Tool’s first album in 13 years opens like a grievous European symphony drawn in electronic tones; what sounds like the chiming of a hammered dulcimer enters alongside Danny Carey’s tablas, which tag-team with kit drums, heavy electric guitar and bass. Maynard James Keenan, his voice still striking youthful — he turned 55 last spring — sings in prayer-like tones about contagion, venom, and immunity; about mania, spectacle, and exorcism. As Adam Jones’ phase-shifted guitar tones alternately suggest Turkish funk and Norwegian metal, the track unspools, building to a bonecrushing, double bass kick-drum-powered finish.
That’s “Fear Inoculum,” the first of six extended songs, all over 10 minutes long, punctuated by four interludes, on a record that clocks in at one hour, 27 minutes. The music takes its time. “Pneuma” has a pulse that suggests the measured rhythm of yogic breathing: a snaking, vaguely Arabic synth tone appears, then slithers off; heavy metal crescendos and feedback-glazed diminuendos rise and fall like abstracted Led Zeppelin. The brief “Litanie Contre la Peur” (apparently taking its name from an incantation out of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune) suggests an exercise in extreme voice processing, 808s & Heartbreak run through a screw extruder.
With lyrics alluding to Ponce De Leon’s mythical search for a fountain of youth, the title of “Invincible” implies air quotes. There’s a weave of mbira and downtuned guitar tones. Echoes of previous songs bubble up: a distended synth line like the one in “Pneuma,” but thicker; distressed vocals like those in “Litanie Contre la Peur,” but more intelligible, with Keenan lamenting time’s mercilessness. There’s a magnificently sick guitar solo, and the drumming’s just ridiculous, verging on super-human, all spiraling polyrhythms and rapidfire blast-beats.
The set’s second half is no less impressive, and “Descending” might be the album’s highlight. It begins with the sound of storms wailing and waves crashing — oceans perhaps rising — with vocals that sound delivered underwater (all this reflects guest contributions from dark-new-age ambient veteran Lustmord). “Rouse all from our apathy, lest we cease to be,” Keenan keens, suggesting a coming apocalypse and the rallying of energies to prevent it — until another crushing, multi-part, technically-dazzling, synth-laced instrumental passage flares up and rages, until the waves come crashing in again and reclaim the space.
So yeah: Fear Inoculum is a very good Tool record. But what does a Tool record mean in 2019? Economically, it seems, plenty: Forbes predicted Fear Inoculum would knock Taylor Swift’s Lover off the top of the pop charts in its first week. That may sound surprising, but Tool’s success has always been aberrant, even in the ‘90s heyday of nü metal they came up in, their proggy musical constructions, visual panache, and bookish, psychedelic-philosophic steez launching them into charting singles and arena bookings in surprisingly short order. The band never appeared to care much about the mainstream music world, generally sneering at it when they bothered to engage it at all. Still, they were, and clearly remain, a pop-scale force.
What do they mean culturally in 2019? That’s tougher to say. Hard rock and heavy metal have become artisanal practices, folk art with arcane rituals like guitar solos and flamboyant kit-drum displays. And the dude energy they tend to valorize is suspect in the #metoo era, and not without reason. In Tool’s case, a number of publications (this one included) reported on a sexual assault accusation made on Twitter last year involving Keenan. No charges have been filed to date, and for whatever reason among numerous possible ones, the accuser never came forward. Nevertheless, it’s a backdrop hard to unsee — to this release, rock’s larger mannish history, and America’s pathological cult of celebrity writ large.
And while Tool has always been a devotedly cryptic band, there’s a sense of them addressing all this here. Most obvious is the silverback brooding on “Invincible.” Lines like “warrior struggling to remain relevant” and “Lurch out in the fray, weapon out belly in” are unusually on-the-nose metaphorically for a band of aging arena rock gods, and would be comic if it wasn’t for the sonic cathedral around them and Keenan’s delivery, alternately choir-boy tender and smoldering, which conveys real pathos. “Culling Voices,” meanwhile, might be read as a rant about internet shaming culture, its niggling percussion like a bad trip of pinging social media posts. “Judge, condemn, and banish any and everyone/Without evidence,” Keenan croons against pretty guitars, the words “imagined interplay” flickering ghostly through the mix, and a menacing whisper of “Don’t you dare point that at me.”
The set’s longest song, and finale, is “7empest,” a 15 minute workout with a title suggesting both the band’s fondness for seven-beat time signatures and Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest — a tale of a wronged man-turned-sorcerer, exiled to an island for 12 years, that features betrayals, revenge, and a secondary character part man, part monster. “A tempest… must… be… just … that” Keenan seethes, spitting out words as the guitar howls and the double kick-drum tidal wave crashes in. Then the hammered dulcimer tones from the album’s opening passage return. It finishes a formal masterpiece that should stand the test of time — either as a defining record of its era, or a monumental relic of an art form that had its day.