Tool fans have earned a reputation for being intense. And that self-seriousness, and the resulting implication that you just don’t get it, has turned a lot of people off. There’s a longstanding rumor that back when Spin was still a print publication, the editors would get a letter a day demanding a Tool cover story. The singer for a Tool cover band once described to me, with no small amount of worshipful tone, the depth of their compositions, the scientific and philosophical breadth of frontman Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics; he went on to say how non-mainstream the band was, and “that’s why you probably haven’t heard of them.”
You hear a lot of jokes, most earned, about “Tool Guys” online, but I will point out a few things. 1) It’s not fair to judge an artist by their fan base. 2) After such a long drought, you can’t blame a fan base for being a bit on-edge. 3) I’m in no position to judge. I’ve seen Tool many times. I get it. Now that Tool’s catalog is finally streaming, maybe the band’s audience will accommodate new casual fans. Fortunately for Tool Guys and Justin Bieber alike, Fear Inoculum, the group’s first album in 13 years, is definitely a Tool album. It’s way up its own ass, kinda silly in its self-importance, very moving in parts, and pretty much rules.
Tool do not do effortless. You always hear the work. The extended break between 2006’s 10,000 and Fear Inoculum was partly due to frontman Maynard James Keenan’s many projects (I still need to try his wine), legal disputes (always an issue with this band), and Tool’s perfectionist tendencies. Every note here, from guitarist Adam Jones’ chaotic fuzz bursts in “Descending” to Justin Chancellor’s lurching Frankenstein bass bubbles that gird “Invincible” to Danny Carey’s thunder-from-heaven drum storms on “Culling Voices,” has been fussed over and finessed to the point that every song feels like a series of shapes bounding about a circle, continually realigning at just the right angle, but never quite where’d you expect.
There’s nothing new here, really. Tool hit their stride on Ænima when they decided to be the King Crimson x Led Zeppelin of their generation, and they’ve now entered their classic-rock phase, content to refine their approach while attacking with a might and insight that comes only with experience. All the Toolisms are here: long, winding intros that make you wait for the payoff, Middle Eastern modal interludes between the thunder, time-signatures that would stump an MIT grad, rapid-fire a-b-a machine-gun riffs that soon give way to lyrical, searching guitar solos. But the endless reworking paid off. In a weird way, this heavy, stomp-your-enemies-to-death-and-then-break-a mountain-with-your-own-hands album is their most graceful work yet. Listen to the album all the way through, and it flows together beautifully, like some alternately serene and man-eating river.
Tool remain a user-unfriendly band in an easy access era. Every song on the album is over 10 minutes long, save for the self-indulgent “Chocolate Chip Trip” which is a goddamn five-minute drum solo in 2019. I must concede, though, that Carey is the album’s MVP, his complex rhythms up front, driving every moment while Jones’ guitar often feels like decoration or counterpoint. He’s earned his very own “Moby Dick.”
Keenan has learned to curb his tendency towards juvenile humor — Ænima is the late ’90s art-metal answer to most late-’90s rap albums, filled with dumb skits that haven’t aged well, cover art that tries too hard to be badass, and altogether way too long. He’s probably known in the public eye for his cathartic rage, but his most compelling art was something he first hinted at on “H” and then explored further on Tool’s best album Lateralus, the drive to move past anger to connect with something deeper, truer, and healing.
He seems like a spiritual guy, or at least an angry dude who’s trying not to be angry all the time. Obviously, anger is a useful tool for change and a valid response to, well, I’m sure you read the news, but you can’t let it consume your soul. And right away on the opening title track, Keenan is pushing at the free-floating animosity he sees around (some of which might he might even see in his own fanbase), worrying where it might end up, how it might isolate people, turn them against each other: “Fear the light. Fear the breath. Fear the others for eternity.” You’re going to have to be on a certain wavelength here for some of the lyrics (a fluency with yoga-teacher talk might not be that bad of an idea), but Keenan is making an admirable attempt to get his listeners to turn away from fear and despair, to embrace our common humanity on “Pneuma” (“We are born of One Breath, One Word”). All that said, get ready for some oddly Olde English diction because Keenan is on some Colin Meloy shit here. (“Descending” features the lyrics “Stir us from our wanton slumber” and “To the quickened dissolution/ Pray we mitigate the ruin.”)
I can’t help but wish that Keenan had given us a vocal flex like his godlike scream on “Ticks & Leeches,” but he’s in fine form here nonetheless. His melodies are more winding and less direct than ever, but he’s offering up some of his most lovely, vulnerable singing, sounding truly wounded on the unexpectedly serene “Culling Voices” before all parties drop the hammer again, wrathful with no time for spineless liars (and maybe one in particular) on “7empest.” He sometimes, as in “Invincible” (a meditation on the indignities of aging and perhaps a self-aware airing of career anxieties), sounds like he’s fighting to be heard above the din, but I suspect that’s an intentional effect and part of the band’s ethos that all four members are equal.
Tool will always have their detractors, but everyone is cool to someone, especially if you stick around long enough, and Tool have their share of unexpected fans. They remain relevant through force of will, the power of complex drum patterns and obsessive fandom, because they are proudly not a band that fits in with these times in any way at all. Which is only a problem if you think the times we live in are anything less than a dumpster fire soundtracked by cardio class bops. Tool remain Tool, and they’ve made a rewarding and maddening album that obsessives are never going to shut up about. Don’t let that stop you from diving in.
Fear Inoculum is out now on Tool Dissectional/Volcano/RCA. The band has also just announced a North American tour.