Tool: a buyer’s guide to the post-metal titans and their Fear Inoculum return

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After a 13 years absence, iconic American rockers Tool have released their fifth studio album,  Fear Inoculum; if you need a refresher course, Getintothis’ Lee Grimsditch is only happy to oblige. 


In August 2019, after 13 years, iconic metallers Tool finally released their fans from a long, excruciating purgatory with the release of their fifth studio album Fear Inoculum.

Not since Guns’N’Roses Chinese Democracy has an album been as anticipated yet so drawn out in development that even the most die-hard fans had almost lost hope of seeing another album after the band’s 2006 release 10,000 Days.

Confirmation came in June 2018 when singer Maynard Keenan revealed the band were in the studio and new music would be released the following year.

You would think that any Tool fan, parched and desperate for any drop of hope would be ecstatic at the news.

They have, however, been burned before.

For years, rumours and hints of new material from the band had surfaced only to disappear again, so much so, even words from the horse’s mouth should be treated with cool scepticism as Tool have a long history of pulling the old switcheroo.

They once published on their semi-official band page that “at least three of the band are listed in critical condition” after a tour bus accident as a prank, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The band’s slow and methodical approach to writing previously pushed vocalist Maynard Keenan to reveal that he often found the band’s creative process tedious, it is no wonder then, that in the intervening years between albums he has explored other music projects – most notably with alt-rock supergroup A Perfect Circle.

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It wasn’t until May 2019 at the Welcome to Rockville Festival in Jacksonville, Florida that two new songs were debuted called Descending and Invincible.

This monumental confirmation of new material was proof enough to breathe life back into the wary rumour mill, and three days later it was announced that a new album would be released later in the year.

Fear Inoculum arrived on August 30th 2019, knocking Generation Z’s poster girl Taylor Swift off the top of the US Billboard charts, confirmation then that rock’s big names can still land the occasional haymaker on pop and hip hop, to stand at the top of the mainstream music chart.

A surprise then to the Swifties that a group of hairy, middle-aged oddballs seemingly shot from obscurity to challenge the supremacy of their radio-friendly unit shifter (many would not have been born when Tool released their previous album).

But what they won’t understand is the magnitude of the band’s influence and how they helped bring a different voice to mainstream metal. It wasn’t the sex-crazed, junkie chic of glam rock, nor did it recite from the well-thumbed tomes of the occult that Black Sabbath had passed down to metal bands of the 80s.

If close stablemates, Rage Against the Machine, were championing a wider politics with their own groundbreaking fusion of heavy music, then it was Tool who explored a more personal politics within metal that, at its best, is a still unsurpassed union of contradictions.

The cerebral complexity of the band’s music counterbalanced the raw defiance and painful vulnerability that singer Maynard Keenan brought to the table. Their greatest triumph is how they have developed this unique voice in metal whilst continuing to captivate a vast and loyal army of heavy music fans for nearly 30 years.

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Formed in Los Angeles in 1989, Tool comprises of vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and Justin Chancellor, bassist since 1995, replacing Paul D’Amour.

A steady line-up in the world of metal, a genre well-documented for its excess and volatility, they started to gain record company interest when grunge was captivating the young and disaffected end of the musical spectrum.

Despite this, they signed a deal with Zoo Entertainment and in March 1992 they released Opiate, a six-song EP of their hardest and heaviest tunes. Their sound coalesced the angst of grunge with harder, metal overtones and the band began touring with the likes of the Rollins Band and Rage Against the Machine.

In 1993, their first full album Undertow was released to positive reviews that praised the albums complexity, technical brilliance and aggression.

Undertow turned out to be a much more layered and multi-textual offering than the Opiate EP had suggested and showcased early qualities of brutal yet complex musicality alongside stark and personal subject matter. Themes that were developed even further on the band’s second album Ænima released in September 1996.

Often cited as Tool’s masterwork, Ænima debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. It went on to be certified triple platinum in March 2003 and has been ranked the sixth most influential album of all time by Kerrang. The album contains the single Stinkfist and the brilliant title track Ænima won Tool their first grammy. The album had a greater progressive influence which helped to cement their place at the pinnacle of the alt-metal genre

In 2001, Tool released Lateralus which pushed Ænima’s prog metal indulgences even further.

