Tool – ‘Fear Inoculum’

By Fiachra Johnston

Some projects seem to be destined for the ether. To any prog rock fan in the last decade or so, a new Tool album was just a pipe-dream – a nice idea to hope for, but never to expect. The last outing by the psychedelic quartet, ‘10,000 Days’, was a full thirteen years ago, and as side-projects, lawsuits, and somehow several scooter accidents endlessly pushed back production on new material, it seemed as though whatever was meant to come next would never see the light of day.

Fast forward to 2019, and suddenly, it’s here. After only a few months notice, Tool’s fifth LP, ‘Fear Inoculum’, is upon us and it has the unenviable task of having to remind us why we clamoured for more music for so long. Fortunately, enthusiastic wine salesman Maynard James Keenan and company have put together something truly mind-bending. This is Tool at their most complex, their most refined, and their most engaging in, well, thirteen years.

Of the ten tracks on the album, six clock in at over ten minutes long, for a runtime of nearly 90 minutes. Three tracks have been left off the physical version for this reason, all ambient-instrumentals that supposedly stem from the band’s previous wish to make the album one long song. These tracks – ‘Litanie contre la Peur’, ‘Legion Inoculant’ and ‘Mockingbeat’ – are short (for Tool) industrial interludes that any fan will be familiar with. They serve their purpose as little moments of respite while you try to comprehend what potent, and probably quite expensive, combination of substances Tool took to produce this, or indeed any, of their albums.

Though these tracks are welcome, they are only aperitifs to the rest of the meal. While the title track felt a little underwhelming upon release (although, let’s be honest, it was always going to be after the wait), its problem of being little more than a refined, by-the-numbers Tool song isn’t nearly as much of an issue for the rest of the album. This isn’t an innovative record, in the sense that they’ve taken their sound in a completely new direction – rather, they’ve doubled down on their longform, acid-trip style of storytelling. Songs like ‘Pnuema’ and ‘Descending’ sound like they could have come from ‘Ænima’ or ‘Laterelus’, but there’s more clarity to them, perhaps due to the cleaner production. It’s as if the smoke and mirrors have been thrown away to show exactly how the magic trick is being performed, only it’s performed so smoothly you can’t help but still be confused and entertained. This production is lacking in places and does end up missing some of the roughness that aided past albums, but the technical prowess of Tool’s musicians make up for it.

Keenan plays the part of front man well, though he is less of a focal point this time around. Much like his presence onstage at liveshows, he feels distant at times; quiet and unobtrusive, always leading but never forcing the music in a specific direction, instead using the space he creates to allow the rest of the band to shine. When he does go all in, it sounds more akin to his newer work in A Perfect Circle than the gritty, raw performances of old. Keenan does not scream like he used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a performance. Tracks like ‘Invincible’ demonstrate this as he quietly worms his way in and out of the music before taking full control for a spectacular finish.

This vocal performance is matched by Keenan’s grandiose, cryptic lyrics, which will no-doubt be deconstructed and theorised over by die-hard fans for months to come. Tool themselves have said that this is an album about the wisdom acquired from age – a fitting theme for this album, and lyrically many of the tracks follow this theme of knowing time has caught up, but being aware that you’ve grown to face it. Lyrics range from tenebrous to witty to completely off the rails (“No amount of wind could begin to cover up your petulant stench and demeanor”) and, mixed in with Keenan’s vocal work and the anxious and frantic guitars of Adam Jones, they end up sounding like the esoteric chants of a cult, draped in conceptual mysticism.

Keenan, Jones, and bassist Justin Chancellor all play their parts to perfection, but it is the drumming of Danny Carey that brings the record together. Carey has always been vital to Tool’s unique sound in prog, but he has only improved in the time since. ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’, like the three digital tracks, is an instrumental interlude, with retro science fiction ambience accompanying Carey through a solo. It’s a fitting track for a man who claimed his drumming techniques help him open a gateway for a daemon to deliver sermons through his performances, as it’s four minutes of Carey going utterly ballistic and displaying some of the most technically impressive percussion in rock today, showing just how much of Tool’s sound is dependant on his work.

‘7empest’, as the last track on the physical release, is far and away the best track of the album. It’s a brilliant display of the four working together in a perfect tandem of both old and new vocals by Keenan, incredible percussion by Carey, and perhaps some of the best work of Jone’s and Chancellor’s career as they match Keenan’s wails with screaming riffs and walls of deep sound. It’s not Tool’s magnum opus, but it’s absolutely a masterclass on their style.

Tool have aged gracefully, and the familiarity of everything on this album is very welcome. While nothing could ever live up to the unrealistic expectations set by a decade long wait, at its core this is exactly the kind of album Tool should have released – one that displays an improvement in style and substance, but that doesn’t sacrifice any complexity for its newfound precision. If it has to be another thirteen years before another album, then this will be a welcome addition to the discography until we hit 2032. If it’s their last, Tool can say that they stopped on what shouldn’t have been, but by all accounts is, a very high note.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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