Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’ Is An Urgent, Breathtaking Return
'Fear Inoculum' isn't a look back at the past, but a finger pointing firmly towards the future.
It’s an old paradox of the music industry: the better you get at writing songs about how angry you are at the world, the more successful you become, and the more successful you become, the more that the problems of the world don’t affect you.
Think of Black Flag, once one of the most urgent and essential bands on the planet, slowly morphing into a bunch of rich and famous dads trying to write songs about how much they still love to skate. Or Johnny Rotten, the spearhead of the English punk movement, calcifying into a Tory baron named John Lydon who smears himself across daytime television panels to talk about how good young people have it these days. Success curdles everyone — you either give into it, or you pack up your toys and go home.
For a while there, it looked like Tool had taken the latter route. The band haven’t released an album in 13 years, time they have spent with side projects, or, in the case of frontman Maynard James Keenan, mucking about in a vineyard. From the outside, the retirement looked permanent.
And maybe, at least on the face of it, for good reason. The band’s sound — twisty, multi-layered prog metal that borrows as much from Genesis as it does Black Sabbath — has largely fallen out of the commercial zeitgeist. So, indeed, has rock music itself.
Back in the ’90s, when Tool first punctured the mainstream, their music was a neat subversion of the dominant style. They took the basic metal plugging up the airwaves, and then they complicated it in every imaginable way, making it denser, and louder, and stranger. Now, there is no rock mainstream to bounce off. Such formal experiments are more common than the model they seek to subvert.
The villains were simpler back then, too — much easier to identify. Keenan could gesture with one hand at the sociopaths killing the planet without ever having to pick them out. “Learn to swim,” he snarled, safe in the knowledge that his audience shared the same reference points with him. Not so nowadays, an age where villains present as allies and vice versa; where there’s only one consensus: that nobody agrees with anybody else.
Hence the degree of concern that accompanied the news that Tool were back in the studio. Not because it was inconceivable to imagine what the band might sound like after over a decade apart, but because it was far too conceivable; because we’re all used to the sound of our heroes failing us. We all knew what a bad 2019 Tool record might sound like. Less clear was the path to a good one.
The fear was unfounded. The band’s new record Fear Inoculum is that rarest of pleasures. It’s excellent, for a start — the unusual reformation album that’s been stripped of flab and late-career noodling. But more than that, it is the sound of a band smart enough to know that they need to change. A version of AEnima littered with Trump references would be an exercise in pure cringe. But that’s not what Fear Inoculum is: Tool have found themselves by abandoning their own habits almost completely.
We’re all used to the sound of our heroes failing us. We all knew what a bad 2019 Tool record might sound like.
Note the ‘almost’. Many of the band’s most cosmetic hallmarks are still on display, from the lengthy running times, to Keenan’s aching, melodic voice, to the giddy sense of pessimism flung all over the thing. ‘Invincible’, the record’s most classic track, even builds to the crushing climax that AEnima fans will have been waiting to hear for decades, a wall of pure sonic doom. ‘Culling Voices’ eventually does the same thing, but not before running thrilling circles around itself, as one rising keyboard refrain repeats over and over again.
But most songs do not end so easily. Tool are just as sonically precise as they ever were, though this time around, they’re confident enough to simply flirt with release. The album’s shorter songs, the scrappy ‘Legion Inoculant’ amongst them, build-up to precisely nothing, rocking and ebbing before collapsing in on themselves. The result is a sense of circularity; of things repeating; of a conclusion hinted at but never realised.
Indeed, the key to Fear Inoculum is the band’s decision to hit loose targets, rather than the itemised litanies that defined their output in the late ’90s. Tool are still angry, of course — still convinced that human greed and stupidity is choking the planet. But that anger has gotten vaguer.
It is the difference between pointing fingers at California and pointing fingers at the very notion of human settlement itself — between being sick of specific human beings and coming to the opinion that we are all a plague let loose on the earth. Thus: ‘Descending’, a 14-minute treatise on all of the ways that we disappoint one another, and ‘7empest’, a demented, mournful howl that breaks down into a series of blunt, short misdirects, like Keenan is feinting and dodging with his audience.
That latter song, the record’s longest, might be one of the band’s masterpieces. Keenan is one of those troublemakers who has had the misfortune of being canonised; once a mohawked outlaw, now a rich father who spends his free time selling pricey bottles of red. But you wouldn’t know that by listening to ‘7empest’. There’s nothing safe or even familiar about the song. It is Tool making something different but the same; extending rather than replicating themselves.
You would have been an optimistic fool to assume that a bunch of 50-year-olds might release one of the most urgent and necessary rock albums of the year, playing with a musical form that is only getting less urgent and less necessary. But you would have also been right. That is Fear Inoculum – not a reformation but a reinvention; not a look back at the past, but a finger pointing firmly forward, towards the future.
Joseph Earp is a music and film critic. He tweets @Joe_O_Earp.