Evident in the music was an increased exploration into spiritual and esoteric subject matter and bolder experimentation to incorporate eastern and tribal drumming along with strange and exotic sound samples.

Despite such seemingly uncommercially minded moves, the album was a huge worldwide success reaching No.1 on the US Billboard 200 album chart in its first week. They would also go on to receive their second Grammy award for the single Schism.

In 2006, their much anticipated 4th full studio album 10,000 Days was released, despite not being as critically acclaimed as their previous albums, it still went on to reach No. 1 in the US Billboard 200 chart.

The complex time signatures and long, exotic prog-inspired leanings of Ænima had now come to embody Tool’s signature sound, but there was still space for hard-hitting statement songs like the single Vicarious to satisfy the purest metallers in their following.

And then, nothing.

A 13-year-long musical abstinence of monastic proportions before Fear Inoculum was released in August 2019, along with their entire studio back catalogue becoming available for digital download for the first time.

The new album has been seen as a further step in the refinement of the Tool sound rather than a groundbreaking shift, however, it has generally been critically well-received and most importantly taught all the Swifties a much-needed lesson in the cruel and unpredictable uncertainty of existence. Think on.

And so, we have compiled a buyer’s guide.
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Undertow

Undertow (1993)

From the opening song Intolerance with its downtuned and dirty riff, Tool announce themselves like a heavyweight’s punch. What comes as a surprise then is Maynard Keenan’s voice. It starts delicate and small and is a startling contrast to the band’s rhythmic assault.

It’s a song that introduces Undertow’s contrasting tones of brutality and tenderness.

Personal themes of alienation were a ready subject in grunge music at the time, but on Undertow, Tool demonstrated that intelligence and emotional vulnerability could translate to a harder, heavier sound, creative avenues much less explored in metal at that time.

What really marks Undertow out amongst its peers, however, was the quality of the songwriting and the voice of Maynard Keenan. Qualities best exemplified in the controversial second single Prison Sex, a song that tackled the harrowing subject of child abuse. Despite this, Maynard demonstrates a real gift for a great melodic hook and creative, rhythmic phrasing outside more conventional time signatures, making Prison Sex a real album highlight.

Considering the later albums, Undertow feels intimate.

Certainly, there are nods to the expansive complexity that would follow, but the stripped-down production places you right in the front row. The musicianship is dynamic and accomplished but it’s Maynard’s voice and ability to dignify difficult subject matter and emotions with tenderness and defiance that gives the album its uniqueness.

 

Ænima

Ænima (1996)

Tool’s second offering contains some of the band’s best and most lauded tunes. The album starts straight in with first single Stinkfist, a problematic title for MTV who chose to refer to it as ‘Track #1’ reasoning that the title was too offensive for public consumption.

Eye-opening and amusingly perverse song titles seemed to be the flavour on Ænima as with another standout song on the album, and Stinkfist B-side, Hooker with a Penis. Never a band that should be taken solely on face value, the title serves as a metaphor and is Maynard’s response to a fan’s accusation that the band have sold out. It’s a brutal rejoinder to any insinuation that Tool have lost any of their edge. Considering the progressive leanings of the rest of the album, it’s the most ferocious 4-minutes-and-33-seconds of spitting defiance that Tool has ever committed to record. During the chorus, Maynard delivers his venomous response in this retort:

“So I’ve got some advice for you, little buddy. Before you point your finger you should know that I’m the man. If I’m the fuckin’ man then you’re the fuckin’ man as well so you can point that fuckin’ finger up your ass.”

If Hooker with a Penis is Tool let off the leash to dish out a can of whoop-ass crushing noise, then Forty-Six & 2 is a masterful lesson in the band’s ability to create and release tension. But perhaps the moment on the album when all the dynamics, complexity and songwriting ability come together are on the track Ænema. A song inspired by the late comic Bill Hick’s, it’s a satirical take that references one of his stand-up routines in which he contemplates Los Angeles falling into the Pacific Ocean. In the tense lead up to the chorus – just as we’re braced for a further sonic thrashing – it all falls away to a surprise, exquisite resolution as Maynard sings:

“I’m praying for rain.
I’m praying for tidal waves
I wanna see the ground give way
I wanna watch it all go down
Mom, please flush it all away”

There’s so much to say about Ænima as a suite of incredible, alternative metal music. It’s a testament to the band’s already admirable musical intelligence and power. An incredibly emotive and technical accomplishment from a band pushing the boundaries of metal further than any of their contemporaries.

