even if you’ve seen Tool before, you’ve never seen it quite like this.
“It’s just an evolution,” Haggerty says of the Tool live production. “We’re trying to improve it, make it better. The songs that they’ve been playing for years and years, we try to freshen up the visuals, something a little different for people who have seen the show before.
“I don’t really think about ‘How do I dazzle?’ ” he adds. “We just do what we do.”