Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’ Is the Album Fans Have Been Waiting For
It has been thirteen years since Tool released “10,000 Days,” their fourth studio album in a line of records released to critical acclaim and commercial success. Their hallmarks of alternative and progressive metal helped define the genre with seminal releases in the late ‘90s and early aughts. A band unlike any other, Tool are known for putting out heavily emotive songs that are cerebral and complex, yet primal. They pull from every end of artistry, often incorporating psychedelic, philosophical, and mathematical imagery into their aesthetic. Many fans will be quick to explain how Maynard James Keenan’s vocals on the title track of “Lateralus,” for instance, match up with the Fibonacci sequence — supposedly definitive proof of Tool’s genius.
Tool’s unconventional and meticulous approach to songcraft has sold millions of records worldwide and influenced countless metal bands over the past three decades, but after such a long hiatus, fans might not know what to expect from a new album. A lack of creative inspiration, however, has not been the reason for the delay. Band members have stated that the long absence of new music were due to matters related to a complicated legal battle that began in 2007 as a dispute over artwork created for the band. The entire ordeal led to years of litigation, which reportedly cost Tool millions of dollars. The lawsuit eventually culminated in 2015, and the band were eager to announce plans to finish a new record. Now, Tool have finally released their fifth album, ”Fear Inoculum,” and it’s anything but disappointing. It’s a sprawling metal album full of artistry and expansive songs marked by long stretches of meticulously-honed instrumental experimentation.
The title track, and only single off the record, starts off slow and hypnotic. The percussion and melodies are evocative of a psychedelic, desert soundscape before Keenan’s vocals breeze over the mix. At 10 minutes and 21 seconds, it’s the longest song to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100. There’s lyrical imagery revolving around a “deceiver,” and the song is formed as a sort of incantation or ritual for ridding the body of metaphorical poison. “Purge me and evacuate the venom and the fear that binds me.” There’s a large break with lead-heavy riffs towards the end, but, for such a long track, the “Fear Inoculum” is an exercise in perpetual rising and falling.
“Pneuma,” a word that means soul or spirit in Greek, begins with forlorn guitar chords drenched in delay beside restrained, softly-interjecting percussive textures. The first verse kicks off with a delay-heavy and mathy guitar riff before eventually picking up heavy steam. Keenan’s lyrics are marked by spiritual and existential mediation, “We are born of one breath, one word / We are all one spark, sun becoming.” There’s also a crystalline synth that cuts in around the three-quarter mark.
Tracks like “Litanie contre la Peur,” “Legion Inoculant,” “Chocolate Chip Trip,” and “Mockingbeat” are primarily short, textural and ambient interludes, meant to set the pace as palate cleansers between longer pieces. They’re a combination of musique concrète samples, vocal experimentation, and electronic influence.
“Invincible” begins with a crawling and repetitive arpeggiated lead. There’s a lot of syncopation on this track, heavier riffs, and machine gun drumming — especially towards the latter portion. It’s a song which makes use of a metaphorical aging soldier, alongside lyrics concerned with aging and time, feelings of inadequacy and irrelevancy, and the question of one’s direction and purpose. Keenan also mentions Ponce De Leon’s phantoms, and alludes to the fountain of youth.
“Descending” is a song that deals with impending threat to human existence. It’s a call to arms and an order to “stir from slumber” in order to stave off a “swan song,” “grand finale,” and “ruin.” Elsewhere, Keenan describes “[t]his madness of our own making” and a necessity to “[r]ouse all from our apathy, lest we cease to be.” It’s spacious, but also torrential and tempestuous — much like the other lengthy tracks on this record.
“Culling Voices” lyrically refers to hushing internalized and misleading voices of self-doubt. It’s mostly a slow-building and meandering track that is explosive towards the finish. “7empest” begins with light melody before launching into an extremely distinctive nu-metal riff and vocal line. Keenan invokes some twang over his verse vocals, which vaguely describe a dubious manipulator. The choruses illustrate an impending tempest. It’s a somewhat biblical sentiment to describe a flood that will cleanses the unjust, but it’s done pretty tactfully, especially when delivered over heavy riffs. “7empest” also clocks in at just shy of 16 minutes, making it the longest Tool song ever committed to record. It’s the last of the longer entries before interlude closer, “Mockingbeat.”
Overall, “Fear Inoculum” is an album that rewards listeners — and is meant for intent listening, at that. Lines of melody and musical texture on this record are ever evolving and complex. It’s conscientiously polished from both a production and musical perspective. From every lead, riff, vocal, and fill, it’s composed to near-perfection by experienced and stylized songcrafters. It’s a testament to solid musicianship, channeled in a psychedelic direction. There are some solid breakdowns which can knock you on your ass, but overall, it’s paced for a long, meditative endeavor from front to back.
The album’s centerpieces are colossal instrumentally-driven works, which easily run 10 minutes a piece. They explore the space between reservation and full dynamism, ebbing and flowing as the titular “7empest” describes. Keenan’s lyrics are thoughtful, pensive, and allegorical, pairing well with his celestial vocals, syncopated growls, gut-propelled soaring, or harmonic whispers. It’s a record that’s self-aware; concerned with aging, purpose, direction, and meaning. The themes are rather open and general, but feel pointed when put in the context of the band’s trajectory. In many ways, “Fear Inoculum” is the result of wandering the desert for thirteen years, but Tool have brought their fans to the promised land.