Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to speak critically about Tool material not long after its release. After all, this is a band boasting releases with notoriously lengthy run times; it was that band you heard on rock radio growing up whose songs didn’t conform to your measly FM edit standards — you were either getting all seven minutes or nothing at all. As Tool’s career went on, each album contained songs that could be veritable treasure troves for listeners with patience to unlock their secrets. Hell, two of the songs on 2006’s 10,000 Days add up length-wise (“Wings for Marie, Pt. 1” and “Viginti Tres”) to the runtime of “10,000 Days (Wings, Pt. 2),” and that’s no coincidence — the former two are meant to be played at the same time as the latter in a particular order to create, basically, an entirely new song.
So you see what we’re working with here: a quartet with a deliberate modus operandi, not simply in the way its songs are crafted but also with regards to how they’re experienced. The deluxe edition of Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first LP in 13 years, is physically packaged with an HD screen, a speaker and a 36-page booklet that’s meant to enhance the listening experience. The digital version adds seven minutes to an already lengthy 79-minute standard release via three interludes spliced in between the original’s seven-song tracklist. When it comes to Tool, both then and now, your mileage — and experience — may vary.
Still, early listens to Fear Inoculum are not without their merits. There’s a lot to dissect, yes, but taken at face value, one thing’s unmistakable: Tool is back, and age has not changed the band that’s known as one of the foremost progressive metal acts. Each track still rumbles along with often speaker-shaking force; songs dive into sudden time signature changes; frontman Maynard James Keenan’s howl still rings with the fervor he possessed on “Sober” so many years ago.
To mark the album’s release, here’s an early ranking of the seven songs that appear on the tracklist, minus the three digital-only interludes.
7. “Chocolate Chip Trip”
The shortest song on the standard edition of Fear Inoculum clocks in at a measly four minutes and 48 seconds. To be frank, it’s odd that “Chocolate Chip Trip” was selected as part of the album’s normal edition while the three deluxe version interludes were cut, because its makeup is similar: fully instrumental, no vocals from Keenan. In fact, Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor don’t even add guitar or bass, respectively, to the mix, and drummer Danny Carey only pops up about halfway through — though there’s no discounting the raucous drum solo he contributes. The glitchy, mesmerizing “Chocolate Chip Trip” is a cool song, but it’s not a track most will revisit outside of the start-to-finish album listening experience.
6. “Culling Voices”
Keenan broaches the topic of getting inside one’s own head on “Culling Voices,” which follows a pathway not unlike someone who suffers from such an affliction — “Don’t you dare point that at me” is a curt command at first, and Jones, Chancellor and Carey’s instrumentation doesn’t belie that sensation at first, offering brooding bedding for Keenan’s at times whispered pleas. But then comes a crescendo in which Keenan and the band reach their boiling point, setting up a discordant finale in which the narrator seems to have finally had enough.
Imagine “Descending” as a trip to the depths of the ocean, the sound of crashing, rolling waves bookending the song. The descent itself, led by Keenan’s concentrated, meditative vocals over simmering instrumentation, is pleasant enough, but the track truly finds life with a halfway-point instrumental featuring dueling guitar lines and breakneck drum fills — and that’s before Jones’ icing-on-the-cake wah-wah guitar solo to finish things off.
This is Jones’ place to shine, with the guitarist contributing zigzagging guitar licks occasionally upended by luminous upper-register tones and a reverberating solo. That’s not to underplay Keenan’s lyrics, which are a little more to-the-point than some of the album’s other themes, summoning the image of an old warrior whose glory days may or may not be behind them. Allegorical for a certain nearly three-decade-old band that just released its first album in over a decade? You be the judge, but doubtful.
When it comes to the more boisterous moments on each track from Fear Inoculum, Tool generally takes the scenic route before resorting to its unmistakable pummeling full band sound. Not so on “7empest,” which announces its arrival shortly after the minute mark with frenetic strumming from Chancellor and a snaking riff from Jones that practically stare down Keenan’s opening pleading to “keep calm.” Be warned: that energy doesn’t dissipate throughout the next 14 minutes; no time for breathers here.
Let’s say you’re a casual listener of Tool familiar with the radio hits and little else who’s looking to find familiar reference points on the new album. Take heart, then, because as long as you’ve heard and enjoyed “Schism,” which in its time (2001) was the four-piece’s first top 10 radio hit in its career, “Pneuma” is up your alley, somewhat of a spiritual successor — from Chancellor’s ominous opening bassline to Jones’ and Carey’s familiar cadences. On its own, this one perhaps best outlines the blue-chip production and mastering from Joe Barresi and Bob Ludwig. Each piece of the puzzle (including a fleeting synth part about two-thirds through) gets its time to shine before everything is funneled into a cacophonous groove capped off by a finale full of fist-pumping grandiosity.
1. “Fear Inoculum”
Like much of Fear Inoculum, the title track (and opening song) features multiple movements within its 10-minute run time. But where certain segments of the album as a whole can occasionally feel bloated and overly indulgent, “Fear Inoculum” deftly encapsulates the album’s mission statement, from its at times mystical, hushed vocals to its juxtaposition of softer and louder moments that command the listener’s attention via changes in volume and instrumentation. Carey’s drum patterns are a particular standout, as is Jones’ song-concluding solo. Let’s hope we don’t wait another 13 years for material like this.