Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Tool's Huge Debut With 'Fear Inoculum' Comeback Album

Travis Shinn
Tool

In the midst of a number of iconic, paradigmatic '10s artists releasing much-discussed new albums -- Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Post Malone -- the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 this week belongs to a band whose prior full-length came in 2006.

Yes, prog-metal favorites Tool have topped the album charts this week, moving 270,000 in first-week units, mostly from straight sales (with no attached ticket or merchandise bundles, a rarity among best-selling late-'10s sets). Not only does their set finish ahead of both Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell in its first week (No. 3, 104,000) and Taylor Swift's Lover in its second (No. 2, 178,000), it posts the best single week for a rock album since Dave Matthews Band's Come Tomorrow, over a year ago. 

How were Tool able to stroll back onto the top of the charts after a 13-year absence with such impressive numbers? And what other long-idle rock bands could be following their example? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.

1. Tool operates so far outside of the music mainstream -- little promotion, streaming-unfriendly releases, few concessions made to modern pop -- that it might be surprising to some to still see them succeed at this level in 2019. What is it about Tool and Fear Inoculum that still allows them to put up such impressive numbers? 

Pamela Bustios: It's been over a decade, and the entire package of the album is more than even the rabid fanbase was expecting. From a music standpoint, the set's harmony and balance -- alternating between the complex and the hypnotic -- is the culmination of everything Tool has done to date. Their reconciliation with digital platforms -- a month before Fear Inoculum was released -- was audacious marketing on their part. Plus, the elaborate CD (a limited-edition CD, physically packaged with a 4” HD screen and exclusive video footage, a speaker and a 36-page booklet and its digital download format) is as close as fans would get to a garage band tour, sans the exclusive package paraphernalia. It's impossible not to rejoice about it. 

Jason Lipshutz: That Tool possesses one of the most dedicated fan bases in all of popular music is just a fact of life at this point, and was confirmed long before Fear Inoculum’s release, thanks to past album sales and headlining festival slots a decade removed from the band’s last release. No matter how long the gap is between albums, how long the songs themselves run or how many unpronounceable track titles they toss out, Tool has enough diehard fans to support them, and make a No. 1 debut a foregone conclusion.

Chris Payne: The Tool fans, man. I heard the stories of course, but I witnessed the devotion firsthand at Governors Ball 2017, when I saw the legion of diehards come out to the famously-inaccessible Randall's Island to see Tool headline a pop- and hip-hop-dominated festival whose typical attendee is normally a 19-year old college bro in white shorts and a '90s NBA jersey. Let's just say their crowd was a lot larger than Wiz Khalifa's. Not only is the Toolfanbase vast, it's willing to go to the ends of the earth. Or spend $50 on a CD in 2019. 

Kevin Rutherford: First things first: let’s take a gander at the top-selling albums in terms of single-week numbers in 2006, the last time Tool put out an album. Tool not only had the best first-week sales of any rock band that year, but the four-piece also ranked among the top 10 biggest weeks of the year as a whole (564,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music), beating out debut weeks from Beyonce, Dixie Chicks, T.I., Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more.

Point is, this is a band that did killer album sales numbers back when it actually, you know, put out new music. It’s well established that rock fans are still the types to buy albums. Tool took 13 years to put out an album that had become almost mythical in terms of whether or not it would ever actually exist. Of course this was gonna be huge.

Andrew Unterberger: Tool has always just been exceptional at being Tool. In the years before all rock bands also had to double as branding experts just to survive, they understood how to use their art, their videos, their live show, and their public image -- or lack thereof -- to build Tool into a comprehensive, immersive universe that exists totally outside of whatever else is going on in music or culture. Ask 100 random rock fans for their opinion of Tool, and 50 of them might shrug, but at least 5-10 of them will probably call them their favorite band. Those fans don't go away, and on weeks like this, they certainly add up. 

2. In an age where hit songs are getting shorter and shorter, Tool is thriving with an album mostly consisting of songs over 10 minutes. Is there any kind of lesson that artists can take from this, or is Tool the exception that proves the rule? 

Pamela Bustios: It's both -- an exception to the rule so far, and a perfect model to follow. Fear Inoculum could be absorbed as a book with each song living as its own chapter. There is no one song that mirrors the next, yet each one bonds in a clash of time and space pivoting from one point in time, through melody and narrative, to the subsequent stage, without any kind of disconnection. 

