Has any album in the history of rock music ever been as mystifying and mythical as Fear Inoculum? Thirteen years the world has waited for the fifth Tool album, and, rather than fatigue setting in, the anticipation levels seem to have grown and grown every year.
Even during Guns N' Roses' fourteen-year gap in the lead up to Chinese Democracy the band fed us an album name, the odd studio story, a soundtrack contribution here and there. The silence surrounding Fear Inoculum has been deafening, so it almost feels like some sort of bizarre dream to be relaying the facts of the album to you here.
But, Fear Inoculum truly does exist. Can anything live up to the expectation of such a lengthy period of inactivity? If any band can, then Tool would be a good shout to manage it. It’s also worth noting that this album hasn’t been 13 years in the making – rather, due to the touring schedule on 2006’s 10,000 Days, vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s other activities in A Perfect Circle and Puscifer (to name but two) and the legal wrangling that hung over the band, Fear Inoculum has been created over a three year period. And probably should be judged as such, even though it is tempting to set the bar sky high.
Whilst some online commentators have predicted the arrival of a set of songs that will utterly change the face of what we know as music, it’s fair to say that Fear Inoculum is a consolidation and continuation of what we know of Tool up to this point. Rather than re-invent the wheel or try and compete with contemporary trends, this is a record that takes the blueprint we know and love and sees the band add even more layers – more fat, more patience – and take some of their work to its nth degree.
No song on the record, other than the instrumental interludes, drops below the ten-minute mark. And although we present you with some opinions and considerations here, it should be said that none of us will really know just how good this album is for some time yet. Such is the level of depth and draft on display from the four members here.
With that caveat, here is our track by track guide to Fear Inoculum in all its glory.
1. Fear Inoculum
Opening with discordant sounds and electronic bubbling, the title track and album opener draws you in slowly for a minute before characteristic tabla comes in. Another minute in, and Maynard James Keenan’s honeyed voice slips in to deliver the line, ‘Immunity, long overdue, contagion I exhale you’; on a basic level, Fear Inoculum indicates vaccinating yourself against fear. Another minute in, and he’s chanting about blessing the immunity. Then another minute: a chorus, the payoff, as Maynard’s voice takes on an almost spiritual quality.
Around the seven-and-a-half-minute mark, there’s another moment that sounds a prayer or a ritualistic incantation: ‘exorcise the spectacle, exorcise the malady, exorcise the disparate poison for eternity’. It’s hard not to imagine the vivid Alex Grey artwork from Lateralus, white light rushing out of a body knitted together by sinew and tendons. The lyrics are full of references to the breath, and there’s clearly something about human life and connectivity going on here.
The journey continues as Maynard’s vocals are flooded by those Tool polyrhythms. The last minute is one of the most intense parts of the song, the riff reminiscent of Parabol’s opening on Lateralus, while the whole thing echos that album’s Reflection. It’s the sort of thing you’ll want to listen to in a darkened room with your eyes closed.
Fear Inoculum is a lengthy, polyrhythmic song that slowly reveals its secrets. A carefully calculated trip that nevertheless hits emotional pressure points. And from this moment on, we know it’s going to be great to have them back.
As Danny remembers it, Pneuma’s memorable riff was one of the first things they wrote for Fear Inoculum. The song harks back to third album Lateralus; there are echos of The Patient, and the extended part of Schism they play live.
Lyrically, it flows on from the title track’s declaration, ‘Immunity, long overdue, contagion I exhale you’, with a continuing focus on the breath. In philosophy, Pneuma refers to a person’s vital spirit, soul, or creative energy. From Greek, it means ‘breath, spirit, wind’, related to ‘pnein’ – to blow, breathe.
Maynard uses the idea of the breath to explore human connectivity, through lyrics such as: ‘Pneuma, reach out beyond / Wake up remember, we are born of one breath, one word / We are all one spark, eyes full of wonder.’ It’s something he not only touched on with Lateralus, but with last year’s A Perfect Circle album, Eat The Elephant. The song So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (a reference to the dolphins deciding to leave a doomed Earth in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) spoke about wasting time on distractions such as ‘diets, lawyers, shrinks and apps and flags and plastic surgery’ when we’re so much more than that.
