There’s a great quote from Adam Jones in AP’s first cover story with Tool, dating back from 1997. “The bottom line is that we’re pretty selfish,” the guitarist stated succinctly. “This is our thing, and it’s what we want out of music. The fans are pretty secondary to that.” Which adequately explains why the Los Angeles outfit didn’t feel the need to make a record for 13 years. That’s all you need to know. It’s a huge deal because, well, look around you. These are interesting times. Now, more than ever, we need art and culture that reflect the quagmire of stress, uncertainty and fear facing us. And Tool’s timing with Fear Inoculum couldn’t be more prescient.
Fear Inoculum isn’t a quick-fix listen. There are 10 tracks on the album, with half of them in the 10-plus-minute realm. The longest and heaviest, the centerpiece “7empest,” clocks in around 16 with another four shorter sound-design pieces acting as interstitial, atmosphere-heightening devices. It’s a record that you schedule into your life to experience. In an environment where everybody has a single coming out every 20 days, Tool forgot to read the memo. (Actually, they probably saw the subject line, hit the “spam” button and carried on.)
Tool are past the idea of consciously making grand statements with their music; they merely present their voice. In the process of being heard, however, they’ve been able to give a precordial thump to the pallid carcass of progressive rock and abstain from the typical trappings that got them tagged with terms such as “art metal.”
Sure, signifiers of their previous records remain: Maynard James Keenan is still a profound vocalist that’s one part soothsayer, the other part exhausted pragmatist. Jones continues to bring the riffery that gives the band its heft (“Pneuma”), approximating what could’ve happened if Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi went to art school and not welding. Drummer Danny Carey makes the space between his beats positively hypnotic. It’s all revealed on the title track, which opens the album.
That is certainly not to say that Tool have gotten “light.” With complete nihilism toward rock cliches (no “harder, faster, louder” tropes here), much of Fear Inoculum conveys tension built on careful dynamics acting as whispers than feral screaming. “Descending” is an unfolding vista of tension and darkness, with Keenan’s vocals exploring the follies of humanity (“Stir us from our wanton slumber/Mitigate our ruin/Call us all to arms and order”) while the rhythm section of Justin Chancellor and Carey shore him up with a dark groove before Jones runs a perfectly phrased slide guitar to enhance the journey. Even the exploratory tracks (especially Carey’s excellent drums-and-sequencer workout “Chocolate Chip Trip” and the field-recording postscript “Mockingbeat”) convey a sense of urgency and discovery.
Given their steadfast contrariness about their art, one can’t help but wonder if the members of Tool predicted (empirically, psychically, mathematically) the division, discord and ignorance that’s seemingly covered the planet in recent years. Tool waited over a decade to deliver a foreboding and arcane communique that defies their previous work in all the best ways. One could posit that in the interim, the world’s ears have finally caught up with them.
Don’t bet on it: Fear Inoculum is enough evidence that anything steeped in convention (come on, what genre isn’t?) can always be taken down a peg, exalted several parsecs or have something irreparably etched into its veneer to change the form forever. Tool waited long enough for someone else to do it, only to find no takers. If you want something done, period, do it yourself.