With their fifth studio album, Tool paint themselves as warriors struggling to remain relevant.
After more than a decade of pig-headed creative infighting, lawsuits, side project distractions and crippling doubt and insecurity, Tool finally has released its fifth studio album to critical acclaim and a collective sigh of relief from fans and the band alike.
The result is Fear Inoculum, a nearly one-and-a-half hour swirling prog-metal odyssey. A cinematic, meditative record that is more focused on exploring gradually evolving sonic textures than reaching the histrionic crescendos of their previous work.
Gone is the band’s trademark finger-pointing vitriol and fire-and-brimstone moralising (think tracks like Ænema and The Pot). Gone is the stoner humour of tracks like Rosetta Stoned and Die Eir Von Satan.
Instead, the album wages an introspective war on personal demons, constantly cycling back to themes of fear, doubt, aging and relevance.
Fear Inoculum is Tool’s most personal, most vulnerable work to date.
‘Vulnerable’ might be an odd word to apply to one of the most celebrated and seemingly fearless metal acts of the past 25 years. But Fear Inoculum is a descent into the surprisingly fragile psyche of a band grappling with self-doubt, with age and with their artistic relevance.
Speaking to BBC’s Radio 1 about the 13-year gap between albums, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan said:
‘The fear of this thing coming out and not being accepted – the fear that it’s not as good as it can be – that can be detrimentally crippling. You’re paranoid it’s not going to be as good as it can be, so you second-guess every single step you make… it can be extremely daunting… the hard part is accepting that maybe you’re not nearly as important as you think you are.‘
In an interview with Guitar World, guitarist Adam Jones put it this way: ‘It’s not good when it’s done, it’s done when it’s good.’
Given the band’s legendary studio perfectionism and the almost OCD-level need to control every aspect of their music, you can imagine that ‘when it’s good’ might be a difficult thing for the band members to agree on.
According to Keenan, ‘it was fantastic eight years ago.’ But that didn’t stop the seemingly endless second-guessing and reworking. And this self-doubt and artistic insecurity resonates throughout the album, giving it a vulnerability that has been almost non-existent in their previous work. And that’s not a bad thing.
The title track builds slowly, anxiously and with dread-laden drones that feel like a dark reincarnation of mid-century minimalists like Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Keenan sings of purging ‘venom and mania’ and building an immunity to fear, a ‘fear inoculum’, as it were.
Given the atmosphere of fear and self-doubt that seemed to build around the band’s creative process, it’s hard not to view this track, and much of the album, as Keenan and the band yearning to be free of these psychological and artistic blocks.
In Descending we get a call to arms, an impassioned plea to rise above lethargy and inaction.
Stay the grand finale
Stay the reading of our swan song and epilogue
One drive to stay alive
Muster every fiber
Again, it’s hard to see this as anything other than the band refusing to go gentle into that good night of artistic obscurity and irrelevance.
Invincible is perhaps the perfect distillation of the artistic fear and insecurity pervading the album. In classic prog-rock style, we have an aging band cast as the mighty warrior reflecting on past victories (‘Tales told of battles won / Of things we’ve done / Caligula would grin’) and yearning for fresh glories (‘Long in tooth and soul / Longing for another win’). The clear refrain of ‘Warrior struggling to remain relevant’ is hard to ignore.
Keenan even evokes Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth. This is clearly a band struggling with how to create something new without rehashing their former glories.
You could almost cringe at the cliché of it all, except that the band has clearly succeeded. Without simply rehashing past successes, Fear Inoculum has brought Tool charging into 2019, proving they are still one of the most vibrant and uncompromising rock acts in the world.
And it’s not all angsty pontificating. There are moments of old-school Tool’s unbridled fury. The nearly 16-minute 7empest takes aim at those in power using misinformation to lull the masses into a ‘dubious state of serenity.’ It’s the most aggressive track on the album and comes closest to the sound of Lateralus or 10,000 Days.
Lyrically, Keenan has given clear voice to the band’s fears and doubts. It’s interesting to note that his vocals, while not buried in the mix, are not given the prominence they’ve had on earlier records. His vocal delivery is also more understated, more yearning than aggressive.
While Keenan seems oddly subdued throughout much of the record, the same can’t be said for the rest of the band. Musically, Tool has never sounded more confident. The minimal use of overdubs and ‘Evil’ Joe Barresi’s surprisingly stripped back and clear production work lets the band’s virtuosity and rhythmic interplay shine.
Guitarist Adam Jones is given more space to move than ever before. His playing is a master-class in subtlety, poly-rhythmic technical mastery and crushing metal riffs. Despite acting as anchor to the more elaborate tendencies of the band’s rhythm section, he’s allowed extended solos and time to unfurl complex riffs (see Descending or the synthy riffing of Invincible).
The almost symbiotic relationship with bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer extraordinaire Danny Carey is on display throughout the album. At times it can be hard to separate the interplay of riffs and rhythms. The band uses this dynamic to the fullest at the tail end of Invincible, building a chugging, hypnotic rhythm punctuated by the percussion pyrotechnics of Carey’s incomparable drum work.
Carey’s drums blaze across this record like wildfire. A tactile, textured drummer with more of the theatrical flourish of Neil Peart than the double-kick metal ferocity of Dave Lombardo, the full range of Carey’s staggering abilities are on display throughout the record. While never gratuitous or self-indulgent (although some may argue that given the drum solo of Chocolate Chip Trip), he’s given space to develop and evolve his rhythms through the extended running time of nearly every track.
Despite the accusations of selling out that the band met head-on with the 1996 track Hooker with a Penis, Tool has never been a band to bend to the strictures of the music industry. In the quarter-century since their first album they’ve remained enigmatic, uncompromising and true to their artistic vision.
Fear Inoculum is a significant step forward in the evolution of one of the most fascinating rock acts to emerge since the 90s. While there is nothing that resembles a ‘radio friendly’ single in the mould of Sober, Stinkfist or Schism it might still be the most ‘easy listening’ record in Tool’s catalogue. It’s the sound of a band plumbing their depths, facing their insecurities and coming out all the stronger for it.