My history with Tool? Checkered. I didn’t tune in during their initial rage-metal period at all; if I had, I probably couldn’t have got past the vulgarity or the in-your-face attitude. King Crimson opening for Tool (in my mind, Tool closing for King Crimson) got my attention in 2001, and I thought that Lateralus was a nifty hunk of knotty art-metal, with lyrical directions that began to clear a path through the bile. 10,000 Days? For me, a loooong album that started strong, then meandered through one bizarre, tenuously connected detour after another. It wound up giving me a headache (also my consistent reaction to The Mars Volta). So no, Tool has typically not been my cup of tea.
Which is why I’m completely — and delightedly — flabbergasted by Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years. Beyond being as heavy, brainy and cathartic as one might expect, this is deeply thoughtful, richly layered, compelling music — a satisfying, unified work from start to finish that also rocks like a truck full of bricks. If this is what Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones and Maynard James Keenan have been aiming for all these years, it’s been well worth the wait, because they’ve nailed it.
In its CD incarnation, Fear Inoculum is a seriously immersive musical trip — a series of leisurely builds from quiet, rumbling beginnings, stair stepping through cyclical, constantly morphing riffs to gutsy, distorted climaxes that unpredictably cool down, double back on themselves, stop dead at their heights, or punch through to crushing climaxes. Carey, Chancellor and Jones never slacken as they interweave virtuosic percussion, freely rambling bass and endlessly inventive guitar — constantly playing off each other, swapping roles and ranges, shifting from stasis to dynamism on a dime. It’s amazing stuff that’s always growing and developing; I was reminded of everything from Beethoven to Steve Reich’s minimalism to 1980s Crimson, but Tool have taken these admitted influences and come up with their very own, very tasty blend. (If anything, the three brief interludes slotted into the digital version of the album provide a welcome respite from the non-stop intensity.)
Keenan — less the provocateur, more the shaman this time around — meets his collaborators’ inspired efforts with an impressive set of lyrics, delivered with controlled power and the soaring trajectories of ancient chant. Out of the blocks, the subject matter seems odd; if anything, the self-exorcism by controlled breathing of the title track and the Gnostic universalism of “Pneuma” recall Jon Anderson at his trippiest (albeit sung an octave lower). But the dour portrait of an aging hero in “Invincible” (“Warrior struggling to remain relevant./Warrior struggling to remain consequential.”) and the apocalyptic brooding of “Descending” (“Drifting through this boundlessness, this madness of our own making.”) sketch the high stakes Keenan desperately wants us to grasp. “Culling Voices” returns the focus to the ongoing inner struggle:
Psychopathy/Misleading me over and over./Judge, condemn and banish any and everyone/Without evidence./Only the whispers from within.
In the wake of Carey’s psychedelic drum solo (!) “Chocolate Chip Trip”, Fear Inoculum comes to a shattering climax with “7empest”; it’s the heaviest track on the album, the hottest out of the gate, and the closest to the spirit of early Tool — but also the one that best integrates the group’s thrilling musical and emotional growth. All the strength Keenan has labored to gather is flung at encroaching, personified evil (“Follow the evidence. Look it dead in the eye. You are darkness”); Jones fires off one inspired solo after another as Chancellor and Carey rumble beneath. The veil is torn to reveal a titanic battle against fear itself, one that will take all our resources to wage — or just to survive. Is the battle without, or within? Or maybe both?
Whatever your answer, music this mesmerizing, challenging, and genuinely thought provoking doesn’t come along that often — especially from bands with Tool’s level of popular and critical success. In the past month, they’ve made big news: first taking streaming services by storm with the release of their back catalog, then making the retail sector scramble for the 200,000 (immediately sold out) copies of Fear Inoculum’s deluxe CD edition. But the bigger story is this: Tool has stayed true to their goals, grown musically and lyrically while sharpening their artistic edge, made their fans deliriously happy, and brought new fans — like me — into the fold. Fear Inoculum is that good. Listen to it for yourself below.
— Rick Krueger (with thanks to Vertigo Music of Grand Rapids, for going above and beyond to get my copy of that CD edition)