Tool’s new album, Fear Inoculum, was released on August 30, 2019. The physical CD only contains seven tracks, but comes in an impressive case that includes a video screen that plays when you open it, along with a booklet of images and lyrics. But as a CD maxes out its capacity just shy of 80 minutes, tracks three (“Litanie contre la peur”), five (“Legion Inoculant”), and ten (“Mockingbeat”) of the electronic version are not included.
This raises a question as to which is the “real” album, but I think it’s fairly clear that the answer is the digital version. The physical version is more of an objet d’art for those of us obsessive enough to insist on it. And as much as the cut tracks may seem inessential, we have seen such short weird tracks going back to Ænima, and throughout I would argue that they have been anything but. Or, they are, but at the same time provide a framing to the flow of the album that is important. The inessential plays a vital role.
Thus I will be including these tracks as I delve into the album. I may have less to say about them than the tracks that have lyrics, but I don’t think they are to be skipped, any more than I think something like “Cesaro Summability” is.
The title track of the album, which Tool released a few weeks ago, and which I have discussed a bit previously, opens the album with a thesis statement: to move beyond fear, or become inoculated against it.
The instrumentals are reminiscent of Tool songs from days past in various ways. In particular, the closing riffs remind me of “Lateralus” to the extent that I found that song going through my head after listening to the new one, but as with other instances on this album, I think this has more to do with Tool’s sound remaining fairly consistent with their past two efforts in particular, and their continued use of things like 7/4 time signatures, than it does with any lack of originality.
On a first listen these similarities struck me more than they have on repeated hearings. This is what Tool sounds like, and, if you think about it, complaining that one song a band wrote sounds like another song they wrote is a weird sort of criticism. It’s just that we’ve seen this band evolve in the past from one album to the next in terms of their sound. Now they seem settled in, like the seed of Tool has fully developed.
My initial impression that Maynard’s vocals feel a bit more in line with his A Perfect Circle work than with the previous Tool albums lingers, however. I don’t think this a bad thing, either, though. I’ve enjoyed APC’s work, and it’s honestly kind of strange to think about the extent to which he has kept his style distinct between Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. Regardless, the style here fits.
The anger we have heard in previous Tool projects seems to be largely gone, however. And in this regard, “Fear Inoculum” keys us off immediately.
I exhale you
I opened up to you
Venom in mania
It seems clear that the contagion is fear. It is fear of the Other: not just those who are different but those who think differently. The thought is that this is the source of the venom to be expelled. It’s a lie to think that the world is full of reprehensible people. Most folks are decent, and kind. They may be misguided in various ways, but they aren’t evil.
Behind hate, and behind anger, is fear. We fear those who aren’t like us. And/or we fear those who fear those who aren’t like us. This is the spectacle that binds us, and Maynard’s previous criticisms of social media—from Puscifer’s “The Remedy” to A Perfect Cirlce’s “Disillusioned”—come to mind, as well as things like Tool’s previous anger-filled “Ticks and Leeches“. But it seems now that Maynard is calling for us to move beyond that anger, or suggesting that at least he has himself. And this immunity—to the hate, the anger, and the fear—is long overdue.
It’s an interesting position to take in the world we currently live in, where many of us have felt incredibly anxious, if not afraid, for the past several years in particular. But I would suggest that Maynard is fundamentally right—the fear isn’t helpful. Instead, we should enumerate what we have to do. If only it were easy to move beyond fear. What, precisely, might provide us all with such an inoculation?
Pneuma is the ancient Greek word for spirit, or breath. It is, interestingly, distinguished from psyche, which refers to the soul, or mind, and is the root of a term like ‘psychology’. Yet there is a thought about pneuma being the vital force of a human being, such that apparently the Pythagoreans even eschewed eating beans due to a worry about farting.
It’s not at all surprising to see Tool pick up on this concept on Fear Inoculum, as the band has played with concepts related to esoteric religion/spirituality for a long time. And, from the Fibonacci sequence to thoughts about sacred geometry, that hasn’t just been in the lyrics.
