We’ve waited 13 years for this day. Tool has not released a new album since “10,000 Days” on April 28, 2006. The long-awaited record’s lead single dropped in early August. Clocking in at 10 minutes and 21 seconds, the titular “Fear Inoculum” gave us the first taste of what the album would be like. If the single was any indicator, it was going to be a Tool album.
With the full album out, those suspicions are confirmed. “Fear Inoculum,” the record we waited 13 years to hear, is indeed a Tool album: it’s full of lengthy tracks, odd time signatures, masterful instrumentation, the thunder of Danny Carey’s drums, Justin Chancellor’s bass, and Adam Jones’ guitar filling up the sonic space with Maynard James Keenan’s vocals weaving in and out of the soundscape.
But there are a few differences this time around. For starters, the physical and digital releases are slightly different. The digital version offers three instrumental tracks not included on the CD. This isn’t a conspiracy, I don’t think. It’s that CDs are limited to 80 minutes of music whereas digital releases don’t have such constraints.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing, at least on the first few passes. Tool has long offered instrumental interludes and intros, little pauses before the next magnum opus. But listening to the streaming version and then the CD changes the experience.
With the CD, you realize you’ve been listening for 35 minutes and you’re only three songs in—no filler, no interludes, no instrumentals. The fourth track, “Descending,” adds another 13:37. “Culling Voices” runs a lean 10:05. “Chocolate Chip Trip,” the only instrumental appearing on both versions, is only 4:48 noisy, and mildly annoying, minutes long.
The closing track, “7empest,” steals the show at 15:43. (It also steals the show musically, but more on that in a minute.) Altogether, the entire album clocks in at 79:10. They had 50 seconds more to use before hitting the limits of the CD! Slackers.
There’s also the fact that it’s 2019 and you just bought a CD, and it was really expensive for a CD. But it’s not just a CD. It’s got the artwork we’ve come to expect from Tool. There’s also a rechargeable screen and speaker that plays a trippy video and a rather relaxing ambient tune. My oldest daughter loves it, so maybe this fresh approach to the medium renders it less of an anachronism.
It’s not only the technology that’s different this time around. Tool did something they’ve never done before. The booklet inside the CD case contains the lyrics. When Tool first began, there was no such thing as streaming or, really, the internet. Without a lyric sheet, listeners just had to hope for the best. Tool is known for giving people something for their money when they buy a CD, though, so it’s not exactly shocking, especially since we’ve been waiting 13 years.
With the digital version, you don’t get all the cool stuff you can hold in your hands, but you do get some palate cleansers. One comes between “Pneuma” and “Invincible,” the second and third tracks on the CD. Another comes after “Invincible.” Then the pauses stop with “Descending” and “Culling Voices,” tracks which more closely hearken to earlier Tool songs. They build slowly, with the band offering a more lush approach before bringing the hammer down for the chorus. The songwriting is reminiscent of “Parabol/Parabola,” if elevated.
Overall, though, “Fear Inoculum” was more presaged by Tool’s experimental offerings throughout the years. The percussion from the version of “Pushit” on “Salival,” “Reflection,” and “Right in Two” comes to mind, just to name a few tracks.
They also serve as reminders that the only Tool album to feature shorter songs and to come in at less than 70 minutes was its first full-length offering. “Undertow,” their debut, was only 40 minutes long. After that, they stopped worrying about run-time. Even though its length is interesting insofar as they released two different versions, “Fear Inoculum” is only the longest Tool CD by roughly 40 seconds, with the digital version coming in at only seven minutes longer.
That is fitting, as the number seven was a theme for the band while writing and recording the album. In an interview with Revolver, Jones said, “That was a weird thing about this record. I really wanted to call it Volume 7, because it’s our seventh release and most of the songs have 7/4 [time signature] in them. We didn’t go, ‘Let’s write another riff in seven,’ though. It was more like, ‘Whoa, there’s another one in seven!’”
It’s also fitting as the seventh track, and CD’s end, is the greatest song Tool has ever released. Mark Hemingway calls it the “prog-metal ‘Freebird.’” Garnering such claims is no easy feat. Tool may have only released five full-length records and one EP, but their catalog is nonetheless incredibly deep and marked by quality.
That depth and quality doesn’t prepare you for what happens when the intro to “7empest” ends. A distorted guitar growls its way in, with Keenan growling along, “Keep calm. Keepin’ it calm. Keep calm. F–K. Here we go again.”
From there we get verses, choruses, verses, guitar solos, complicated drum work, basslines that further the song instead of just providing backing, bridges, and the aforementioned thunder and extremely textured soundscape. Words can’t really describe it.
But we couldn’t get to “7empest” without the preceding six tracks, just as we couldn’t have gotten to “Fear Inoculum” without the previous six releases. (For those listening to a digital copy, it takes eight tracks to get there. Start with six and work your way up. It takes at least a few listens to digest the entire album, but it’s worth it.)
It was all building toward this moment, toward this orchestrated tempest, each track marking the outstanding return of Tool, each offering an example of musical perfection.
We waited 13 years for this. We got what we’ve been waiting on. The CD breaks us in, the digital release finishes the job. It’s a new Tool album, yes, but it’s not just any album: it’s one that places worthwhile demands on the listener. It’s an album we can wear out, listen to on repeat, come back to again and again. You could use all the time the record takes up arguing with strangers on the internet, but trust me, this is a better use of it.
As Keenan said of “Fear Inoculum,” “There’s gonna be a lot of people who might not get this album because it does take engagement…It’s just what we do.” So sit back, crank it up, engage with it, and take it in. Here we go again, after 13 years.