He told us last year: “I think being alive is fun. Have fun with being alive. Do what you’re gonna do. But if your primary concern are all those things, you’re probably missing out on a lot of things. A lot of connection. You’re missing out on a lot of connection if you truly believe you need to do all those things, and focus on those things, and obsess about those things. There’s a lot of wonderful shit out there you can probably connect with.”
What are the best things for you?
“Family. Friends. Um... planting and growing. Working with people to create soundscapes. In some cases escapist rides, in others, inspirational, call-to-action rides.”
3. Litanie contre La Peur
Tool have often evoked a sense of Eastern mysticism in their music, Litanie contre La Peur uses that sonic tableaux once again. A short two-minute trip of almost snake charmer-esque melodies, but this time played with the classic synthesiser sound of prog rock at its most gluttonously excessive. It feels like you’re about to watch a scary scene from an old episode of Doctor Who, such is its retro nature.
The first of two songs they’ve already debuted live, Invincible talks of a ‘warrior, struggling to remain relevant’. Given the 13-year wait for this album, and the band’s thoughts about getting older (“As you grow older, you wanna learn, you wanna change, you wanna evolve, and you don’t want to live in fear” Justin tells us), it’s tempting to read these lyrics as being personal and close to the bone.
The long, winding introduction was an early product of Tool’s writing sessions. “I know Adam had been refining the intro to Invincible for a while, I think even this riff on Invincible was one of the first things that we started jamming on,” says Danny.
The intro is so long that there isn’t any bass for the first four minutes. In Metal Hammer’s Tool cover feature, bassist Justin Chancellor talks about debuting Invincible live, and how he started pointing at the crowd to occupy himself during the break. The crowd would clap along to the polyrhythm. When Maynard asked him to stop doing it because he found it distracting, Justin denied they were clapping along with him, but complied. The next night, the crowd clapped anyway – proof that they had been clapping along with the polyrhythm. Only at a Tool gig…
And then there are those false endings, confusing crowds on Tool’s recent run. Again, only at a Tool gig...
5. Legion Inoculant
It’s tempting to wonder what Tool have been listening to during their absence, and, in the main, Fear Inoculum doesn’t really reveal too much, other than that the four members have been listening to each other.
But there is a slightly new influence from electronic music, and particularly the early 80s synth of John Carpenter or Vangelis. Legion Inoculant is one of the best examples of this, taking the harsh noise of industrialised, metallic synthesisers and crafting a soundscape that wouldn’t be out of place on a Blade Runner soundtrack.
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The other song they debuted live in spring. Its ethereal opening calls back to 10,000 Days’ Wings For Marie (Pt 1). The bass part is reminiscent of You Lied, a song by bassist Justin Chancellor’s former band Peach, and covered on 2000’s Salival.
The song sounds lulling and dreamlike, echoing the sentiment of lyrics about how we’re ‘heedless in our slumber’, free-falling ‘through this boundlessness, this madness of our own making’. It reminds us that ‘falling isn’t flying’ and ‘floating isn’t infinite’. Ie if we’re apathetic about the situation we’ve created for humanity and our planet, we’ll all fall to our death. The clue’s in the title, too: Descending.
He talks of ‘our swan song and epilogue’, again recalling A Perfect Circle’s So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish. The chorus summarises the song’s call to action: ‘Stir us from our / Wanton slumber / Mitigate our ruin / Call us all to arms and order’.
Maynard stops singing halfway through the 13-minute song. Towards the end, there are spacey electronics, like something from an old sci-fi movie, conjuring a subtle sense of dread about what might happen next. When they play it live, a giant pyramid visual looms behind the stage, fire raging around it like the apocalypse has begun. Descending might be a long prog song rather than a short, sharp, angry shock, but there’s a deep urgency to it nonetheless.
7. Culling Voices
Again, this is another slow-building, and mostly mid-paced, number. This time, Maynard enters the fray far earlier than he does on the majority of the album. It begins with a low synthetic hum before his whispered croon and Adam Jones’ clean, lightly picked guitar part work in tandem for the opening of the song, each a repeated pattern.