Jason Lipshutz: It’s the latter. There’s nothing really about Fear Inoculum that screams “new trend alert!" -- just a top-line rock act returning after 13 years away and scoring a gigantic debut, regardless of how long or short the songs are. Their success is, in a weird way, reminiscent of Adele’s 25 breaking the record for the biggest album debut sales week in 2015, which was less of an indication that album sales were on the way up, and a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence thanks to the commercial might of a singular star. Does that make “Pneuma” Tool’s version of “Hello”? Maybe the eye-popping album debuts are where this comparison ends.

Chris Payne: Well, the reason for the two-and-a-half-minute singles has a lot to do with playlist placement, winning over casual fans, and racking up play counts -- three things Tool is largely unconcerned with. In fact, the two 10-minute-plus songs on Fear Inoculum's Side A -- "Pneuma" and "Invincible" -- both have over 5 million Spotify streams right now, while the much shorter interlude-type tracks adjacent to them have just over 3 million each. So Tool listeners are actually seeking out the longer songs.

I don't think this will cause Lil Nas X or Post Malone to write longer songs any time soon, but it speaks to trusting your fanbase once you've got their undivided attention. Lana Del Rey released a massive new album the same week as Tool and it's got a nine-minute song at track three. With 32 million Spotify plays. 

Kevin Rutherford: Totally ready for the Lil Pump album of 10-minute songs coming in 2020. Nah, this is an anomaly; Fear Inoculum isn’t selling albums because people are looking at it and being like, wow, look at all those long-ass songs, let me get in on that. I guess if anything, it proves that Tool fans won’t look at a Tool album and be turned off by crazy song lengths across the board -- which, yeah, we’ve known. This album was going to do well whether Tool had six 10-minute songs or six one-minute songs, and it isn’t going to spur some new era of acts going prog metal.

Andrew Unterberger: I think you can generally take away that there's still value in doing the thing that no one else on your level is currently doing. No, it wouldn't have much made sense for Tool to chase big-name producers and features and make their production trappier and cut their songs to Spotify playlist length -- but that hasn't stopped a lot of other big '90s and '00s rock bands from doing that. Even if that's what a lot of people want in 2019, that's not what everyone wants, and it can be beneficial to find ways to cater to those folks that modern trends tend to leave behind.  

3. Tool returned to the mainstream after well over a decade without an album, and have been greeted as if they had never left. What other band who's gone more than a decade since their last album do you think could post a similarly impactful sales week if they returned in 2020? 

Pamela Bustios: Oasis. Although the cloying situation of brothers Gallagher and their constant public feuds has become somewhat discouraging for that ever actually happening. 

Jason Lipshtuz: It’s time for some new Guns N’ Roses! Chinese Democracy finally came out in 2008 after years of delays, and while Axl Rose has been active, and even reunited part of the band’s original lineup for a mammoth tour, there hasn’t been a whiff of a proper follow-up. Even without Slash and co. backing him up, hearing what Rose has to sing about as we enter the 2020s would at least be… intriguing, right? (P.S. Chinese Democracy sort of holds up!)

Chris Payne: System of a Down is the pick for me. They've been performing here and there over the past few years, and though they seem miles away from making a new album, a new System LP would be a major event. Their last releases were their pair of 2005 albums, Mesmerize and Hypnotize, which were both certified Platinum by the RIAA, respectively, before the year was out. That's comparable to what Tool's 10,000 Days pulled in 2006, and System was always more of a household name. That's a much stronger case for me than say, Guns N' Roses, whose last album, 2008's Chinese Democracy, sold a fraction of that and was just seen as a massive punchline. 

Kevin Rutherford: Does Outkast count? Is Outkast a band or a group? Outkast’s the answer if they count. In the rock world specifically, Rage Against the Machine, no doubt. We’re going on nearly two decades without a Rage album, and Tom Morello’s probably gotten more influential over the years as a guitarist, let alone the fact that the band’s songs are still a staple on many alternative and mainstream rock radio stations (and both formats are flirting with rap-rock again). C’mon, Zack, please come back.