Equally, they have by now had a fairly long-standing relationship with artist Alex Grey. I visited his gallery (or, I’m sorry, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors) in Chelsea (NYC) some years ago and took a guided tour with him. The lobby was strewn with banners displaying quotes from various religious and philosophical figures. It was all very ecumenical, getting at some notion of a spirituality that transcends any of the defined borders of codified religion. He said that “God is love” and wondered, for those who don’t believe in God—do we believe in love? (They also apparently used to hold yoga sessions in the studio).
Tool has long seemed largely in line with this ethos. Even if early tracks like “Opiate” take a fairly hard line against religion, we’ve since heard tracks like “Wings for Marie” and “Right in Two” that have taken a more nuanced view. And “Pneuma” falls right in line with that tradition.
Spirit bound to this flesh, this guise, this mask, this dream.
Wake up, remember –
We are born of One Breath, One Word.
We are all One Spark, Sun becoming.
There is a monism here that brings to mind the likes of Spinoza, but Maynard has focused in on the idea of pneuma (breath/spirit), while at the same time referencing the Book of John’s claim that Christ is the Word.
The word must, of course, be spoken with breath—the voice. What is the spirit? Materialists seem to make a certain kind of mistake in claiming that it is nothing. Or, at least, they hit upon a problem in thinking about how to explain it. Even language itself presents this problem, but music does even more so—how do we think about the meaning communicated here?
Beyond these considerations related to the lyrics, “Pneuma” was the first track on Fear Inoculum to give me what I can only describe as a moment of transcendence, when I locked into its rhythms (not on the first listening, but maybe the second) and felt like the song took me beyond my average everyday reality.
The riffs and rhythms in the latter part of the song are extraordinary, in particular. Tool does that thing where the whole song builds a beautiful tension that then gets released over its closing minutes. Perhaps more than any other track on the album, this song climaxes.
Litanie contre la peur
The titles translates from French to “litany against fear” and thus we see the theme of the album continue. Undulating sounds greet us, and this track is more about the ambience than anything.
Yet, as with tracks on previous albums, I think “Litanie contre la peur” grants a certain reprieve. It gives breathing room between the intensity of “Pneuma” and “Invincible”—a meditative moment.
If you haven’t, I recommend going and looking up those YouTube videos where people have taken older Tool songs and slowed them down significantly. They become this sort of meditative track, and this one reminds me of them to a degree.
“Invincible” feels like maybe the most personal track Maynard has put out, in terms of its lyrics. Of course we’ve had things before that seemed to have to do with his mother (most notably “Wings for Marie”), but this one seems to be about him, and how he feels worn down in terms of fighting against the forces of shit in the world.
Age old battle, mine. Weapon out and belly in.
Tales told of battles won, of things we’ve done, Caligula would grin.
Beating tired bones. Tripping through remember when.
Once invincible. Now the armor’s wearing thin.
Heavy shield down. Warrior struggling to remain relevant.
Warrior struggling to remain consequential.
The opening track may focus on inoculating oneself against fear, but it also includes a line about enumerating all that one can do. With “Invincible” it seems clear that this is what Maynard is thinking about.
There is a battle to be fought, but I’m old now and I have a belly. (I don’t think Maynard has a belly, but I do, so I’ll allow it). Of course I’m going to fight, but I’m tired. Whereas 25 years ago I felt like an invincible force of rage, now I’m not sure how to contribute.
The armor has worn thin, as the strikes of the enemy seem to pierce more easily. And the old battles—like fights for free speech—now feel somewhat suspect. Perhaps we beat those forces of censorship, but what did we end up with—Alex Jones?
As with the other tracks on Fear Inoculum, though, the instrumentals on “Invincible” are exemplary. Even if on a first pass you find yourself thinking of previous tracks that feeling fades the more you listen to it.
Justin Chancellor’s work on bass is as impressive as it’s ever been, if not more so. You just really don’t hear others utilizing the instrument the way he does very often—if ever. And while that’s true in general, it really struck me on this track.
Again, it’s not that Tool is repeating itself in some bad way on this album, it’s that Tool is Tool, and they are amazing. The more you listen to these songs, the more you’ll notice things about their composition that will blow your mind.
