August 30, 2019

DJ Dark Flow’s Masterpiece Crate #50: Tool - Fear Inoculum


It is rare that I pass down perfect scores on albums, but when I do, it is entirely earned by the artists through pure ingenuity, vision, cohesion between members, and production value. Tool is one of those bands, and 2019’s Fear Inoculum is one of those albums. This review also serves as my masterpiece series entry number 50, as it fits chronologically after my 49th listed album that I still have to write about, and at the same time shifts my sequential writing order significantly since I have only written a couple of articles in this series thus far (my next article will be about the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral). My masterpiece crate series will occasionally grow beyond the big 5 0 and my original 49 album collage in my introductory article, but for all intents and purposes, this needs to be done to keep up with the release dates of current albums which rise to this rare occasion.

What can be said of the highest-anticipated metal album of all time after a 13 year gap between Tool's last album, 10,000 Days, and this one, other than its expectations have grown to mammoth proportions since 2006's studio effort. The band's never-faltering fanbase remained as loyal as ever to wait, sometimes ironically and jokingly referring to the next album's release coming "at some point in the next 30 years", but never losing faith that their heroes would return. This year, they have, after many years of sparse updates, delays, evasiveness and snarky comments by members, most notably lead singer Maynard James-Keenan, who grew tired of the all-important question, "When is the new Tool album coming out?" Now fans and the world are at a point that felt nearly impossible to reach, and now in 2019, we have a brand new heavy, progressive, psych, art, metal masterpiece to grace our eyes and ears in Fear Inoculum!

In 13 years, the age of social media, digital streaming, mass shootings, and fear have dawned on our culture and collective consciousness in ways that have infected our psyches and humanity. Tool's 10,000 Days was released the final year before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to the world, so it is a clear indicator that a lot has changed in 13 years time. The members of Tool have rolled with these changes. Some have taken this brave new world in stride, but Tool are not bending to the social trends or fear-mongering that exists today, much like in the past as they've been well-known to follow their own direction and see where their spirits take them. As they remain true to themselves, their music shows that as they have not a single radio-friendly song on this album. Not by design, but just a reflection of where the members are at this time in their lives. Suffice it to say, Fear Inoculum is an 86 minute record (on digital), shortened to 79 minutes on CD without its transitional tracks, and overall is a response to the world we live in today. As you introduce fear into your being, how will you respond to it? As you face that which you cannot control, how will you choose to move forward? This is the true intention of their music, as it calls out for people to be more divine than fearful, to stay strong, evolve spiritually, and to be the person that they were meant to be.

Tool also aren't worthy of the simple descriptor of heavy metal music either. Their sound has showcased a more dynamic range and an embrace of other styles of music, such as meditative trance or world, in their catalogue more than any other metal act in the game today. Heady ideas, such as the state of humanity, the spirit, sacred geometry, philosophy, science, and mathematics, coupled with virtuosic performances by all members who sound distinct in their instrument, whether it's bass guitar, vocals, percussion, or lead guitar, all come together in a magical and unusually perfect way when their various albums unspool. Tool also have a talent for marrying the dichotomy of the beautiful with the ugly, as some of their themes feature sexual violence, blood-suckers, the hunger for death on tv, and alien abductions, while other songs contain beautiful humanistic themes such as rekindling communication with the one you love, being in the moment of life, achieving personal enlightenment, and riding the wave, or shall I say spiral. Fear Inoculum is no exception, and actually is a step above the previous monuments they've built in their discography.

In a sense, this album is the rebirth after a decade-plus of quiet incubation and evolution as individuals. What stands apart about this release when compared to previous albums is Maynard's absence of heavy metal screams and aggressive growls. Instead, he sings akin to how he would in his side bands A Perfect Circle or Puscifer, and it creates an atmosphere of angelic excellence, and a particularly superb accompaniment to the foundation-building instrumentation in each track. The first song on the album, the title track, is undeniably the most straight-forward cut, and it still clocks in at nearly 10 and a half minutes! It made waves in the music industry as the first 10-plus minute song to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart, as well as their catalog of albums breaking even more Billboard records since they released all their previous studio albums on all streaming platforms ahead of Fear's release. As a single, Fear Inoculum succeeds as a all-encompassing and utterly awesome introduction to Tool for any first-time listeners, and an example of the refined quality of their compositions up until this point, as it performs a completely flawless buildup of guitar, percussion (mallets and tabla), drums and bass guitar, before Maynard's vocals soar in to sweeten the deal and cap the perfected sonic landscape of Tool's architecture.

The quiet, meditative, reverberating guitar strum of Pneuma inspires chills as their album starts to drift beyond their previously released single, and the reality starts to sink in that we are really here finally, listening to another masterwork by these legends unspool before us. Guitarist Adam Jones's moody introduction is paired with plucky, synthesized percussion by virtuoso drummer Danny Carey before it breaks into a delayed guitar riff and sets off into an arhythmic beat, most likely in the number 7, a common recurring theme throughout the album in both time signature and motif. Pneuma, the ancient Greek word for "breath" and also a term used for "spirit" or "soul", is another example of the common esoteric and heady themes Tool is used to exploring. It's mysterious delayed guitar riff and drumbeat soon burst into a slow-marching, heavy metal presence, with a riff that solidifies Tool's talent for creating gentle and tender soundscapes to flip the switch on and make heavy as hell. Pneuma eventually flows through this movement again and dissolves into an atmospheric synthesized piece, sprinkled with Carey's transportive and entrancing percussion and Jones's slow-building melodies. It's a nearly 12 minute track, but hardly the longest, as there are still three more songs in the body of Fear Inoculum that stretch even further.

