"Here we go again!" Maynard James Keenan waited a long time to sing those weary, sneering words on "7empest," a fiery, noisy tune on Tool's first new album in 13 years. The glacier pace between Tool recordings apparently can't be helped. Writing, experimenting, tearing things apart: Time is an uncertain concept in this quartet, but the meticulous, muscular result speaks for itself.
Fear Inoculum is an epic novel of an album, a winding path through sounds mysterious and confrontational, uplifting and filled with darkness. Its 85 minutes unfurl like a brutal symphony in 7/4 time, mastering both the organic and the industrial, completely controlled but still capable of chaos. The words sung by Keenan confront the passage of time and life lessons learned, expressed with genuine warmth at times, or by simply going nuclear.
It's an album that rises to a new peak of something only hinted at by their Nineties hits. In 2019, Tool are much less interested in reaching the masses than in creating something massive.
Tool first emerged in a (mostly) pre-digital, pre-internet world to bring a new generation of alt-metal to the mainstream. The multiplatinum breakthrough was Ænima in 1996. That MTV-era album was full of hits ("Stinkfist," "Forty Six & 2," etc.), and sounds almost pop by comparison to Tool's later work, with radio-friendly tunes short enough to fit between the commercial breaks. But rather than stick to formula, Tool chooses to stretch out and dig deeper, leaving the old schematics behind.
Tool's last album, 2005's 10,000 Days, seemed strangely unfinished in parts – not technically, but conceptually, as if the band's usual wealth of ideas hadn't been fully explored or perfected. Not this time.
Now, Tool has seemingly abandoned commercial considerations completely, following the band's concepts to their ultimate ends. No deadlines were met, no market shares considered. This is what you get when you spend years composing and recording, without concern for anything but the final result. It's what Tom Morello gushed about on Instagram after he got an early listen to the tracks in progress even as Keenan kept seeding doubts that the album was anywhere near done.
Fear Inoculum will be a disappointment to no one who has been following along. From the opening title track, the album already sounds like a leap forward, coming into focus amid plucked strings and tabla accents, unspooling a circular melody on guitar and Justin Chancellor's low end on bass. It's the first of several tracks above 10 minutes, and just as it seems to be coming in for a landing, another musical passage begins with a hammering riff or vocal to shift direction once more.
"Descending" begins with the sound of waves hitting the shore, interrupted by a skull-crushing riff to accompany a Keenan vocal tapping into something ancient and present tense, shifting from a purr to a raging: "One drive to stay alive!" Its 13 minutes are filled with effortless shifts in tone and volume, never a clumsy moment, everything in balance.
Aside from epic tracks, the digital version of the album includes much shorter "segues," adding pacing and playful experimentation. One interlude is "Legion Inoculant," a three-minute soundscape that begins with the Fifties sci-fi hum of alien arrival (a quasi-sequel to the whacked out UFO paranoia of "Faaip De Oiad" from 2001's Lateralus).
"Pneuma" is all tension and release, guitars stately and crushing amid a mountain of beats, as Keenan wails: "Wake up! Remember: One breath! One word! One spark!" "Chocolate Chip Trip" has the album's only throwaway title, more jam band than prog masterwork. But if that momentarily breaks the spell, the music quickly rights itself as drummer Danny Carey takes charge with accelerating beats, chimes and electronics. There are crashing cymbals, obsessed taps and slams on drums, and squirrelly synth teases that suggest a computer not OK.
At nearly 16 minutes, "7empest" is the album's final major track and its angriest, as Keenan wails to an unseen villain: "Acting all surprised when you're caught in a lie/We know better ... We know your nature!" The rest of Tool also brings the hammer down, going wild and sweeping against a militant beat. The song contains Jones's most crazed soloing, but the guitarist also regains control for more ocean-sized gestures.
On its digital edition, the album's modest coda is the two-minute "Mockingbeat," as electronics and drumbeats interact with bird chirps, segueing listeners into the next decade-plus wait between projects. The countdown to that album has now begun, but Tool is in no hurry. They've just delivered an album of fire and meaning to keep us listening, studying, debating for years more.