The Comeback Trail: Tool – Fear Inoculum

I don’t write a lot of Comeback Trail posts. They’re hard to qualify for, for starters: I have to have some kind of relationship with the band, enough that I can situate myself within their context. The “comeback” itself has to be reasonably-easily regarded as such, such that there’s no real quibble with using the term 1. Even more than that, there has to be something to write about.

As far as it goes, Tool’s Fear Inoculum definitely hits the first one right on the head – I’m a heavy-music-inclined white dude born in 1983. I’ve got a personal relationship with Tool. It’s more-or-less the one you think it is, although I’ll add some caveats later when I talk about this record. A thirteen-year break means that this is definitely a comeback by just about any definition of the word, so we’re in good territory there. The problem is that I don’t really think that I have anything worthwhile to say. 

The reason for soldiering forward, then, is because I actually don’t think anyone has anything in particular to say about it. Oh, reviews abound. Everybody’s written one by now, and the odds are that everyone’s review is overwhelmingly positive. It is, in fact, hard to swing a dead cat on the music-focused portion of the internet without hitting a glowing review, talking about long-ass songs and weird-ass time signatures and returns to form and whatever else. The thing is, they’re also going to talk about how it’s just too soon to review the record, and the pleasures of the record will unfold over time.

I’m not here to call these people liars, certainly.

The story of the album is the other thing that it’s pretty easy to hear about: there was a huge, exhausting-sounding legal battle that ended up draining the band’s creative batteries. It then took them forever to put together because they are terrible perfectionists and all the parts had to be right, and also lead singer Maynard James Keenan wouldn’t even consider contributing until everything was done. But, through the concerted effort of the band and a miracle of patience or something, we’re all here at the end of the rainbow, and the new album Fear Inoculum is upon us. 

And it’ll take everybody some time to learn how to like it.

But, furthermore, maybe the reason that I don’t think it’s that good is because Tool is, more than just about any other band I can think of, a band that moved straight out of my wheelhouse – that had once been a band made up of components that I loved in a way that worked out satisfyingly to me. Basically, I think that Tool made a much better heavy metal band than prog rock band, and their move to (now) totally be the latter means that I’m pretty well completely uninterested in what they’re doing.

This move has, however, been pretty organic. They’ve moved from leaden, brutish slightly-pointy sludge metal (Opiate) to much-smarter, more-melodic, technically accomplished art sludge metal (Undertow), to something that’s almost its entirely-own thing, in the form of the proggy but still decidedly rocking (and not, it must be said, much sludgey) Aenima, to the much more conceptual prog-metal “opus”-style (and slightly wittering and determinedly not sludgey) Lateralus to the full-bore proggy-ass barely-metal high-minded 10,000 Days. And here, on Fear Inoculum we have heavy metal somewhere in the background (and, of course, not even a speck of sludge), but mostly are just openly plowing the fields of prog 2

Even with this being the case – that the band’s sound has changed as the result of their organic movement through their own artistic purpose and whatnot – doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard for me to develop any kind of opinion about Fear Inoculum other than a kind of weary shrug. The actual sound 3 aside, the record sounds both obliviously self-assured, and comparatively underworked.

The former makes itself known in several ways. The playing is mechanically impressive – they’re all good players, with a formidable amount of skill, and the pieces that comprise this record seem to have been written with an eye to making that the primary feature. Adam Jones, who was formerly the sort of grounding force, as the metal-est member of the band, the member with the most limited palette of technique, has clearly spent the intervening decade plus figuring out some new stuff, and is a hell of a (prog) guitar player. Lots of his playing is impressive. Justin Chancellor has always been an impressive bassist 4, and Danny Carey continues to be….well, he’s the most frustrating member of the band. He’s clearly got the ability to hit the drums a lot. This album could be an eighty-minute drum solo for the way he plays it. It’s a very impressive drum solo. He should send it into Guinness or something, but it’s a lot more like circus tricks than a rock band’s drummer. Also knock it off with the fucking tablas already, duder.  

And then we come to the singer (and primary contributor to the underworked-ness). Maynard James Keenan is a fine singer – good voice, great range, etc. – and I’m not going to talk about his lyrics, because I don’t talk about lyrics (and don’t know them in the first place). His performances on this record are…kind of phoned-in? I don’t like them, anyway, and they seem super subdued. But he’s older, and he’s in a different place, and this is a different Tool – thirteen years in anyone’s life is a long way from end to end, so it stands to reason that things would be different. It is perhaps Keenan’s contributions where I am most dissonant with Tool fans (or even other ex-Tool fans). To wit, I was pretty much always more into Tool as an instrumental unit, even when I loved them, and a less-feisty, less-engaged Maynard does not help matters much.

