Sunday night, the strangest and most magnetic frontman in recent rock history stood onstage in a soccer stadium in Columbus, Ohio, dressed in full riot gear, bathed in shadow, gesticulating like a maniacal puppet, and singing, as he has for 22 years now, of his fervent wish that California would fall into the ocean. This sentiment went over big in Ohio, and always has.
Maynard James Keenan is not a stereotypically cheerful man, and “Ænema”—a vicious 1996 jam from his beloved art-metal band, Tool—is not a stereotypically cheerful song. But there has always been a gothic sort of joy in his deep, booming, action-hero voice as he fantasizes about the total destruction of Tool’s hometown of Los Angeles, described as “one great big festering neon distraction.” He lambastes the city’s junkies and Hollywood careerists and Scientologists; he implores Mother Nature to reduce them all to “millions of dumbfounded dipshits,” referring to Mother Nature, repeatedly, as Mom. “Learn to swim,” he barks, ad nauseum. “Learn to swim, learn to swim, learn to swim.” This was all a little goofy even in 1997, but goofy things can be unnerving, too.
Despite putting out only four full-length records in 25 years—triple-platinum Ænima, the band’s second album, was their biggest, and 2006’s 10,000 Days was their last—Tool remain one of the biggest metal bands of their generation. They have deeply technical prog-rock inclinations and proudly sophomoric impulses, a beguiling mixture of the profound and the deeply silly. “Ænema,” for example, is a mashup of anima (Carl Jung’s notion of man’s feminine side) and enema (yeah). Tool mostly play festivals now and dodge questions about what the hell is taking them so long to make another album; in Wisconsin earlier this month, Keenan explained his riot gear, complete with helmet and sunglasses, as a way of protecting himself from all the fruit long-suffering fans are contemplating throwing at him.
Sunday’s Columbus gig was a festival, too: the three-day Rock on the Range blowout, which for 12 years has served as America’s foremost celebration of hard rock and metal, of unashamed nostalgia and tentative innovation. This year Keenan pulled double duty, headlining with Tool and playing the main stage Friday night with his other band, the relatively softer and more straightforward A Perfect Circle, who put out their fourth album, the moody Eat the Elephant, in April. For that set, Keenan wore a snappy old-timey suit, his hair a two-tone monstrosity of flowing blonde tresses and dark-brown roots, all of which made him look like an evil banker in a Golden Age melodrama crossed with a cut-for-space Alice in Wonderland character crossed with Alice Cooper.
With both bands, he loomed on a riser set far back from the stage and even with the drums, a longtime preference that he says results in a better audio mix, though it also serves to reiterate that he is not a typical rock-band frontman here for your amusement. “I don’t need to dance around in front of you at the front of the stage,” he told Uproxx last month. “I don’t need it. Some people need it. God bless them.”
There is much to learn from Keenan in 2018, about how to preserve one’s rock-star mystique in middle age. Rock on the Range is a raucous and lovely experience that crams about 40,000 people into the Columbus Crew’s Mapfre Stadium and marvels at how well they all get along; my only complaint is there should be a 200-pound maximum for crowd-surfers. The vibe is intensely celebratory, but it’s also not a little funereal. Two of this year’s other headliners, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, are ’90s-grunge totems whose beloved original lead singers (Layne Staley and Scott Weiland, respectively) died of drug-related causes. And Sunday night, Keenan dedicated Tool’s set to Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in May 2017, just a few days before Soundgarden were set to deliver a headlining ROTR set of their own.
Keenan is technically a peer of those guys, but he was also an unruly anomaly from the moment Tool emerged in the mid-’90s, harder than anything else on alt-rock radio and more adept at sophomoric shock value than anybody not named Marilyn Manson. Tool had huge, morose hits with titles like “Sober” and “Prison Sex” and “Stinkfist,” bolstered by super-grody animated videos (usually crafted by guitarist Adam Jones) with heavy alien-autopsy and monster-seizure overtones. (Those trippy visuals, projected onto gigantic screens, still dominate Tool’s live show and allow the band itself to sink even deeper into the shadows.) Keenan’s powerhouse voice and consistently bizarre sartorial flair made him stand out, but he has also always been hell-bent on preserving some semblance of mystique, keeping interviews to a minimum and chasing off potential stalkers with a paintball gun.
As Tool’s legend grew, Keenan indulged in various standard rock-star pursuits, always with just a slightly more intense focus and dedication than strictly necessary. The side project, A Perfect Circle, kicked off in 2000 alongside former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, and they’ve had a few alt-rock hits themselves; he’s put out three albums solo under the name Puscifer. Keenan also started his own wineries, the first bearing the very on-brand name Merkin Vineyards; at the Rock on the Range wine tent, you could sample his wares for $12 a cup, choosing from such varieties as Diddler White and Shinola Red. In 2016, he collaborated with journalist Sarah Jensen on an authorized biography, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, which covered his military history and the early years of his career, and further flaunted his ability to conceal himself even as he’s revealing himself. “It’s not in my nature to just map it out for you,” he told Rolling Stone, clarifying that the movie Stripes was not the only reason he joined the army.
All of which results in about 40,000 people standing in a soccer stadium, rapt by a first-tier modern-rock frontman who is both deeply familiar and finally, triumphantly unknowable. Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle’s new album, is a mellow affair, its moments of metal-festival bombast spiked with long, ruminative interludes of lounge piano and arty reverie. The capacity crowd at Rock on the Range was reverent, but not exactly electrified. Keenan does not dance, per se, but Friday night, in his banker’s suit, he dropped into a deep yoga crouch, doing a sort of evil-leprechaun jig as he sang yet more songs about the imminent apocalypse.
Keenan sings with such pointed fury that he can make familiar hard-rock lyrical tropes seem outsizedly wise and sui generis. The new “TalkTalk” is a fairly conventional assault on the empty pieties of organized religion—“Thoughts / And prayers / Adorable / Like cake in a crisis / We’re bleeding out”—but the song’s slow-burn crunch is convincing, as is Keenan’s climactic wail of “Try walkin’ your talk or get the fuck out of my way.” It’s always less about what he says than how he says it, the naked rage in his voice clashing with the way he shrouds himself onstage, hiding in plain sight.
Sunday night, roaring through a greatest-hits set with Tool, Keenan’s voice was low in the mix, the lighting both dim and overpowering enough that he often seemed invisible. But he capably handled the usual Rock on the Range challenge of looking both backward and forward. “Feels like I’ve been here before,” he sang, exhuming a song from the band’s 1992 debut EP, Opiate. “Seems so familiar / Seems like I’m slipping into a dream within a dream.” But he also further apologized for the new album’s endless delays: “Things are progressing. Slow as fuck. But progressing.”
And most importantly, he did the thing all aging but still vital rock stars learn to do, which is to make the old shit feel prescient and somehow still immediate, even if all those predictions of Armageddon haven’t yet come to pass. “Stinkfist” is a song about feeling so empty inside and longing so badly for human connection that you resort to, well, never mind. It’s adult content that is puerile in a distinctly teenage sort of way. But get the look and the sound right, and you can make that feeling last forever—by learning what to give away and what to never let go of.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people who attend Rock on the Range. It’s about 40,000, not 20,000.