Tool’s Fear Inoculum Is a Transcendent Return
It’s been a long wait for the new Tool album—and it’s been worth it.
On Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years, the band remain defiantly contrary to the auto-tuned, digitally-quantized world in which we now live. They continue to blur the lines between art, psychedelia, alt metal, and prog rock with undiminished curiosity and skill. This commitment to blazing their own path has already earned the band three Grammys and an army of fans too large to be called a cult following, and yet too fervent to be anything else. Those who have waited since 2006’s 10,000 Days for a new full-length album will find much to feast on among Fear Inoculum’s seven new songs. (The digital version comes with three bonus tracks, all instrumentals; but if you buy the CD, you can still download the additional songs.)
Tool have never followed the structures or strictures of pop music, but still, there is something surprisingly accessible about the album’s overall effect. The title track begins disarmingly with a repeating three-note pattern, evoking Philip Glass as much as Metallica, slowly building into a work of somber beauty and grandeur. (You can listen to it here.) Yes, there’s still drama, and darkness lurking not far beneath the surface, but—dare we say this?—it sounds like men approaching the apocalypse with a grin.
The band’s musical wanderlust is evident not just across the album’s tracks, but within each one. For example, “Pneuma” shifts from a vaguely Middle Eastern musical adventure layered with psychedelic synth lines to bluesy guitar lines played on a clean electric to massive slashing walls of distorted guitar, tripping through ‘60s blues rock, ‘70s prog rock, and ‘80s alt metal. It’s like a musical time machine, or rather a machine that questions the idea of linear time itself.
As with previous work, on Fear Inoculum, the band’s songwriting can at times seem like a riddle, daring listeners to lean in and figure out exactly what is going on. “Invincible” kicks off like the sonic equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, with a series of notes that turn in on themselves in a Gordian knot. It begins with disarmingly pretty vocals and guitars for a few bars, but even when a gripping assault of drums and bass come in, there is a sense of startling beauty, like stumbling onto a sylvan oasis in the middle of a war zone.
The album also finds Tool exploring some familiar musical themes: “Descending,” for example, showcases the kind of long-simmering tension the band is known for, with several parts moving in different harmonic and rhythmic directions. But instead of chaos, there’s a feeling of carefully controlled complexity. It’s a multivalent experience, like sonic cubism, almost as if listeners are hearing several points of view at once.
But if there is one overarching theme to the album, it is that things are not what they seem because reality is constantly changing. “Culling Voices” finds frontman Maynard James Keenan singing a melody that seems to bend—but not break—the rules of the Western tonal system. The song reveals itself slowly, like a snake wriggling out of its old skin. “Legion Inoculant,” one of the bonus tracks, is a short piece of sound design that creates a ghostly atmosphere, with low subsonic bass tones and rising mass of filtered human vocals; it transports listeners, but it never takes us to any specific world for long. Equally mysterious is an instrumental called “Chocolate Chip Trip,” an evocative cinematic experience that defies categorization. What we can say is there are bells—bells in a haunted belfry, bells in a dungeon. If this were a movie and you heard these bells, you would know something awful was about to happen.
While Tool are experts at evoking these sorts of epic cinematic moments, the band prove they can still thrash. In “7empest,” a minor guitar arpeggio gives way to a balls-to-the-wall metal stomp full of angst and inchoate anger, spiraling into control rather than out of it.
The digital version of the album closes with “Mockingbeat,” another segue, which raises questions: First, when an album ends with a segue, what are we segueing into? Silence? Or is it an invitation to notice the sounds that surround us when the music stops? Second, are those birds chirping? Or steel gears that have run out of oil, grinding and whistling as sparks fly? Or an army of sharp-toothed monkeys clawing at your door? “Mockingbeat” is an unmapped road that could lead anywhere.
And maybe that’s the point. Life is not what it seems; there is more lurking beneath the surface—or as the great Zen master Dogen said, “Expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.” Tool’s gift to the world is not a math equation to be solved; it’s an invitation to think and feel, not to follow someone else’s advice. In this sense, Fear Inoculum is a musical maze beckoning you with a vague promise that there is something of value to be discovered at the other end.