Keenan sings of ‘Psychopathy, misleading me’ and ‘Conversations we never had’, before the song's main hook, ‘Don’t you dare point that at me’ is delivered through almost gritted teeth. Like much of Fear Inoculum it’s tempting to wonder if the band are reflecting on their own legacy, on the public reaction and opinion of them and their elongated hiatus. Is Keenan referencing displeasure at his own perceived reputation? Like so much of Tool it’s almost impossible to be totally sure, but this is a band with previous for referencing criticism of them in their back catalogue, and Keenan sounds a mixture of embittered and melancholic throughout.
It takes nearly six minutes before Justin Chancellor’s bass, higher registered and playful, comes in, and another thirty seconds before Danny Carey adds some tribal drum patterns to the songs. Just shy of the seven-minute mark, Tool lock together into an irresistible groove, lower it, and then bring it back to ride the rest of the song out.
A brilliantly-executed exercise in songwriting restraint.
8. Chocolate Chip Trip
This woozy interlude is essentially a drum solo wrapped up in electronics. Danny Carey’s been playing it live – you might recognise it from setlists as CCTrip. But as it’s Tool, it’s not your average drum solo. Electronic loops bump up against beats in an experimental, retro-future sort of way. Danny tells us it’s his tribute to fusion/jazz drumming legend Billy Cobham, and a nod to the record’s association with the number seven (see: the time signatures on the record and their seven-pointed star onstage):
“I’ve just always loved Billy Cobham, he was one of my favourite drummers, this fusion guy from the 70s,” Danny explains. “He played with Miles Davis, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He did some really cool solo records too, that were a big inspiration on me. He kind of did a solo like that, you know – just got a really crazy sequence going, I believe it was on an ARP2600 [synthesiser]. I thought that was really cool, so I thought I’d do something similar.
“But since this record had the seven thing going on, I got a sequence going into seven, so I just soloed over the whole thing in seven. But it was really done as sort of an ode to him, because I loved Billy’s playing that way.”
Although Tool used to drop acid during practices, Danny says he hasn’t done it for a decade – though the song was inspired by previous psychedelic experiences.
“It’s more fuelled by chocolate chip cookies than it was acid, you know, ha ha!” he laughs. “Not that the vision didn’t come to me years ago when I was tripping, but I always wanted to do something like that.”
After the madness of Chocolate Chip Trip we are eased in to 7empest slowly, as a plucked riff from Jones is complimented by Carey’s off-kilter chimes. Although the two don’t initially fit together, both adapt and merge, before the clean pluck becomes a wah-wah riff and Keenan growls (for the only time on the album) ‘Here we go again’.
It’s as linear, as metal if you like, as Tool have sounded or will sound on Fear Inoculum. After Keenan spits out the verses, we get a Meshuggah-style polyrhythmic riff that most bands would lean on for an entire song. Jones plays it for a few bars and then drops it.
As Jones’ solo comes in just shy of the six-minute mark, you feel that this is the closest that Tool have got to a more traditional songwriting structure on this record. That we then get a beautifully wailing three-minute lead from the guitarist gives some indication that the second act of the song will not behave in such a manner.
Each musician is on stunning form, and they take turns in adopting the lead role in each song. But on 7empest, we are clearly led by Jones. His tone, turns of pace and personality dominate the entire track. When Keenan does finally re-emerge, he does so with a staccato bark that recalls Tool’s earliest days. But, again, his contribution is brief.
Once again, Jones dives in and grabs the track by the scruff of the neck. He veers from more polyrhythmic blasts to harsh, sharp, screaming notes, before bringing the song to a close as it began: with his clean picking and Carey’s delicate chiming.
It’s the longest song on the record with a fifteen minute forty-five second run time, and it’s definitely the most diverse song on the record, sonically diving from one extreme to the other.
It might just be the greatest achievement on a record of exquisite quality. And, maybe, even one of the best songs in the band’s entire career.
If you've waited this long for a record, you'd probably expect it to end with a bang, right? Well, if you're expecting that from Tool, then let this be your warning to never second guess the Californians. Mockingbeat is almost certainly guaranteed to leave listeners asking ‘Is that it?’, being a series of bird noises that have been manipulated to sound... well, just a bit weird. Tool, eh? Jokers!
Tool's new album, Fear Inoculum, is available now via Music For Nations/Sony Music. Tool are currently on the cover of the latest copy of Metal Hammer – find your nearest copy for access to our exclusive interview with the band plus free bonus magazine.