Andrew Unterberger: Gonna go a little off the board here and say Talking Heads. The new wave quartet has only grown in relevance in the near three decades that they've been broken up, and though a reunion remains unlikely, a new album would instantly become a must-hear for generations of alt-rock fans. The album might not put up Tool numbers in straight sales, but attach a ticket bundle with an ensuing tour, and the sky's the limit -- David Byrne just posted his best-ever first-week numbers in 2018 doing just that, with his American Utopia solo album. 

4. Do you hear anything in Fear Inoculum that reflects how 13 years have indeed passed since the last Tool album -- anything that makes it seem like this album is, in fact, coming out in 2019? Or is the album's appeal that it sounds like it's transported from a generation ago? 

Pamela Bustios: There is definitely freedom of experimentation -- with alluring and eerie musical progressions in “Litanie le Peur,” “Legion Inoculant” and “Mockingbeat" -- yet the band's unshakable well-rooted prog-metal pulsations dominate the ambience skillfully. 

Jason Lipshutz: While the production on Fear Inoculum sounds a bit more streamlined, Tool wisely returned without forcibly giving their style a modern facelift. And that’s what the Tool fans who love the new record presumably love the most: the comeback of the band without compromise, unblemished by expectations for how a rock record should operate in 2019. 

Chris Payne: Oh god no. Aside from some vaguely more retrospective lyrics from Maynard, there's very little  suggesting Fear Inoculum came out in 2019 and not 365 days after 10,000 Days

Kevin Rutherford: The arrangements and production of Fear Inoculum feel more meticulous than ever before, and that’s probably a product of age to some extent; something something wisdom as you get older etc. etc. You can tell the goal was to avoid filler as much as humanly possible (whether they succeeded is a different story), and while that’s not to say that wasn’t an important facet of earlier Tool records, the earlier albums occasionally have songs that slip through the cracks as outliers more so than this album does, unless we’re counting the interludes.

I also come back to the song “Invincible,” in which Keenan’s lyrics paint the portrait of an aging warrior “struggling to remain consequential,” and can’t help but wonder if some of that reflects the anxieties of a nearly three-decade-old band that hadn’t put out a new album in 13 years. Otherwise, this thing totally could’ve come out in 2007.

Andrew Unterberger: There are some drum machine claps that get briefly triggered in a couple tracks, which I don't remember hearing from Tool before, at least. That's about it. 

5. Of course, a lot of Taylor Swift fans are finding out about Tool for the first time this week. What song from the Tool catalog would you recommend for a Taylor Swift fan interested in learning more about Swift's successors atop the Billboard 200?

Pamela Bustios: Put on headphones and hit play on “Invincible,” easily digestible in terms of its arrangement. The guitar and drums pair well, and its lyrical narrative takes you through a tale from beginning to end -- which can effortlessly become the opening of another song, as the synthesized keyboards kick in giving it a shadowy finish. If you can add 3:09 to the listening session, continue with “Legion Inoculant,” a bizarre trip (but nice break) that seems to be sandwiched in the middle of the track listing on purpose. 

Jason Lipshutz: “Schism” still rules, so let’s go with that.

Chris Payne: The most crowd-pleasing Tool moment I can remember didn't involve the actual members, but a DJ at Bonnaroo yelling "Who here fucks with some Tool?" during the middle of a fairly tame daytime set and playing a dance remix of "Ænima." So either transport them back into that moment or I dunno, "Schism" and "Parabola" are pretty catchy. 

Kevin Rutherford: My gateway as a middle-schooler introduced to rock radio in the early-to-mid-2000s wasn’t so much “Schism" -- which some older friends talked up as this monolith of hard rock but I thought was about twice as long as it needed to be -- as it was “Sober.” To this day, “Sober” is the most accessible of the bunch, coming at a time when Tool might actually (gasp!) release a radio single that wasn’t six-plus minutes song, and featuring a more standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. Honorable mention to “The Pot,” which actually got me to purchase 10,000 Days in stores after “Vicarious” sort of underwhelmed me; it’s lengthy, but it’s got one of the band’s catchier melodies and grooves.

Andrew Unterberger: I could maybe see Taylor banging out the chrous to "Stinkfist" when she's in a hair-tossing performance rage

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