New Tool album falls outside the loopBy DAVID MCRANEY,
So much has changed, and the rate of change has accelerated so much, that the 13-year stretch of time since Tool’s last release can’t be ignored when playing Fear Inoculum.
Consider professional wrestling. At its most popular, the entire enterprise revolved around “kayfabe.” That was their word for the shared suspension of disbelief that kept the fourth wall firmly in place when wrestlers challenged their opponents during interviews or reached out to the crowd during strangleholds. It was all real, they assured the audience. Even off stage, no wrestler was supposed to break character, ever, and no fan was supposed to look behind the curtain – or even admit there was a curtain.
To keep something as ridiculous as professional wrestling fun, everyone felt a responsibility to maintain its consensual, spandex- adorned false reality, which itself was just as fun, maybe more fun, than the suplexes and pile drivers.
Then came the @s and the hashtags and constantly connected devices that could livestream any and every thing to any and everyone. For professional wrestlers, sending posts on a regular basis to show fans you were likeable and interesting and real became a necessity. They make fun of themselves now. They post pictures of their breakfasts, their new shoes, and the weird things they see on the road. For them, for all of us, this became the new kayfabe, and the old
kayfabe became something you only did in the ring or in front of a paying When Tool dropped its last album, the same year Twitter was released and Facebook went public, if you wanted to learn more about the men behind Tool, you couldn’t depend on their website or newsletter. It was all misdirection into strange books, blog-post rabbit holes, and pre-social-media conspiracy theories.
The internet back then was an untamed,
found footage kind of place where only the bravest of souls went to find the secret codes for Mortal Kombat fatalities. Get off the path and one fork could lead you to Terrence McKenna and The Anarchist’s Cookbook. The other could take you to Charlie the Unicorn and Homestar Runner. Tool was somewhere in between, in that place where parody religions like Church of the Subgenius and ironic conspiracy theories like Ong’s Hat thrived.
Their very name was a joke, or was it? Sometimes they told you it meant their music was a tool for opening your third eye. Sometimes they said it was a throwaway phallic reference. And you could buy merchandise that confirmed either explanation. If you wanted to know anything, you had to go to independent websites, themselves a mishmash of unsourced rumors and creepy hyperlinks.
When we last heard something new, Tool’s aesthetic had evolved from angry-black-T-shirt-edgelord-skunkweed art to a psychedelic vision quest of science, splendor and spirituality. The music too had grown from sounding like the soundtrack to a David Fincher film about doll people living in the tunnels under a meat-processing plant to a math-rock score for a Terrence Malick epic about the as-yet-fully-understood cosmic aspects of our shared humanity hiding in massive DNA strands circling Saturn. In all their incarnations, Tool was the prog metal version of counterculture kayfabe.
In an effort to keep its music front and center, the band curated a mysterious image that their fans helped them to maintain. The music came in strange time signatures. The lyrics talked about sacred geometry and transhumanism.
In the early days, thanks to this, a good portion of Tool’s fan base was made up of the people who read a few books and did a few drugs and noticed a few things before everyone else in high school and then made that their identities. To everyone’s benefit, the internet largely ruined that identity. Now anyone can look up the Fibonacci sequence and know as much as “that guy” did when he told you that according to the golden ratio, Lateralus was meant to be listened to in a different track order.
Yet, 10,000 Days, its last album, felt like a step back from all that. They promoted it as a return to their roots and an appeal to authenticity. The songs weren’t mysterious, but plainly stated both in their lyrical intent and overall sound. Musically complex, incredibly produced, but in the end they were loud, angry, angsty metal songs shaking fists and wagging fingers – the kind that Tool used to produce before they pried open their third eyes. It’s a great record, but the album art and the videos that came from it felt rote, and overall, it seemed like Tool wanted to drop the kayfabe and just rock out.
Then, a year later, the smartphone was invented, and in the time since: Adam Jones joined Instagram where he regularly shares family vacations. Singer and frontman, Maynard James Keenan, starred in a documentary about his vineyard where he gave an interview sitting on the toilet and has been a regular on Joe Rogan’s podcast where he tells dad jokes and laughs at YouTube. Ernie Ball followed a stick-wielding Justin Chancellor with a camera around the hills of Santa Monica to promote their bass strings. And Danny Carey went viral when he dropped in on a teenage band and took over their drums to help them play some Tool covers. Over that long stretch, they all created side gigs -- bookstores and coffee shops and the like -- and all the while they shared memes and promoted themselves like the rest of us, and even Alex Grey, the artist behind their flaming-chakra homages to DMT, uses Twitter these days to sell discounted tickets to his gallery.
