Music

Tool On The Frustrating 13 Year Road To ‘Fear Inoculum’

After 13 years of waiting, Tool's colossal 'Fear Inoculum' is nearly here. So what exactly took so long?

Tool

Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan has an unromantic take on the Californian quartet’s songwriting process.

“You’ve got four very strong personalities and they all…mostly disagree, and it’s a fight in the room to get your piece in and compromise with the other guys, and it’s a process for me that is frankly exhausting. Every decision should be to serve the song. But I get the dynamic, I understand the dynamic.

“But for one more strong-willed pig-headed person to be in the room while the rest of them are being that same way…four pig-heads in the room is bad. So I’ll remove my pig-head and let them have their pig-head interaction until they have sorted it out, and then I’ll roll in.”

If it sounds like the creation of Tool’s new album, Fear Inoculum, has been an exhausting, frustrating process, that’s largely because it has. Arriving 13 years after 2006’s Grammy-winning 10,000 Days, the delay has been caused not only by the band’s particularly tortuous songwriting methods, but by distractions such as a lawsuit between the group and their former insurance company, a regular touring schedule, and various personal concerns.

That the end result is coherent is, given its lengthy gestation, something of a miracle. It also features some of the band’s most daring work — no easy feat for an outfit that, since forming in Los Angeles in 1990, have carved a singular path to the top of the world’s charts brandishing a form of progressive rock and atmospheric metal that makes absolutely no concessions to the mainstream.

Case in point is Fear Inoculum, an album containing intricately constructed songs that range from 10 to 16 minutes in length, each taking the listener on a journey through shifting time signatures and labyrinthine musical passages. Produced by Joe Barresi, who helmed 10,000 Days, it also features a series of short interludes that act as palette cleansers, pushing the run-length of the digital version to nearly 85 minutes. (The physical CD will only feature one interlude and run slightly shorter due to the restrictions of the format.)

It says something about Tool’s rabid fanbase that when the LP’s title was announced on July 29th, the word ‘Inoculum’ became the most-searched word on the online Merriam Webster dictionary.

“Of course,” says Keenan, speaking from his home in Northern Arizona. “Get the word, kids! That’s the whole point, right? I come from a family of educators. My father and step-mother were high school teachers for their entire career before they retired.”

Not, he says, that that was at the forefront of his thinking when coming up with the title. “But if somebody learns along the way…that’s a collateral benefit.”

When the LP’s title was announced on July 29th, the word ‘Inoculum’ became the most-searched word on the online Merriam Webster dictionary.

Quiz the singer on whether the title means being inoculated against fear, and he’s non-committal. “It could go either way,” he says. “It’s definitely a polar statement. It could be someone who’s been inoculated by fear. And that’s the only thing they know.”

He will, however, concede that the album is informed somewhat by the times in which it was created.

“I would imagine accidentally, or just by proxy. Any time you’re going to write something, if you’re going to try and be transparent, just inherently there are going to be some topical elements that find their way in.”

Given the LP’s lengthy gestation, one wonders whether the act of finally walking away from its creation and declaring it done was a fraught process.

“It’s not hard to walk away,” declares guitarist Adam Jones from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s hard to get there.”

Tool

Tool by Travis Shinn, 2019.

In the past, Tool have drawn on mathematic principles to inform their songwriting, most notably on the title-track of their 2001 album, Lateralus, which features a riff influenced by the Fibonacci Sequence. Such principles are also at play on Fear Inoculum.

“We take math, we take geometry, we take different concepts and try and apply them to music and see if it has some kind of harmonic result that would be exciting or rewarding,” says Jones, before adding with a chuckle. “I always tell people, we’re not wizards, we’re not sitting in the light and we’re not these great thinkers, we’re just kids going, ‘Oh wow! I’ve got this riff and it kind of has this thing and there’s this concept, and it leads to something else.’”

According to bassist Justin Chancellor, some of the ideas on Fear Inoculum stretch back decades.

“We take math, we take geometry, we take different concepts and try and apply them to music and see if it has some kind of harmonic result.” — Adam Jones

“There are riffs on the new album that Adam had before I was even in the band,” he offers. “The last track, ‘7empest’ [pronounced Tempest], the main body of the first chunk of the song is a verse and then a really heavy recurring riff, something I came up with in [the time signature of] 21. We’d been trying to find [another riff that goes with it], and it ended up being something we’d tried on several albums, with different ideas, and it just never clicked. And then all of a sudden there it is and it works, and it totally is the complete thing that the other riff needed. I think Adam had that riff when we were trying to write for [1996’s] Aenima album. It just kept getting brought up and put on the side.

“Adam’s really cool like that,” he adds. “He’s very precious about the ideas we have and he’s always like, ‘Don’t forget about that, we’ll use it one day. You can’t be frivolous about them. You’ve got to respect the fact that they’re really worth something when you first come up with them and you think they’re good, so don’t throw them away.’ So we have this huge catalogue of stuff that we keep on the backburner.”

When Tool embark on their upcoming world tour in support of Fear Inoculum, it will, no doubt, include dates in Australia. Jones clearly remembers their first visit here in 1995 for the Alternative Nation festival, particularly the date in Sydney.

“I remember it like the back of my hand. It was fucking raining and the band Live were going on before us,” he recalls. “And the whole audience threw mud at them the entire time. And they came offstage like, ‘Fuck!’ They were cleaning mud out of their strings and pickups and I remember saying to our old bass player [Paul D’Amour], ‘Let’s just jump in the mud right now and go onstage so we can kinda be like, ‘Hey, fuck you guys, we’re ready for ya.’ And he went, ‘No, let’s just see how it goes.’

“And not one person threw mud at us. And I was just floored. And that’s how I’ve always looked at coming to Australia. The people there really get us, they love us, they’re very passionate and they’re very respectful. They’re people who [understand we’re] really trying to make a difference and not just be some cookie cutter radio shit.”


Rod Yates is a freelance writer and critic, and a former editor of Rolling Stone Australia. 

Photo Credit: Travis Shinn/Supplied