ALBUM REVIEW: Tool – Fear Inoculum

You are not really ready for the new Tool album.

Thanks for coming to my TedX Talk.

Now for the good stuff. We have spun the ‘Fear Inoculum’ single a ton now since the single dropped earlier in the month. It definitely came alive even more to our ears in the pre-release listening session. Sometimes a digital stream played in your headphones doesn’t really do justice to a track. Our initial feelings of this track being chosen as the title track and the lead track of the album were confirmed when heard with the entire context of the album. A gradual easing in, dipping the toes back into the cold, wet unknown. Many of the best elements of the album are found in this song including Danny Carey’s masterful percussion, deceptive vocals, great guitars, and percolating bass lines. All hallmarks of past great album opening tracks. The message it seems, and really for this entire album, is not that a storm is coming, but that it came and went, and you are what is left.

Next comes ‘Pneuma’, which appropriately comes from Greek and most literal expressions describe an ancient word for “breath”, and in a religious context for “spirit” or “soul”. But there is always another layer to the mutant onion when it comes to song meanings, especially with this band. Growing from the kernel of a tiny musical guitar motif is this powerful piece of music. Few bands can do the harrowing nautical sounding track as well, from the theme to theme, heavy and moody, pained, but hopeful in the same song as you will hear on ‘Pneuma’. The track takes you on an emotional journey hurtling towards the end, huge guitar chords, fresh bass lines, and fierce beats have smashed you senseless. Maynard James Keenan seems to be grappling with his fate here, lyrically speaking. Definitely one of the top tracks of the album

With a few more listens under our belts, it’s still hard to discern exactly what ‘Litanie Contre La Peur’ is all about beyond a cool segue between two monster tracks. There is definitely some evil messaging going on in there under the possibly backward-masked vocals, not unlike my neighbor’s barking dog sending me messages from Satan on a daily basis. Moving on…

The spiritual musical center of the album are the tracks ‘Invincible’ and ‘Descending’. The two lengthy, progressive metal songs show the class and maturity of the band. Each song building drama with every passing tone. Both songs have been played live, but on the album, they are so much more than what we have heard live. Layers upon layers of gorgeous guitars and effected vocals, subtle harmonies and odd rhythms that shine on in the final form. ‘Invincible’ is stunning. Long, but never dull, creating all kinds of heavy, monolithic chaos by the end of the song. When the eight-minute mark hits and Maynard uses a vocoder; going full-on Pink Floyd/Phil Collins, it’s a revelation.

‘Descending’ is no less thick with riffs and mysteries. It’s pretty much as we heard it this spring, but considerably longer than the version several years ago. A very chill start, but another track that grows into a monster. This is the grown-up, elder-statesman-of-Metal Tool. They do what they want. They take their time with each song. The song also makes proper use of a gong! These two songs may have the best performances in the careers of Carey and Jones on it, which is really saying something.

The ethereal chill track ‘Culling Voices’, full of post-rock licks and synths could be mistaken for MJK’s other bands. A real downshift. There is also some great percussive guitar playing by Jones. Following that up with the much talked about solo-drum piece ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’, Carey does his finest Neal Peart/Bill Bruford/Carl Palmer impression. A musical brain teaser. The label has confirmed that Danny programmed none of the blaring multi-timbre triggered synths you will hear, and played every beat live, in one take. You may not believe it when you hear it, but it’s further proof that this album is Danny’s signature record, like a drumming Choose Your Own Adventure book, except that every ending rules.

The penultimate track ‘7empest’ will also feel like one of the most important songs on this album. “7s” are baked into this album: 7/4 time signatures, 7s in lyrics and riffs and other Easter eggs. If we had told you that nearly thirty years into their career the band would make a track with two of the heaviest riffs they have ever written, and several killer guitar solos, there is no way you’d have believed us. This album actually has the most guitar solos ever on a Tool album, and Jones is the player here who has changed and evolved his personal style the most. Bassist Justin Chancellor also shines here as he does elsewhere. It also contains Maynard’s most aggressive vocals on the album. He never breaks into his high screaming wail once, though he is quite sinister sounding on this one. Finally, ‘Mockingbeat’ is a funny little track to end off on, but definitely needed after the preceding opus.

Lyrically this album is quite different than 10,000 Days, Undertow or any album the band has made. If there is a unifying theme here, it’s in the lyrics of ‘Invincible’, which is about knowing one is surely not in this world. When MJK sings “a warrior, struggling to remain, relevant”, he’s not just talking about himself, but the band as well. And it hits quite hard to this listener as well.

You will need several listens to really “get” this one. It’s diverse, complex, and challenging to the ear. Masterful music made by masters. The band left everything on the table, and nothing used feels cheap. This Tool album is destined to be praised by fans, hated by trolls, studied, copied, and followed, forever. Every word and note here has a purpose. In the end, this can be a lesson to fanboys and haters of all stripes. Let artists work things out at their own pace. You may be surprised at the results. It’s a helluva ride!

9 / 10