A sweeping soundscape of meditative brilliance, “Legion Inoculant” nonetheless does include a contribution from Maynard. There are vocals. But it seems as though they don’t culminate in words. There is no entry in the booklet that accompanies the physical copy of the album (though this track is also not on that), and from what I hear I don’t think there is anything to come together. But, still, someone please speed this up by 200 or something to see if we get some kind of secret recipe for cookies or something.
I do find the insertion of the track into the album to be nice, regardless. Again, it provides a little space to breath between the main tracks of the album, and this kind of segue track is something I have long appreciated about Tool.
The weirder the better, in my opinion, though. And this one isn’t terribly weird as far as these things go.
While “Fear Inoculum” opens the album with a paean to moving beyond fear and its effects, it’s clear as the album moves forward that Maynard remains concerned with the state of the world and how fucked up it is. In fact, this might be Tool’s most political album, although this is veiled through their style and their albums have always been political in the same sort of way.
Puscifer’s “The Arsonist” makes it pretty fucking clear where Maynard stands on Trump, and “Descending” equally gives a diagnosis of the current state of things that is far from cheery.
Free fall through our midnight,
This epilogue of our own fable.
Heedless in our slumber.
Floating nescient we free fall through this boundlessness,
This madness of our own making.
Falling isn’t flying.
Floating isn’t infinite…
Come, our end, suddenly.
All hail our lethargy.
To the quickened dissolution.
Pray we mitigate the ruin,
Calling all to arms and order.
But along with this, there is a call to arms, reminding us of the line in “Fear Inoculum” about enumerating all that one can do. Tool’s message on this album is not one of quietism.
Rouse all from our apathy, lest we cease to be.
Stir us from our wanton slumber.
Mitigate our ruin.
I take the fable in question to be the American Dream. We’re living in its epilogue, and we’ve done this to ourselves. It’s a madness of our own making.
I recall that after the 2016 election I had more than one friend say something about how, although it was terrible, they were impressed by the power of U.S. democracy. No.
Look at all of those who didn’t vote, and who won’t vote next time. Look at the way people aren’t engaged in civic life at the local level. Look at how we are descending—free falling through our midnight. It is a wanton slumber as we distract ourselves with reality TV and sports, etc. But the best we can do now is mitigate our ruin.
I’m not sure about the use of the word ‘psychopathy’ throughout “Culling Voices”—talking about neurosis might have been more conceptually on point.
Yet, that perhaps wouldn’t have fit with the rhythms of the song, so OK Maynard: ‘psychopathy’ it is.
Regardless, what we get here is an ode to how our psychological hang-ups can get in the way of our relationships with others. We imagine what they might say, and that can easily lead to thinking that they have said that very thing. We read into things, and the results can be disastrous.
Judge, condemn, and banish any and everyone
Only the whispers from within.
I say something, and you take me to be representing the position you abhor, without any regard to how I might be trying to say something nuanced. Or you do, and I do the same thing.
We jump to judgment, without really listening to each other. Perhaps this stems from being too caught up in ourselves?
One could easily take this as a critique of “cancel culture,” but I think it’s broader than that. It’s about imagining that people hold views that they perhaps don’t, and that they are beyond reason—just banish them.
To what extent does this stem from fear?
Chocolate Chip Trip
Danny Carey just goes off on this track, as it amounts to a four minute long drum solo. Of course, that involves electronic drums and a repeated phrase that I assume he programmed in, but still…
I don’t know why Tool seems to have a thing for cookies, but they have going back to Ænima’s “Die Eier von Satan.”
And I guess this one isn’t necessarily about cookies, but that’s what “Chocolate Chip Trip” makes me think of. And if those were hash sugar cookies we got a recipe for 20 some years ago, I can only think of cannabis-infused chocolate chips here.
As with the other instrumental tracks on the album, I’m impressed with how this one breaks things up, but unlike the others this one made it onto the physical CD as well.
So there’s no denying this is part of the album, as well it should be. Danny Carey is maybe the best drummer ever.
I am pretty sure “7empest” is about Trump.
