1. Tool released its fifth LP in 26 years on Friday. It’s called Fear Inoculum. It will likely be among the week’s best-selling albums, along with Taylor Swift’s Lover and Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! This is going to confuse people who are paid to be professional assessors of culture. What in the world is that album doing with those albums?? But it really shouldn’t.
2. It’s customary for a music critic to focus an album review on the lyrics, and write about they expound upon themes that will inevitably (because this is an album review) comment on The Current State Of American Culture. But I’m not going to do in regard to Fear Inoculum. Instead, I’m going to start with drummer Danny Carey. Because the drums on this album are sick.
3. Let’s say there was a spectrum of American coolness, with Steve McQueen on one side and Bret Stephens on the other. The resulting gap would equal the distance between Carey and the typical dude plugging away in a top-tier indie-rock group. I now feel embarrassed for nearly every band I’ve seen live this decade. Ninety-eight percent of professional rock drummers should retire after hearing Fear Inoculum.
4. At the six-minute mark of the fourth track (third on the CD), “Invincible,” Carey starts playing this unreal pattern on the toms that replicates the sound of the world’s deadliest and most precise sharpshooter swiftly eliminating an entire enemy platoon. I say “unreal pattern” because I can only play a very sloppy 4/4, and my technical knowledge on such matters is extremely limited. It’s possible that somebody who actually does know what they’re talking about wouldn’t even put this moment in the top 10 most impressive drumming feats committed on Fear Inoculum. All I know is this: When I listen to Carey blast away during this 30-second section of this 86-minute album (79 minutes on CD), I feel like one of the chimps touching the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can’t comprehend what’s in front of me, but I know enough to find it awe-inspiring.
5. These songs are long. Like, loooooooong. All of the proper tracks are over 10 minutes, with the digital version of the album inserting interstitial electronic tracks that typically clock in at a “normal” song length of three or four minutes. And you really feel every single one of those minutes. Each track is like a Lord Of The Rings movie, in that you assume several times that the song is about to end but it just keeps going on and on (and on and on).
6. But it would be inaccurate to call Fear Inoculum excessive. There are no 300-member children choirs. There are no world-class orchestras flown in first-class from Moscow. It’s a fairly lean record. It’s long but not bloated. At the nine-minute mark of “Descending” (only about 2/3rds into the song!), a really cool synth part suddenly materializes that is nothing fancy and yet blasts the track into the stratosphere. Little things like that matter.
7. Tool is generally perceived to be a metal band, but Fear Inoculum settles it once and for all: they’re full-on prog. But they don’t write multi-part suites, like Yes or Rush. Guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor essentially work slightly different variations on the same riff for the entire album. What if Metallica, instead of making … And Justice For All, told Lars Ulrich to cut the BPM in half and also get like 85 percent better at fills, while the rest of the band jammed on Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall Part 1”? You would end up with the 15-minute (!) “7empest,” the grandest and overall best song on Fear Inoculum.
8. I made a lot of jokes about Fear Inoculum before hearing it. I was convinced that it would not be good. When a band spends more than a decade working on the same record, the fear is that it will sound overworked and tedious. But Fear Inoculum is neither of those things. (I say this as a person who doesn’t think the other Tool albums are overworked and tedious — your mileage may vary.) The endless gestation period actually seems to have played to this album’s advantage. Not because they were able to take more care, necessarily. Rather, this sounds like an album that could have come out in 2009. Or 1999. It just sounds like a classic Tool record.