After 13 long years, the great white whale of progressive rock and heavy metal has finally returned. Tool, long considered one of the greatest art rock bands to grace the airwaves of alternative radio in the mid-1990s to early-2000s, have just released their fifth album, “Fear Inoculum.” Yet, a gap in output this long raises the question: Was the wait worth it?
Tool is perhaps the most enigmatic and elusive band in modern rock. Currently comprised of Maynard James Keenan on lead vocals, Adam Jones on guitar, Danny Carey on drums and Justin Chancellor on bass, the group formed with the help of mutual friend Tom Morello, guitarist for legendary rap-rock outfit Rage Against the Machine, who introduced Carey to Jones. After Tool released their first EP, “Opiate” in 1992, the band began to generate buzz by completing successful tours with established and up-and-coming bands such as Rollins Band, White Zombie and Corrosion of Conformity.
Following the success of “Opiate,” Tool went on to release four classic records in the alternative metal genre: “Undertow,” “Aenima,” “Lateralus” and “10,000 Days.” But after that, a lengthy hiatus began, during which Tool faced numerous setbacks such as lawsuits, band members sustaining injuries and the oft-cited creative disagreements. Each of the band members worked on personal projects in the meantime: Maynard James Keenan released several new albums for both his solo project Puscifer and the alternative metal supergroup, A Perfect Circle; Adam Jones collaborated with The Melvins and punk legend Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys; Danny Carey worked with Adrian Belew of prog-giants King Crimson; and Justin Chancellor played bass on the Death Grips track, “Disappointed.”
But while Tool members kept busy, it is important to note how long of a hiatus 13 years is. To put it into perspective, in just eight years’ time, The Beatles produced their entire studio discography, a whopping 13 studio albums. And because none of Tool’s music was available for streaming until earlier this year, it seemed that the group was slowly being forgotten as time passed.
And yet, Tool has been able to maintain their momentum and popularity from their early years, which is nearly unheard of. Within weeks of its release, “Fear Inoculum” took over the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200, usurping the throne from Taylor Swift’s “Lover.” So, it is safe to say that the excitement from Tool fans alone is what is keeping this band alive.
If only I could share in the excitement. I have never been much of a Tool fan—I’ve always found their style pretentious and overly complicated. While I believe that the members of Tool are some of the best musicians in today’s modern rock scene, the long-winded, rhythmically confusing and mystical aspects of the band’s songwriting have never truly resonated with me. The only album that I even partially enjoy from Tool’s discography is “Undertow,” because I connect more with the raw and aggressive energy that the band exhibited at the early stages of their career. However, I still decided to go into this album with an open mind.
“Fear Inoculum” opens with its title track, which was also released as a promotional single. At 10 minutes and 20 seconds, this song is one of the shortest on the record. With its polyrhythmic beat, ambient guitar sounds and Keenan’s slow, dramatic singing, “Fear Inoculum” drags on and on without really going anywhere. And, unfortunately, so do the rest of the songs on this project. The lyrics are so abstract and odd that I am unable to quote any of them, and the instrumentals are fairly bland compared to some of the heavy hitters in the band’s discography, like “Prison Sex,” or “Forty-Six and 2.” The only track I felt mostly positive about was “7empest,” which featured some of Adam Jones’ heaviest riffing in a long time.
If Tool dedicated their incredible musical chops to something more energetic and exciting, similar to Iron Maiden or Megadeth, I might enjoy their music more. However, their musical proficiency—Adam Jones’ experimental yet polished guitar chops, Danny Carey’s incredibly tight drumming and Maynard James Keenan’s ever-resilient vocal prowess—is really the only aspect of their songs that I can appreciate. I respect Tool as a band and admire them for their devoted and loyal fan base, but for me, 13 years was too long to wait for an album of such lackluster quality.