It’s not a bad album, though. I’m not enough of a contrarian (there’s that word again, perhaps inevitable when something is glowed about that leaves me completely unmoved) to think that it would be. Every one of the super-long pieces has at least parts that are pretty cool, even if some of those parts are cribbed from other Tool songs or, in one case, provided by noise titan Lustmord. The song that works best as a whole piece, and the song I could see myself slipping into playlists in the future is the titanic “Invincible,” which trucks along nicely and on which everyone seems like they’re part of the same band for the whole track. “7empest” has a stupid number in its title, but is the other song that approaches being something I’d listen to in the future, and may even grown on me – it’s louder, and doesn’t spend as much time building up frustrated, abortive dynamice shifts 5.

As mentioned at the top, the read on this seems to be that it’s something you have to live with for awhile, to let develop for awhile in your head before a judgement upon it can be pronounced. I suppose the argument that I’m making is that maybe that’s more about convincing yourself of the things that you could like about it, because it’s the only Tool album in a bunch of years, and might be the only one for awhile, and if you’re a Tool fan, you’ve got to get into something.

So, to answer the central question of the installments of this series – is it a comeback? Sure, I guess. It seems like a pretty natural extension of the band itself, and while it isn’t a patch on their best work, it’s certainly not as bad as it could have been 6, and it quite obviously is giving the fans what they want, and for good reason – if you stuck with them through 10,000 Days, this album is basically a direct sequel to/continuation from that one, so you’re in luck! – and it’s selling like hotcakes. So sure, they’ve come back. I’m just not a part of their audience anymore.

Maybe some of you are like me, then, and are unmoved and not terribly enthused by the notion of putting on a record the same length as the movie Chicken Run over and over again until it sinks in. Rock music isn’t a competition, nor is it an actual real-life game of RIYL, nor is it an opportunity to flex on people by telling people what’s “like that thing they like, only better”. However 7, also reissued this week is the phenomenal, satisfying, genre-defying heavy music masterpiece Neurosis & Jarboe. While it’s not new (it’s just newly-issued on vinyl and remastered everywhere else), it’s everything a Tool album could have been but wasn’t if you’re pining for a version of Tool that doesn’t exist, and for my fellow “no longer that interested in what Tool is doing”-heads, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Go buy a copy. It’ll make you happy. 

  1.  I have occasionally toyed with starting a sort of companion feature, “Still Going Then?” where I write about things like the newest set of Body Count albums or the last couple of Boyz II Men albums – acts that are still plugging away and have never really stopped, even if their sales and audience sizes are considerably diminished from their hayday. I don’t do it in the end because it’s sort of the opposite of what I write about here – I’m interested in the things that are popular or attempting to be popular, not the people who are able to modify their circumstances to ply their craft under different circumstances. That last thing is something I’m specifically inclined to celebrate, in fact, but it’s not the purview of here. Or, rather, it isn’t until I reverse this decision and decide that it is.  
  2. If it seems like I’m coming down on prog rock here, please understand that I am not: I lik1e prog rock a lot, and you only have to go back to the most recent post on this very blog to see me glow about early-ish Genesis, and I’m happy to talk about Pink Floyd all day, just to name the two easiest-to-hand examples. My problem is not prog-rock, it’s that I don’t think Tool is a very good or interesting prog rock band, and they were a good and interesting heavy metal band.  
  3. and attendant genre quibbling, which I admit is about at its end here 
  4. his addition to the band is what cleared away most of the aforerunningjoked “sludge” – he’s a much more fluid bass player than Paul D’Amour. For a sort of wish-fulfilling alternate-universe where he’s in a heavier, less-frustrating band, I invite you all to revisit Isis’s mighty “Altered Course”, from Panopticon, on which he guests, and which is fucking awesome. 
  5.  it really does seem like an extra-heavily-used Tool move is to build up to a crescendo and then back off of it real quick-like, a thing they’ve kind of always done, but which seems to be their main mode of operation on this record. 
  6. It’s not, for example, nearly as bad as the last A Perfect Circle album 
  7. Yes indeed, this is one of those sentences that can only lead to the writer doing exactly the thing they just said they aren’t actually doing. 

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