Notes On The Long-Delayed (And Very Good!) New Tool Album, ‘Fear Inoculum’

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.

9. Fear Inoculum transcends the space-time continuum, is what I’m saying. Please, whoever is running Tool’s Instagram: Please put this blurb in an IG story.

10. While I had Fear Inoculum streaming on a loop throughout the holiday weekend — I recommend grilling hot dogs while blasting “Pneuma” on headphones — I fear I have not yet truly heard it. Because I don’t have it on CD yet, and Tool is one of the greatest “compact disc” bands of all time. Nerds are already making YouTube videos waxing rhapsodic about the packaging for Fear Inoculum. My FOMO is intense.

11. I purposely held off on looking up the lyrics to any of these songs for the first several listens. Maynard James Keenan is unquestionably a dynamic frontman, and he sounds pretty great on this record. But I never care about what he’s actually saying. I know this puts me in the minority of Tool fans. Surely there are 5,000 Reddit pages that liken Keenan’s career-long thematic obsession with how mass culture is an opiate that dulls our ability to think critically about systemic oppression to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and the 102nd episode of a four-hour Joe Rogan podcast. And that’s fine, I guess. But for me, reading the lyrics almost always detracts from the Tool experience.

12. For instance, in “Descending,” Keenan sings this: “Free fall through our midnight / This epilogue of our own fable / Heedless in our slumber / Floating nescient we / Free fall through this boundlessness / This madness / Of our own making.” I suppose this links with the album title, which (I think) signifies how modern existence is dictated largely by fear, and that this album is in a way an antidote to that.

13. At least the way he says it sounds awesome.

14. The song from Fear Inoculum that will probably be the most quoted (because it seems the most lyrically significant) is “Invincible,” where Keenan sings, “Once invincible / Now the armor’s wearing thin / Heavy shield down / Warrior struggling to remain relevant / Warrior struggling to remain consequential.” You don’t have to be a professional music critic to presume that these lines reflect Keenan’s state of mind as a 55-year-old arena-rocker who for the past decade has seemed more invested in making wine than Tool albums. The likelihood that Tool will have another 13 years to make another record like this isn’t high.

15. Here’s a word you’d never use to describe any other Tool record: Elegaic. Unless Guns N’ Roses pulls it together to finally complete the Use Your Illusion trilogy, I can’t imagine a rock record by a legacy mainstream rock band ever feeling this epic again.

16. Fear Inoculum is the alt-metal Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

17. “If you were to invent a band that is completely antithetical to how popular music acts are supposed to comport themselves in 2017, you probably couldn’t do better than Tool. At a time when seemingly nothing is valued more in pop discourse than ‘relevance’ — an annoyingly opaque term that denotes an amalgam of commercial success, media coverage from the ‘right’ outlets, and social-media presence — the veteran alt-metal quartet barely registers.” I wrote that more than two and a half years ago, back when I thought this album might come out. But it still seems true now that Fear Inoculum is finally in the world. There is no rock band that’s as popular as Tool that also hates pop culture so passionately. Maybe that comes off as Gen-X posturing. But they also have a point: Stupid, ephemeral garbage does have exaggerated importance in our culture, and this overshadows the things that are deep, meaningful, and enduring. Though only in the short-term.

18. Sorry, this is how I talk after I binge on Tool for several days. My point is, people who hate pop culture still have a place in pop culture. And those people will buy Fear Inoculum on CD and keep it in their cars forever.

19. You might call that nostalgia. But you will be wrong. For the people who love this band, Tool never left. They’ve stuck around because what they offer is even more unique now than it was 1993. Just try finding Pink Floyd played in the style of vintage Metallica and supported with super-human drumming someplace else. You can’t. That’s why Tool is still around today. And will still be around tomorrow, too. They rule eternally.

Fear Inoculum is out now via RCA Records. Get it here.