You could say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but living with the elusiveness of possibly the biggest cult band ever, Tool, is simply part and parcel of being a fan.
So much so that the first murmurings of the group’s fifth album were met with skepticism, and disbelieving laughter in some quarters. Before you could say ‘Chinese Democracy’, the idea of a forthcoming Tool album had become something of a running joke.
The question of whether or not they’ll continue where they left off may as well be discarded, as it’s been 13 years since their last album, ‘10,000 Days’. Tool‘s stock-in-trade is immersive, slow-revealing albums, of course, but they’ve returned to give us ‘Fear Inoculum’, possibly the most challenging album that they’ve ever put together.
Tool fans will know that it’s essential to listen to their albums back-to-front with no distractions, but even the most hardened of fans will have to sharpen their focus.
There are no immediate stand-out hits, and every song that isn’t an interlude is over 10 minutes long – count out the chances of hearing a ‘Stinkfist’ or a ‘Parabola’ on here. Patience is the name of the game when we press play for the opener and titular track; we’re lulled in with what seems like a cinematic synth-driven experiment, alongside a tabla drum pattern, then the lightbulb-switch moment occurs. Justin Chancellor‘s trademark hulky bass line, complete with Danny Carey‘s tribal drumming straps us in for lift-off. We’ve missed you. Slowly but surely, we’re reminded just why many people are so invested.
Maynard James Keenan‘s vocal delivery here sets the tone for most of the album; a mid-range, more restrained, vocal delivery is favoured compared to his commanding shouts and belted melodies that we’ve heard down the years. Tackling existential and spiritual lyrical themes, which continue throughout the album, this song is a warming, welcoming moment.
In its final moments, Adam Jones‘ minimalist guitar work helps to propel the song. Ahead of the final build-up, he takes center stage with an impossible-to-ignore riff before the band treat us to their mechanical, polyrhythmic assault. Welcome back.
Anyone with a preference to their slower works will be delighted with the inclusion of ‘Pneuma’, serving as a nod ‘Lateralus’ cuts such as ‘The Patient’ and ‘Schism’. Justin Chancellor‘s bass line takes center stage, and, not for the first time, an extended instrumental section is favoured. There may be some questions raised as to why there are some extended sections without vocals, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling than previous offerings.
‘Litanie Contre La Peur’ (that’s French for ‘litany against fear’) is classic Tool. Their interludes are known for being on the strange side of things, and in some cases downright oppressive. This is led predominantly by a droning Keenan vocal drowned in effects; if there’s anything this album could do without, it’s this one.
‘Invincible’, led by a Jones arpeggiated riff to start with, is somewhat sparse and open in its early stages. We’ve come to expect slow builds, of course, but even by their standards, this is one of the most challenging songs to their name, and places a particular emphasis on the art of subtlety. Lyrically, this has been interpreted as being about the band getting older, and their very existence itself. You’d think that they’d have nothing to worry about, but it’s a reminder of how a band as idolised as themselves are also mere mortals like the rest of us.
We later arrive at what’s possibly the best song on the album, ‘Descending’. A distinctive crooned vocal melody is the centerpiece for the beginning, serving as one of only a handful of moments where there’s anything resembling hooks, but the band are also firing on all cylinders here. Keenan and Carey rightfully get all the credit that they deserve, but few guitarists can play in the subtle, minimalist manner that Jones does and still find a way to take center stage near the end, where everything bursts into life before their signature stabby-rhythm ending smacks us into submission.
Carey‘s moment in the sun arrives in the form of ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’. If you’re in awe as many others are at his talents then this must feel like Christmas. A plethora of drum rolls, fills, thrills, and everything else takes us for a ride with a repetitive synth pattern as an accompaniment. This is another a left-turn by their standards, and drum solos may not be seen as necessary by some, but you’d be lying if Carey isn’t high on the list of who should be delivering them.
And for the final track proper, we have ‘7empest’, an almighty beast of a song that just exceeds the 15-minute mark. With huge riffs, a pounding rhythm, and a knowing “here we go again” from Keenan, we’re launched back into first gear. This number is an encapsulation of everything great about Tool, and, among other things, we even have a catchy verse, soundscape-led breaks, and the most furious vocal delivery on the record. It’s an anthemic yet expansive journey all the same.
But this wouldn’t be a Tool album without them messing with us in some way. ‘Mockingbeat’, a 2-minute-long combination of angry animal noises and a subtle drum pattern, is not innately a crowd-pleaser. Keeping us on our toes and challenging the very notion of what they are, it’s almost like the 13-year gap didn’t happen.
Some have even wondered if this is a post-rock or post-metal album, but it’s simply Tool doing what they do best, serving as their own entity as they have done for nearly three decades now. This warrior has remained relevant to say the least. Months, or even years could pass by, and you’d still hear new things with every listen.
With ‘Fear Inoculum’, Tool have given us the opus they always promised to, but have also found multiple ways to surprise us all the same.