Words by Andrew Lampela
The first time I saw Tool, it was partially by accident. Arrested Development had just taken the mid-day Lollapalooza stage, and no disrespect, but that is not what a sun-baked, slightly fucked up Andrew wanted to see under the blazing 1993 sun as he started to peak. I was aware of the side stage, and was even aware that Tool would play it at some point, but didn’t have much luck convincing the people I was there with to check out a bunch of bands they’d never heard of. I wandered up the dirty Buckeye Lake hill to what looked to me like a bunch of busted-ass pallets tied together, just in time to see Tool plug in and go. Undertow had just come out a few months earlier, I was slightly more than a casual fan, and I certainly wasn’t pissed to stumble up on them. However, they absolutely destroyed that side stage, a roiling ball of heavy tension and release, and I came away thinking “Man, those guys should’ve been on the main stage.”
We were all in college, with barely-there jobs and no need to dig for excuses to drive three hours to get wildly impaired with a couple thousand other people, so we all headed up to Star Lake a few weeks later to catch the show again. Lo and behold, Tool managed a spot on the main stage, early in the day. Maybe it was because my brain wasn’t quite saturated enough with…uhh…’inspiration’, but the main stage managed to disperse all of that tension and power, swallowing Tool. Oh well, just another band that will probably have a bit of success, right?
Here we are, in 2019, and Tool is one of the most commanding bands on the planet, for a multitude of reasons. Love ‘em? They are the pinnacle of progressive metal. Hate ‘em? They are the pinnacle of bands to talk shit on. Indifferent? Doesn’t matter, damn near everyone is going to tell you why you’re wrong to not pay attention. I never in a million years would have envisioned the heights of fame these guys would achieve. I saw them again in 2006, right after their last record came out. I mostly went to see Isis open, but was duly impressed with Tool’s stage show and absolute command of that stage. Still, there’s no way anyone would still give a shit if they decided to, I don’t know, wait fourteen years to put out a new album, right? That’s a longer time-span than most bands actually exist. Nobody but the most die-hard would still be frothing for a new album, right? Right?
Well, unless you’re savvy enough to lead an internet-less existence (and if so, I am truly and deeply envious), you may have seen that Fear Inoculum finally dropped, and hoooooooo-leeeeeee shit are people frothing. Tool mania knows no genre lines, becoming more of a cultural movement than a band. Literally, every fart these dudes have squeaked out over the last fourteen years has become Blabbermouth clickbait. “What could this fart mean? If Justin Chancellor had beans last night, that could indicate A NEW ALBUM COULD BE ON THE WAY!”. I get this tabloid level shit for the T. Swift and Lady Gagas of the world, but Tool isn’t what I’d call easily digestible, what with the impenetrable fifteen minute songs and all.
There are two reasons for this extreme fandom that immediately pop to mind. Danny Carey is a motherfucker of a drummer. Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, just casually drop the band’s name anywhere near a fan and they will surely fill you in. It’s exactly what makes talking to Rush fans so taxing as well, but it’s impossible to deny that Danny Carey is truly a motherfucker on drums, and is absolutely an acceptable lynchpin to Tool mania.
And then there’s Maynard. Look, I’m not here to shit on anyone’s fandom. Life is too short, like what you like, no judgement here, but Maynard is the Joe Rogan Podcast of frontmen. There is surely some above average content going on, but boy howdy is it floating in a vape-sized cloud of pomposity. He doesn’t make this easy. I can’t think of a more polarizing personality in the world of alt-metal. That last Perfect Circle record had some of the best, most mature songs they’ve ever written, but Pusifer is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard and, deep down, you know I’m correct about this. I appreciate that Tool doesn’t just pander like most of the angry-at-their-parents-they-still-live-with Nü Metal they share airwaves with, but between the Alex Gray artwork and the deep-dive thesaurus lyrics, the pseudo-intellectual bullshit side of the fan base makes it pretty insufferable to casually enjoy some Tool jams. You can’t choose your fan base or how far they run with the imagery, but Maynard leans in a little too gleefully for my liking. I’m all for taking the piss out of the industry… but Pusifer.
Mystical shit aside, however, I still think Lateralus is a high water mark for the genre. It hits all the right spots, and plays out equally to me as something to focus on or something to throw in the background while you’re baked and doing housework. 10,000 Days didn’t do as much for me and felt more like a less powerful holding pattern on what preceded it. That record still plays circles around anything my bands have ever done, but it definitely isn’t the one I go for when I want some jams. The pre-release hype machine had me, I guess worried is a bit strong of a word as I don’t really give as much of a shit if a record sucks as I did in my younger years, but on the underside of indifferent towards an album that consists of only fifteen minute songs. Being a music nerd, however, means that curiosity compels me to care. I mean, it’s not like this is Rob Zombie or some shit. At least Tool could conceivably put something interesting out that changes my mind.