Peeling off the wrap from Fear Inoculum, I wondered what it would be like to listen to a new tool album with all that kayfabe and pretension stripped away. I wondered, with their lives out in the open now, and with all of us feeling just as exposed, what would Tool look and feel like for an audience living through the greatest sociological shift since the invention of the printing press?
Then I opened the wings of the CD case to reveal a video screen that awakened and began showing clips from the astral plane, and I smiled. The CD sleeve was tucked in a wing, and pulling it free revealed a flaming third eye on a torch made out of DNA. I laughed. Of course it did. Before I hit play on the first song, I realized that all these supposed vices -- from social media to streaming services -- had freed Tool, freed all of us, to put the focus on the music in a way that all those years of smoke and mirrors never could. And that’s a good thing, because Fear Inoculum is not only their most technically ambitious album yet, it’s their most reflective and mature.
Amid strange echoes and shadowy guitar swells, the title track opens the album with the line, “Immunity. Long overdue. Contagion. I exhale you.” It comes across as a cleansing spell, a tribute to realizing you’ve been duped by fearmongering and a promise to be better prepared for the next go around. It also serves as a smudge to set everyone listening at ease. Yes, we are still Tool. Yes, you can still enjoy this. No, we are not channeling shamanic vibrations through our amps, but if we could, it would sound like this. Then comes the chugga-chugga polyrhythms and off-time licks, and all the fear and cynicism you may have had going in evaporates. By the time Maynard says he wants to “recast my tale,” and “read my allegorical elegy,” you can tell this is not going to be another 10,000 Days sidequest. This is going to be a hyperdrive leap in the direction they’ve been heading for 30 years.
In all, Fear Inoculum features six ten-minute megasongs with weird soundscape experiments in between, per usual, but unlike their other albums, none of these tracks feel like a mere exhibition of the band’s abilities. There are no hooks, no screams, no bass solos. There is nothing here resembling Stinkfist or Schism or The Pot. Instead, the songs have movements. You can’t really listen to them in the car or put them in the background at a party and feel like you’ve truly heard them. They feel like sit-down-and-pay-attention songs. The drums are more complex and more present than ever, creating the most challenging foundation yet, one that everyone else in the band has spent years working to properly complement, and that, as a listener, may take you years to absorb.
The mix at times makes it seem as if there are miles of space between the performers, and that their instruments are filling that space in ever increasing layers of sound. At others, performances move right into the center and feel like they are inches away. Intricate and expansive arrangements evolve over long stretches, meandering all over like they have nowhere to be and are in no rush to get there -- then they cross an event horizon and compress down into incredibly dense and crunchy riffs that rattle your internal organs. The best compliment I can give is that if you wanted to introduce someone to Tool, any one of the tracks on Fear Inoculum would be the perfect choice.
Lyrically, the songs take long, deep breaths, stepping aside for minutes at a time. But when they are present, the vocals sound organic, measured, and the subject matter comes from a calmer, wiser place. Pneuma, laments how “we are spirit bound to this flesh” and “go round one foot nailed down.” Deeper into the album, Invincible talks about growing old, “struggling to remain consequential,” and “longing for another win,” so you suck in your stomach to bellow out one last, heroic, barbaric yalp. Throughout, the curtain is fully pulled back on the fact that these are people with kids and anxieties and Instagram feeds, and at the same time, they are unapologetically writing music about transcendence, unity, and humility.
For a generation-and-a-half, Tool, as a band, as an idea, has been a non-denominational appeal to awe and wonder for people who like to headbang. In a time before, a lot of people who were committed to the kayfabe put them on a pedestal from which Tool produced a sort of protest album. This is them coming down from that pedestal. And to my surprise, this is exactly what most Tool fans wanted. At Burning Man, on his dragon-shaped sand yacht, Alex Grey thanked Tool for its medicine, and called the album “affirmative to our spirit, to our creative spirit,” then he hit play and the mostly shirt-and-pants-less crowd cheered as one man raised a penis-shaped wrench high above their heads. On Reddit, where I saw this, the post was flanked by memes of Ron Swanson listening to the album on his headphones, an avatar for everyone over 40 drifting away and rocking out at their desks.
Fear Inoculum is what Tool sounds like at peace with itself. It feels like music written after an intermediate album that we will never hear. Rumors have it that this is actually the case, that eight years ago the band scrapped what they had written and started over. Overthinking and second-guessing under the pressure to produce a triumphant return poisoned their process, so they’ve said in interviews.
Commenting on this, in an interview with Loudwire, Maynard said, “All of a sudden you wake up and it's 13 years later. The hard part is accepting the fact that maybe you're not as important as you think you are and you should probably just get on with it."