Although there are such long runtimes in most of the songs on this newest release, there is hardly ever a dull moment, as captivating melodies, riffs, and instrumentation are strung together to create one epic song after another. Such is heard on the third track of the album, Invincible, as Jones opens with a cool guitar melody that forms slowly and is repeated in the first few minutes and Maynard sings softly and slowly about a "warrior, struggling, to remain, relevant" to a poignant, soft drumbeat. It brings to mind the existentialism of the band itself, as they are emerging after almost 15 years with new music to a vastly changed world. The awesome bass guitar tones that Tool are so well-known for, and crafted by master musician Justin Chancellor, are heard really well on this track, and it's one of the first songs besides their single where all four members sound distinct in their instrument and where all four come together to create an interlocking mechanism of music.

Descending, similar to their title track from their previous album, 10,000 Days, opens with naturalistic sounds and feels like a calm before the storm in a sense. Most all of Tool's songs on Fear Inoculum have a slow and retrospective introduction, but they all build into epic masterpieces and still maintain their own identity within the album. Descending is no different. Also like most other tracks, Adam Jones takes a dive into more guitar solos than ever before on any previous record. It is a sign of personal growth within the band, and each member displays their own personal growth as they have never sounded better, both individually and together. Culling Voices takes a stab at all of the noise of the present world, in politics, social media, and news, and falls on the defiant, repeated line sung by Maynard, "don't you dare point that at me" as the song takes off into another hard rock groove. It's one of the shorter songs on the album, and probably the second-most straightforward song after their single. Possibly due to its somewhat limited framework, it works in this case that it remains on the shorter side, but it has all the necessary foundations of a seminal Tool song.

Chocolate Chip Trip is the first to break the format of all previous songs, and it's probably one of the ballsiest tracks Tool have ever committed to tape. It's purely a Danny Carey composition, as he has become more interested in experimenting with synthesizers and syncopated synthesized percussion. As the name suggests, it's the wildest, psychedelic track of the album, as the synthesized atmospheres blend and morph into a repeated mantra of melody and percussion while Carey takes to his enormous drum set to perform a mind-bending drum solo that benefits from being heard in a really good sound system. Chocolate Chip Trip will become known as the song to play for your friends who are on a really good amount of drugs, since it plays as both a feral dance of percussion and also as if it's an extensive and engaging live drum solo at a summer music festival. While different enough to break the mold that Tool have cast for most of this album, it is not jarring, since Tool are no strangers to songs designated to either mind-expansion or psyching their listeners out.

7empest, which is the most self-referential title in terms of their running theme of the number 7, is also the longest track to finish up the album, running at just under 16 minutes. Its beautiful palette-cleansing guitar melody washes away the trip that Carey took listeners on just prior and prepares them for the mind-melting journey to come. After the meditative, trance-like vibes Jones and Carey conjure up, Adam pulls a left-hand turn into classic metal territory with a Black Sabbath-inspired riff to kick off the magnum opus of the album. The style of this final track pulls from the hard rock and metal sound that Tool was built on, and it has an uncanny vibe of methodology that was featured most prominently on their debut album Undertow. This blending of new and old feels fresh without forgetting what came before, and Maynard's singing also reflects this classic Undertow-style. Ultimately, the 15 minutes and 45 seconds fly by in this straight-up hard rock and metal jam as Jones and Chancellor string together multiple frenetic riffs and melodies that are awe-inspiring and fluid. Maynard's message to fans and listeners to "control your delusions" is the final jewel of transcendental music education that no one would have expected to turn up in a progressive, heavy metal album, but this being Tool, there is no lower expectations to be had. The unforgettable melody in the chorus of instruments in 7empest feels timeless and stays with listeners long afterwards.

Fear Inoculum is a DENSE album to unpack, and it is made for those with the patience to unwrap it. In a sense, it is a defiant statement to the world and the music industry at large to respect the pure creativity of artists, as this music serves as an example that music and art could and should follow its own rules, and shouldn't have to fit into the standardized radio-friendly music box. Danny Carey mentioned in an interview with Revolver the pros and cons of having 13 years to form the album, the con being that each song was picked to pieces, scrapped, rearranged, and built up again endlessly, but that the advantage of this amount of time was that they could make the best songs that they possibly could. Its layers show off a discernible maturity for each of the band members, and each track has an inherent accessibility despite their lengths that no self-proposed fan of hard or prog rock couldn't appreciate, yet their sound and mix after 13 years of growth does not sound washed up or tired of being a band at all! After the 13 year absence since 10,000 Days, the work really shows that these 4 artists are at the top of their game, and the reaffirmation of their previous catalogue on streaming services breaking multiple records on Billboard shows that their presence will continue to be felt and music welcomed for generations to come.

Fear Inoculum - 10/10

Recommended Tracks: Pneuma, Invincible, 7empest

Note: As I mentioned earlier, this album's full length is 86 minutes, which includes 3 transitional tracks that are included on the digital release. To keep the record at an audio CD length, these 3 shorter tracks were cut in favor of keeping the real meat of the album on the disc. While these synthesized interludes don't necessarily need to be included for experiencing Tool's return, they are interesting for some strategically placed breaks between these long and progressive songs. Overall, it adds to the wonder of the masterpiece that is Fear Inoculum.