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Lateralus

Lateralus (2001)

So much had Tool established themselves as one of the biggest names in metal, their third studio album Lateralus debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling more than 555,200 copies in its first week of release. It also signalled the band taking a step further down into art-rock and prog-metal territory.

Often pitched against Ænima for the distinction of being Tool’s best album. The music video for the single Parabola ran for ten-and-a-half-minutes which posed problems for fans with short attention spans and music programmers alike.

It is an album that exhibits Tool in their full, adult form. The progression of their sound to incorporate chanting and ambient beats alongside the crushing guitar work of Adam Jones has become the benchmark of what fans and critics now expect. And throughout Lateralus, Maynard Keenan builds on his already impressive range of haunting and dynamic vocal personas.

Themes of mathematics and science reflecting more human issues are evident in the precision and intricacy on the title track Lateralus which becomes even more mindblowing when we understand that the song and its lyrical patterns are built around the Fibonacci Sequence, a mathematical pattern that occurs in nature.

The whole album is cerebral and complex, filled with some of the band’s finest songs, such as The Grudge, Lateralus, Schism and Parabola. It certainly poses a challenge but one that Tool fans have fully embraced.

 

10,000 Days

10,000 Days (2006)

Revisiting this album, it’s almost impossible to put into words just what a piece of work the opening track and single Vicarious is. An incredibly distilled – and relatively snappy – 7-minutes of bristling tension that hypnotically rises into a savage crescendo of sensory overload, done with such perfect pacing that the listener has just enough time to regain their wits before the next wave hits. In a nutshell – vintage Tool.

Apart from a few noted standout tracks like Vicarious and the fantastically soulful The Pot, the album wasn’t quite as well received by the critics as Ænima and Lateralus, yet still debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Whilst praising their technical accomplishment, what came up for most of the criticism were the long stretches of ambient passages with a number of critics viewing them as indulgences.

However, for any perceived wrong-steps that 10,000 Days made, it’s still a remarkable album and one had it come from any other band would be rightly lauded, such are the high standards Tool are now expected to attain. It is probably fair to say that 10,000 Days is their least accessible album, particularly for a newcomer. If you want to start somewhere our suggestion would be Ænima or Lateralus and build up some cold water shock tolerance before diving in.

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Fear Inoculum

Fear Inoculum (2019)

There were numerous reported reasons for the 13-year wait between 10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum. Lengthy legal disputes, scooter accidents, outside projects and the band’s notoriously drawn-out and perfectionist approach to the writing process. It was even mooted at one point in the creative process whether the album was destined to be just one long song. As 10,000 Days runs for the maximum CD time of 80 minutes it would be fair to say that this may have pushed even the band’s most loyal of fans over the precipice.

Was it all worth it? Well, it has moments. It’s certainly an album with both feet firmly in the outliers of what can be considered metal. Fear Inoculum feels as alternative and progressive – even psychedelic – as anything they have ever produced. It has an epic, sprawling and cinematic quality that requires patience and multiple listens to fully appreciate.

There’s no doubt Maynard’s emotive vocals are as strong as ever. We can also hear the influence of his other project A Perfect Circle to the softer melodies and vocal sound in general, which stands to reason as Maynard’s involvement with APC must have influenced his vocal development more than Tool in those wilderness years.

What the album does lack is immediacy or the obvious hooky moments that could still snag you in on their previous albums. Whatever you can criticise the album for being – or not being – it must be noted the musicianship is as creative and impressive as ever.

So there we have it. What can possibly be expected from Tool after this point is uncertain, but this album does have the feeling of an elegant goodbye, with further forays and sonic experiments perhaps being saved for different projects. But who knows, they’re not a band that has ever kept to the predictable beat, and for all we know, there may be a new album just on the horizon, sometime in 2048.

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