Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
Thirteen years between releases of all-new material would seemingly be a long time for virtually any major band. However, in the case of Tool – whose new album Fear Inoculum is indeed their first since 2006 – the wait would most likely not have been that damaging, since it probably took most of that time to listen to their their last album all the way through. Okay, that’s an obvious exaggeration, but If you’re already familiar with the L.A. band (and having sold over eight million records so far, it would seem as though quite a few people are), you are well aware that one of the principle characteristics of their sound is that many of their tracks can seem – to put it as cordially and as simply as possible – long.
This continues with Fear Inoculum, on which six of the album’s ten cuts clock in at no less than ten minutes apiece. A casual listener or even non-fans also are well aware that Tool at least deserve credit for, if not re-inventing heavy metal, certainly carving out a unique niche, moving the genre beyond power chords, wake-the-neighbors vocals, macho posturing and censorship-bait cover artwork. Tool achieved this by taking cues from progressive rock and other rock genres which are traditionally more ambitious and far less about the lowest denominator (and Tool did all this starting in 1993, during a time when rock was obsessed with anything that could be categorized as “grunge”).
And if you’re already familiar with Tool, you already have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to be listening to when you buy, download or stream Fear Inoculum. This is not to suggest that familiarity should necessarily breed contempt: guitarist Adam Jones’ playing remains brilliant and concise while bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey continue to forge an unquestionably solid unit as the rhythm section.
Then of course there’s longtime lead singer Maynard James Keenan, whose perfectly understated vocals also have not missed a beat in the band’s absence. As is consistent with Tool’s sound up until now, the vocals are possibly the “quietest” thing on the tracks, one of rock’s most brilliant flip-the-script moves since the Sex Pistols put the drums in front of the band at live shows. Keenan’s vocal still sounds quite confessional. Except just what the heck is he confessing? Most Tool lyrics, at least when listening to the tracks and not Googling the transcripts, come off as besides-the-point. You often almost get the feeling that Tool longs to be an instrumental band (sorry, Maynard, if you’re reading this).
The only real standout words on Fear Inoculum can be found on “Invincible”: “Warrior struggling // To remain consequential // Below aloud // Bold and proud // Of where I’ve been // But here I am.” It’s a safe bet that this notion reflects Maynard and the band’s concern that as we approach 2020 they’ll still have a place in the current music climate (the worry was probably for nothing, however, since the album debuted at number one on the Billboard chart, even supposedly igniting outrage among Taylor Swift fans).
There are unquestionably moments of musical brilliance on the record, but the potential problem lies in trying to enjoy them in context. You won’t see Tool attempting a three-minute power ballad in order to expand their appeal to Top 40 radio – nor should they. But it’s very hard to deny that there’s some sameness to most of the songs, which will make Fear Inoculum a very, very difficult beginning-to-end sit-through for many listeners.