Fear Inoculum splits the difference. On the one hand, from the very first minute, this sounds like… well, Tool. Hard to believe fourteen years has passed, as nothing has really changed on first impression. The long builds, the weird chants popping up, Justin Chancellor playing the same bass line for an hour, it’s all here. Dude has to be one of the most zen musicians out there. If you weren’t a fan before, there probably isn’t much here that will change your mind. In fact, at eighty five minutes, this album might even weed out some of those casual fans. On the other hand, with a little patience, this album shows a band that has matured into having complete atmospheric control of every single note put down. The pacing and mood of this album really rely on this being a single-sitting experience rather than a collection of songs, and at nearly an hour and a half, that is quite a challenge to ask of any fan, especially ones expecting super heavy songs about jerking off or Bill Hicks rants over some trippy noodling.
For starters, the digital version of this album contains three extra tracks, none of which added anything but more time to my ears. “Litanie contre la Peur” and “Legion Inoculant” are soundscapes, and “Mockingbeat” is bird noises over some techno beat gone wrong. Cool once, but they don’t do much in the scope of things to compel me to care about them. The rest of the album follows a familiar theme. Slow building introduction of the motif, kind of heavy part, some zoned out shit in the middle, and what passes for a heavy payoff for latter day Tool. It’s hard to imagine any of these songs inspiring a mosh pit, but where there’s a Tool fan there’s a way, I suppose.
“Fear Inoculum” kicks things off with a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe and is a pretty mellow way to introduce one of the most anticipated records in metal. It’s one of the more pleasant aspects of this album, that Tool absolutely don’t give a shit about genre anymore. Not that they ever did, really, but this song makes it very apparent they are going for something entirely different these days.
One of the stand-outs, “Pneuma” hits a little closer to expectations. There is some great Danny Carey work in the middle, and the last three minutes are the first to really strike me in the “oooh, a heavy part” area of my brain. “Invincible” is where my mind starts to wander a bit. The mellow-intro-slow-build pattern falls into the drawback category for me. If you’re going to have five songs in a row, each a minimum of twelve minutes, fatigue is unavoidable. The last half of the song is pretty cool in a Meshuggah on a fuck-ton of Quaaludes kind of way, but not the most memorable thirteen minutes of my day so far. “Descending” is much the same. Starting with some digital ocean waves and taking almost five minutes for the guitars to get above a whisper, it’s perfectly fine mood music but doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the overall flow here. “Culling Voices” takes even longer to kick in, but does fare a bit better. Maynard’s vocals are a perfect fit for this style of music, and this is a shining moment of what his full range can do. As mature as the previous songs were, this track shows just how much Tool has grown, instilling the same power into the quieter moments as the heavy hitters.
And then there is “Chocolate Chip Trip”, a Danny Carey percussion vehicle that, knowing full well I’ll get death threats for putting this to the digital page, is pretty distracting. As stated above, dude is a motherfucker of a drummer, and this is a pretty cool track on its own as he smokes, but drum solos went out with Humble Pie. It is a nice reprieve from the mellow-to-loud formula the album follows, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how stupid the title was and ultimately has distracted the flow on every listen so far. I know, I know…you’ve got to expect some of this ‘weird shit’ with a Tool album, but striving for atmosphere over the previous hour has to culminate in something other than this. I’m all for experimentation. I love fucked up music. I just don’t quite understand the jarring nature of ramming this into the last part of the album. Like I said, I’m expecting the avalanche of ‘you just don’t get it’ shit talk, but tack that shit on to the end and we don’t have a problem, do we?
That brings us to “7empest,” the payoff we’ve all sat through this thing waiting for, and fifteen minutes of serpentine Adam Jones riffing was pretty worth the wait. The band certainly aren’t in the same place they once were, and anyone waiting for a four minute feral crusher will be bummed, but this is Tool at their pinnacle. Heavy, off kilter, and unrelenting, this is the track I would suggest anyone that can’t decide about Tool should check out. You don’t like this, you most assuredly don’t like Tool. It’s one hell of an album closer. There are percussive notes running throughout the album from first note to last, tying it together into one large tapestry of sound and mood, and a much better way to end an hour and twenty minute slog of a listen than the aforementioned bird-call disco bullshit.
Fear Inoculum is a bold move for the band, considering a large part of their fan base might as well be a “that’s cool, have you tried DMT?” meme. Fourteen years is a long fucking time to wait for new music, and on first listen this album can be a bit underwhelming if you’re looking for the old Tool heaviness.
Although, what does a Tool review matter in this day and age? These guys have been selling out arena tours for the last fourteen years with nary a note of current music. They don’t care what I, or anyone for that matter, has to say about things. If you weren’t a Tool fan before this, you’ve certainly had your opportunity to try and I doubt this is the album that will sway you. That’s okay. It is a pretty solid album (well, most of one), though, that I’m sure we’ll all be sick of hearing about over the next month. My nerd brain feels pretty good about a non-mainstream record creating this much excitement in this day and age, whether it’s my thing or not, and let’s face it, it’s also pretty great that an album can still generate this much shit talk, cause that’s fun too! With a little patience, though, there are some pretty decent moments to be had here, and whatever keeps Maynard from making more Pusifer music gets a hearty endorsement from me. Let the maelstrom of smack talk begin!