Genre: Progressive Metal, Art Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Pneuma,” “Invincible,” “Descending,” “7empest”
Every review about TOOL’s first album in 13 years begins by pointing out that things are different today than they were in 2006 when their last record came out. Imagine that. So let’s get that out of the way: streaming was not the predominant way of consuming music, Instagram was not a thing, there were no iPhones, reality TV stars were not politicians, and Taylor Swift’s debut album peaked at number five on the Billboard charts. So yes, things have changed. One thing that has not changed, however, is how much people (except Pitchfork) fucking love TOOL.
So it is no surprise that when the band finally announced FEAR INOCULUM at the beginning of August that fans of the band lost their shit. On the day that they released the title track as the first single, they also released their entire studio discography onto streaming platforms for the first time. Within the week, “Fear Inoculum” became the longest track to break into the Hot 100, pre-orders of the limited edition physical copy of the album had sold out online, and all of their previous albums had re-entered the digital music charts. It was, indeed, TOOL time.
FEAR INOCULUM, in its full form, clocks in at a monumental 86 minutes across seven songs and three interludes (I personally enjoyed listening to the album without the interludes, but that’s just me). The shortest of the tracks is still 10 minutes long, a fact that is baffling broken-hearted Taylor Swift fans across the internet as TOOL clinched another number one album over Swift’s latest release. Yes, the songs are long, and yes, at times repetitive, but the length never feels tedious; even with the slow burn, I had no problem seeing them all through to the end multiple times. The album artwork was handled by long time collaborator Alex Grey and the band debuted a new text logo that when folded in half, forms a syringe, complementing the concept of the album title—it’s all classic TOOL.
The opening moments of the title track are sparse, with a variety of electronic percussion brought to you by the human octopus known as Danny Carey, sparse guitars swelling before the bass joins the rolling tom beat. One of the first things that struck me about FEAR INOCULUM is the vocal approach of frontman Maynard James Keenan. With a few exceptions, this is the most reserved vocal delivery Keenan has used with TOOL, gentle, but assertively banishing fear, doubt, and negativity throughout the title song. The softer vocal stylings suit the music of the record well, as this definitely is not the heaviest record the band has released, but that is not to say that the album doesn’t have its fair share of chugging guitars, pounding bass riffs, and insane double-bass work. This collection of songs finds that band at their most reflective, and the lengthiness of the songs allows them to explore their various reflections in full.
Lyrically, the album seems to be divided in half thematically. The opening trio of “Fear Inoculum,” “Pneuma,” and “Invincible” all share messages of facing fear, unity, and strength. The hypnotizing “Pneuma” finds Keenan asking us to remember that “we are born of one breath, one word / we are all one spark” over a swaying bassline and guitar chords that tonally echo the band’s hit “Schism.” The borderline words of positivity seem worlds away from the welcoming of the apocalypse of “Aenima” or the cynical social criticism of “Vicarious.”
Album highlight “Invincible” serves as a rallying cry for the band, questioning their ability to stay relevant as they age. A true slow burner, a quiet muted guitar riff repeats over minimal, precise percussion as Keenan lyrically retraces his journey with the group over the years. Soon the opening riff becomes louder and distorted, the drums become a slow pound before cutting out completely while Keenan’s vocoded voice fills the brief void. The song is a roller coaster that crafts a palpable tension through repetition. There are occasional solos and flashy fills, but never for the sake of taking up space. The musical choices here always serve the song as a whole piece.
“Descending” marks the turn in the album’s mood lyrically, as the near-positive concepts from the first three tracks are introduced to doubt and fear. Building off of a bassline that recalls “Wings for Marie” from 10,000 DAYS, Keenan ponders how we will face the darkness that stems from a “madness of our own making.” There is hope, but the doubts are growing. About half-way through the song, the tempo drops to that of a battle march with guitars that sound like a revving chainsaw before picking back up with Adam Jones shredding a twin lead with himself. The song layers in synths, flows from rhythm to rhythm, building and building until it drops out with the same sounds of crashing waves it opened with. The descent continues with “Culling Voices,” where the doubts that were introduced in “Descending” evolve into full-fledged paranoia. The shortest (10:05) of the seven full songs, it follows the most traditional song structure, switching between the quiet opening riff to plodding power chords that get louder as the song progresses. “Chocolate Chip Trip” follows, and I can say is that while I’m sure it will be super cool to see Danny Carey bang this out live, it had no business being on this record.
The album proper closes with “7empest,” a 15-minute sprawling epic that sees TOOL getting the closest they’ve ever been to their UNDERTOW sound. As a scorching riff over takes a prettily picked opening, Keenan repeats “keep it calm” through gritted teeth, as if he is begging himself to remember everything he has been preaching prior to this point before giving up and saying “Fuck, here we go again.” With that, we see the sneering, cynical, finger-pointing Maynard of old, calling out bullshit as only he can. It does not take a whole lot of analysis to determine whose “petulant stench and demeanor” is the target of Maynard’s disdain on this track, but is important to notice that even though the tranquility and light focused on in the first half of the album have given way to rage, there is still unity. It’s us versus them. “We know better / We know your nature.” The storm that is the turbulent society we find ourselves in is unavoidable due to the nature of those who are pulling the strings, so “the tempest must be true to its nature.” We cannot change this, but we can be aware. We can be angry, and more importantly, we can be motivated by that anger. The band is in top form here, perfectly complementing the turbulence with breakneck beats, quick time changes, and an epic four-and-a-half-minute guitar solo from Jones. The song rages on and battles for 15 minutes before slowly repeating the gentle opening riff over chimes before settling in silence.
FEAR INOCULUM is a phenomenal album. Is it a flawless masterpiece worthy of the 13-year wait for it to be delivered? No. But I honestly don’t think TOOL was working on this thing meticulously, working it to death in the same vein as CHINESE DEMOCRACY. In fact, I know they weren’t. Just as the world in 2006 has faced changes and challenges, so have the four very human members of TOOL; all of the members besides Keenan became fathers for the first time, the band faced various lawsuits, participated in other projects, and Keenan faced accusations of sexual assault. So the album happened when it happened. And suddenly, all the years of speculation and bitching faded away and the band finds themselves with another number one album with a 10-minute single with no music video or television appearances to promote it. That’s pretty damn impressive. If the band has another album in them, hopefully it doesn’t take so long to put it out. But even if it does, it’s become very obvious that the world is more than willing to wait for it.