Eschewing live performances and bits of early tracks posted online, Fear Inoculum, released on Friday, August 30th through their own label, Volcano, and RCA, represents the first new material from Tool since 10,000 Days back in the spring of 2006.
After thirteen years (and four months) of near-silence, perusing the track listing of massive 90-minute album leads to several conflicting assumptions: these tracks have either been carefully mulled and culled over the extended waiting time; or instead, they have been hastily assembled, or worse, purposely extended to justify the waiting time; or, perhaps most truthfully, and basically, the fresh tracks are simply the result of the concentrated work and preparation by the band, whether the time passed was thirteen years, months, or weeks. The album quickly dismisses the second assumption and effortlessly fulfills both the first and last.
Spawned from the music and arts scene of Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Tool has reverted to early sounds and tones—including Justin Chancellor, who has always deftly walked around sound established by founding member Paul D’Amour, without ignoring it outright—but the epic tracks themselves fit snugly alongside the later, more mature efforts of 10,000 Days and 2001’s Lateralus. In fact, the four members – Maynard James Keenan on vocals, Chancellor on bass, Adam Jones on guitar, and Danny Carey on drums – have instantly been identifiable in other projects—most famously, Maynard James Keenan who wore a wig with A Perfect Circle since his voice made him otherwise identifiable—but it is within the context of each other that the individual members shine the brightest.
This all in mind, each instrument takes turns being melodic, rhythmic, and percussive, rooting itself in the overall groove or taking its turn in the spotlight with Fear Inoculum. The vocals may take a more reticent role than is common in modern rock, but within the context of Tool, the vocalist is simply another member, and another means of expression, rather than focal implement of their neighbors in the record store.
Outside of the instrumental pieces, each track crests past the ten-minute mark—and most of those easily stretch twelve—serving as smaller, self-contained mini-albums, almost movements within a larger symphony. Shorter instrumental ditties pepper these longer tracks, changing the stage scenery and readjusting the mood. For example, “Chocolate Chip Trip” stands separate, serving as a thick musical journey through the mind of Carey, with programmed beats and boops lying underneath an almost inhuman level of percussion with no other accompaniment.
It should be noted that physical copies of the record contain seven tracks, including “Trip,” with an option to download three bonus instrumental tracks; the digital copies come with all ten tracks by default, with the bonus instrumentals spread throughout. Still, the tracks work best as a cramped collection, each set of waves pummeling the listener over a dozen minutes, giving only the bare minimum of time in between to readjust and catch your breath before the onrush begins.
Tool may have aged, and matured, but so too has their core audience, so the near-positive messages within the lyrics should be a welcome respite to the anger and dissonance within. The visceral live portions of Opiate, as well as the bitter humor, if tongue-in-cheek, of Ænima is replaced by a nascent optimism. In fact, the opening title-track implores, “purge me, and evacuate the venom, and the fear that binds me.”
This is while “Descending,” apropos of its title, and is a slow building climb into classic Tool: crisp drumming from Carey, ethereal, plucky bass work from Chancellor, fuzzy guitar tones from Jones, and the disjoined, enchanted vocals of Keenan, and implores of its listeners, “muster every fiber, mobilize and stay alive… mitigate our ruin.” Rather than watch California sink off into ‘Arizona Bay,’ Tool has taken stock these past dozen years and realized the world may be worth saving after all. This in mind, they do seem to have a bit of fun poking their middle-aged bellies within “Invincible” with lyrics such as “tears in my eyes, chasing Ponce de Leon’s phantoms, so filled with hope I can taste mythical fountains.” Then there are tracks such as “7empest” which has, in part, been on the band’s mind since their early days. Across its fifteen minutes, the track meanders from guitar solos, to pounding bass rhythms, to crumbling drum staccato work, weaving an endless tapestry on top of which the vocals float and soar into the atmosphere.
Further listens to Fear Inoculum will only serve to shine light upon the fissures and cracks into which the band has buried dense musicianship, layered interpretations, and cryptic themes within these tracks. A random assortment of any given half of these tracks would serve as a welcome addition to, and progression of, the Tool discography; having all seven (to ten) is an embarrassment of riches that will hold fans over until the next batch of songs graces the plain. That is why Cryptic Rock is pleased to give Fear Inoculum 4.5 out of 5 stars.