1. Fear Inoculum
3. Litanie contre la Peur (Digital Edition)
5. Legion Inoculant (Digital Edition)
7. Culling Voices
8. Chocolate Chip Trip (Digital Edition)
10. Mockingbeat (Digital Edition)
You could be forgiven for thinking that this day would never come. Tool have always been cryptic and wilfully idiosyncratic to say the least, but even their most dyed-in-the-wool supporters must have had their faith tested when five and then ten years drifted by without any significant evidence of a new album. It’s tempting to construct an illusive virtuoso narrative, where James Maynard Keenan, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones and Danny Carey only convene when truly inspired to create, but the truth is far more mundane. Tool have been embroiled in a legal battle for best part of the 2010s that has sapped their energy, stifled their creativity and placed incredible strain on their family lives.
Guitarist Adam Jones is adamant that a new Tool album could have dropped a long time ago, but who can honestly say whether Fear Inoculum bears any resemblance to that would-have-been release. “Invincible”, a 13-minute brooding march that sits at the heart of their new record, speaks of persistence in the face of atrophy, both of time and mind: “Warrior struggling to remain relevant, warrior struggling to remain consequential”. Maynard’s vocals are stoic, but uncertain as the track grinds and bludgeons with a rigidity not at all in keeping with Tool’s organically expansive songwriting. Whether the track was written before, during or after their legal woes, it clearly alludes to an artist withering on the vine, fearing for their relevancy as the world ruthlessly passes them by (with “time bearing down”).
Persistence, if not an outright theme, is certainly required when approaching Fear Inoculum. Tool’s fifth studio album continues where 10,000 Days left off, continuing the retreat from conventional hook driven songwriting towards longform experimentation of both the technical and tonal variety. Despite this, Fear Inoculum also functions as a survey of Tool’s entire discography. There are plenty of the haunting, reverb laden grooves from the 1990s to be found here as well as an onslaught of mathematically derived structures in the vein of “Laterlus”. Suffice to say, Tool’s latest does not deal in immediacy. Instead the album is an ode to being an older, wiser, battle-weary survivor. The band have struggled and stumbled, but have yet to succumb. They endure and evolve – and so does their music.
Trying to approximate the concept of aging-through-agony in music was never going to be straightforward – especially when guitarists Jones and Chancellor are setting themselves arbitrary technical challenges related to the number seven – but the end result tends to be long, weather-beaten thinkpieces. The near-14 minute “Descending” is underwritten by a natural stillness and consistency – the gentle rumbling of tectonic plates and a dogged costal breeze – an illusion of soothing tranquillity formed of powerful perpetual forces. This beautifully constructed instrumental seems to turn in on its self: like a crooked march, it spirals ever tighter loops. The tonal palette is pure Ænima (1996) with Maynard uncorking a ravaged operatic battle cry that recalls Undertow (1993) without any of that record’s urgency or aggression. Instead, there’s a strange futility to proceedings. Maynard no longer screams at the wrongdoers of his past, but into the imposing, glacial expanse. Adam Jones serves up a silky, sliding solo as the track migrates away from human vulnerability towards a more alien and abstract plain. “Descending” plays wonderfully as an allegory for our naked vulnerability in the face of climate change or Tool’s own lack of agency as a cog in broader music industry machine.
Suffice to say, on a musical level, the message reads loud and clear: there may be overt allusions to the past, but Tool are not going back to an era of punchy prog-hit-making. Maynard has little interest in enticing melody and Fear Inoculum is not an album rich in addictive riffs or inescapable grooves. Instead, Tool’s latest is obsessed with the journey rather than the destination and, as such, the tracks build from soft, silent beginnings and billow slowly outwards. The album is less defined by memorable tracks, than unforgettable moments. “Culling Voices” might fall victim to some of Maynard’s worst and most indulgent vocalizing, but it also showcases Jones at his most elegant and deft. The guitar work is sublime in the soft and tender moments, but having built a grievance (“psychopathy, misleading me over and over”) when it comes time to kick, thrash and rebel, Tool feel strangely impotent. The rage is oddly artificial. Carey crashes the symbols, Jones crunches the chords, but it all feels rather hollow as if the men who once threatened to give the entire city of L.A. an enema have forgotten how to, well, fuck shit up.