(Keep calm. Keepin’ it calm. Keep calm. Fuck. Here we go again)
Heat lightning flash, but don’t blink. Misleading. Tranquility ruse.
You’re gonna happen again.
That’s what I think.
Follow the evidence. Look it dead in the eye. You are darkness.
Trying to lull us in, before the havoc begins, into a dubious state of serenity.
Acting all surprised when you’re caught in the lie.
We know better.
It’s not unlike you.
It’s not unlike you.
We know your nature.
He is the tempest. Perhaps another could be if they acted in a similar way, but in our current world, Trump is the force that sucks everything in. He tweets and is in the news everyday. I recall during previous presidencies being able to “forget” who was President for days at a time, but not now. It’s like he’s a force of nature.
And to label him as such is interesting—to label him as a tempest. It gets to the way in which he seems unable to help it, and we seem to be unable to help but pay attention.
Now, the lyrics here are ambiguous enough that I suppose this song might not be about Trump, or, at least, I could see someone listening to it years from now and not making that connection. This is a general strength of Maynard’s lyrics, that various resonances and interpretations tend to be available. I didn’t think of Trump, for example, when I listened to Puscifer’s “The Arsonist” until they released the video that presented him as a kind of Powerpuff Girls villain. Instead, I thought of various people in my own life whose “social skills resemble arson.”
So perhaps it will be the same with “7empest” as it ages, and (hopefully) the memory of Trump fades. The song certainly gets at a character type that goes beyond him.
And Adam Jones kills it here. While the guitar riffs in Tool songs are often understated, and the band as whole is much more of an ensemble than you tend to find with other acts, “7empest” provides Jones with an opportunity to just unleash everything he has in him.
I’ll admit that (perhaps weirdly) the guitar has tended to be the thing I’ve been least focused on over the years with Tool. Danny Carey’s drumming has consistently wowed me, Maynard’s vocals have always carried me to heights unknown, and Justin Chancellor’s bass riffs have inspired me as a bassist (Paul D’Amour was good, too). But weirdly, unlike so many other bands where the lead guitarist gets featured like a god, Adam Jones has generally struck me as just there—an important part of the band, to be sure, and someone whose contributions I have certainly never demeaned (particularly given his role in the visuals of the videos as well and so on), but the guitar in Tool has never really felt like the main thing to me.
Don’t get me wrong—Adam Jones is awesome and I have always thought so. And the guitar parts on Tool albums have always been important. It’s just that here it rises to a level I don’t know that we’ve seen before. This shit is fucking transcendent.
As the song moves into its second half, Jones takes over and it’s amazing. I guess you could call this an extended solo, but with how Tool composes songs, that doesn’t quite feel right. It’s all of a piece, and not like this is a solo set apart from the song. This is the song. And it’s brilliant.
“Mockingbeat” ends the album with a a fitting coda.
There are sounds that sound like birds, but they become increasingly distorted. And a drum machine like rhythm plays in the background.
It seems like someone is scratching the record, and the music fades out. This is perfect Tool.
At least since Ænima, they have done this kind of shit, and arguably before, depending on how you parse it.
Opiate and Undertow both had “secret tracks” and this could almost be viewed as the modern version of that.
The “hidden track” is no more, but we can still do this thing where the last track feels weird…
I don’t know, but I’m glad that the album ends with “Mockingbeat” as opposed to cutting off after “7empest”—it feels like an appropriate end to a Tool album.
Message to Harry Manback
If there is any criticism of Fear Inoculum, it would be that Tool hasn’t evolved since 10,000 Days, and this is “just” more Tool. But perhaps we are seeing the fully evolved Tool at this point.
It’s true that one can track meaningful changes, or evolution, between Opiate and Undertow, Undertow and Ænima, Ænima and Lateralus, Lateralus and 10,000 Days, but after 13 years Tool has given us a new album in Fear Inoculum that is solid.
If it reminds you too much of previous efforts, listen to it again. And again. Because this is not just more Tool. It’s more Tool. And if you think these songs rank below those from their other albums, perhaps you haven’t listened to them enough.
I don’t know where I would put a track like “Pneuma” on my all-time list, but it certainly wouldn’t be at the bottom.