Still, if Tool threatened to drift off onto a plane of existence wholly disconnected from we mere mortals, then “7empest” brings the band crashing back down to earth with an almighty thud. Maynard and co. may have been through a lot in the 13 years since the release of 10,000 Days, but one thing remains the same: they hate misinformation and the unaccountable manipulation of others. “7empest” effectively picks up where “Vicarious” left off and, after some iffy opening vocals, settles into an irresistible stride. The beauty of the track lies in its ability to bridge the gap between old and the new. Maynard’s seething contempt is there for all to see. He is foaming at the mouth, not feigning disgust for a solitary second. For once, his venom is equal to the mutating, migratory beauty of the band’s playing (and, best of all, his lines and cadence are genuinely catchy).
“7empest’s” second half is a delight, were it not for Carey’s relentless percussion, the instrumental half of the track would feel like a different work entirely. Jones and Chancellor are off on a soothing, swooning trip through the stratosphere, but the underlying aggression will not subside. It stabs, jags and nags at the band until they are pulled back into the orbit of Maynard’s alienated ferocity. Suddenly, the guitar sounds contort, sharpen and warp into something altogether more unpleasant. Tool may be older, wiser and considerable more zen, but it would seem they cannot escape this mortal coil and our very human squalor.
So what to make of Tool’s cooler, more distant and open-ended return to the fray? The scintillating “7empest” and the largely leaden “Culling Voices” offer two enticing, but largely misleading extremes. Fear Inoculum sits somewhere in between, neither seething nor wallowing. Strangely, for an album rooted in precision and numerical experimentation, this pied-piper’s march to the center of the universe feels oddly unanchored. Built on the back of six 10-minute-plus standalone suites masquerading as songs, the album never quite expresses a sense of self.
“Pneuma” perhaps best exemplifies where Tool find themselves in 2019. Beautifully blending the gritty and gloomy palette of the post-grunge 90s, it recalls what Tool once were, while favoring the compositional rigors and emotional remove of the band’s later work. It is a beautifully balanced journey from point A to point B with a host of slow stewing and slyly sliding detours along the way. It’s a piece of music to inhabit and indulge, but not to love. Despite a more tribal approach to the percussion, the visceral, gut-level thrills Tool once epitomized have now been soothed away in the name of craft and composure. The primal vitriol just isn’t there, and that’s fine, Tool are not the angry young men of their youth and their interests and artistry have no doubt evolved. Nevertheless, even as they implore their listeners to “reach out beyond”, there is a sense that Tool have yet to discover a new x-factor to take their own music above and beyond.
Whether it be Pink Floyd, Rush or Radiohead, when great, technically rich and experimental bands evolve beyond the insanity, immediacy and angst of youth they always retain a distinct otherness that elevates them above their sound-alike peers. Be it depressive abstract beauty or an intricate weblike narrative, they always find an angle that connects human insecurity to the grand expanse of uncurtailled imagination. Tool seek to bridge this divide on Fear Inoculum and, while the music is routinely beguiling and beautiful, the songs themselves rarely shine – and at times it feels as if Maynard, one of the most divisive and distinct frontmen in metal history, is simply along for the ride.
Nevertheless, Fear Inoculum is thematically rich listen. The idea of tackling the hard earned wisdom acquired through aging, endurance and survival is fascinating – and yet it too often results in a detached and impersonal drift. There is a tangible dynamism present in the musical composition that isn’t rivalled by either the songwriting or the melodic structures. Part of the problem is no doubt the pacing; it can’t be easy for Maynard to weave a vibrant vocal line of attack through the blissed out churn of “Pneuma”, but then again, this is a man famed for jerking, jiving and contorting his own personal agony into the strangest of spaces on Laterlus and Ænima. Nor should stillness or consistency be an excuse for a subdued vocal performance, after all, look what Thom Yorke did with elegant empty space of “Nude”.
Between the gorgeous shifting sands sonics of the title track and the barely disguised contempt of “7empest” lays the next classic Tool album – and for many Fear Inoculum will be just that. The album is a brilliant slow moving behemoth worthy of your patience and careful consideration. There might be a lack of impetus, but there is no shortage of virtuosity, tenderness or sprawling lyrical playing. Yet, sadly, it is this ferocious potential and unrivalled craftsmanship that makes for a frustratingly listen. This beautiful blend of sounds old and new, postures intimate and expansive, set the stage for a truly great statement, but the album never quite grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck and says much of anything. In many ways, Fear Inoculum is a bull that Maynard has failed to take by the horns.