Tool, progressive metal’s road-less-traveled cragsmen, have returned after 13 years, finally unleashing what had snowballed into the decade’s most anticipated rock record. Unlike, say, Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, Tool’s long-awaited Fear Inoculum is deeply satisfying, both as a distinct artistic statement and as accidental fan service to a base that expects nothing less than unflinchingly unique artistic statements. It’s a return to a familiar formula but also a sprawling redefinition of it. All the hallmarks of Tool’s last two albums — 2001’s Lateralus and 2006’s 10,000 Days — are revisited and reinvented. The time signatures and rhythms contort like snakes in a bag (though sticking to 7/4 for a lot of it provides a strange cohesion). The bulging 86-minute run time extends long past the typical duration of a CD. The packaging is so baroque that it comes with a four-inch HD screen that plays video. And if you are the type of person to use the phrase “sick drumming” in earnest, Danny Carey has helped make the sickest, drummingest rock record to come out this side of Y2K.
Granted, it’s a bit of a slog: six of Fear Inoculum‘s 10 tracks spiral past the 10-minute mark. However, these tunes don’t resemble multi-part, Yes-style “prog epics” as much as rock songs stretched into the longform vistas of post-rock, psychedelia, experimental music, minimalism, and jazz. To be sure, guitarist Adam Jones’ riffs are still bludgeoning, virtuosic, cosmic calculus, but they hypnotically repeat and evolve glacially, the band manipulating their feel through shifts in rhythm and texture. The structures recall an art-metal repositioning of extended works by electronic groups like Autechre and Gas, art-rock drone enthusiasts like Swans and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and classical composers like John Luther Adams. It’s Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat shot through Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
On songs like opener “Fear Inoculum,” Carey provides the shading of the work, building the song through snare rolls, tabla playing, and whining electronics. The 12-minute “Invincible” spends most of a three-minute bridge with Jones as a propulsive machine, grinding away at the same industrial riff; it’s Carey’s synth, slams, and silences that create the atmosphere. Throughout the LP, Jones, Carey, and bassist Justin Chancellor are like three shadows moving in tandem, while their polyrhythms create strange, undulating new figures when they intertwine and interlock. Most shadowy of all, however, is leader Maynard James Keenan, casually night swimming through these heaving patterns. His lyrics move from apocalyptic to venomous to vulnerable — “Bellow aloud, bold and proud, of where I’ve been/ But here I am/ Beating chest and drums/ Beating tired bones again,” he sings on “Invincible” — but his delivery, crooning and caterwauling, is assured throughout.
The album’s monolithic, 15-minute beast “7empest” seems to connect all the dots between Tool’s past and present. The chiming intro and outro recall the melodies of composer Steve Reich, whose ‘70s works were themselves pioneering in their use of hypnotic rhythms. The main guitar riff, however, could have churned straight from the days when Tool was winning over crowds at Lollapalooza 1993. Keenan’s vocals are their most passionate and his lyrics their most vindictive: “No amount of wind could begin to cover up your petulant stench and demeanor,” he sings. “Calm as cookies and cream, so it seems.” There are crazy drum fills, mind-bending time signatures, complex polyrhythms, and a guitar solo of long, patient squealing notes instead of wheedles. Around the 10:30 mark, a steady cymbal pulse creates a groove not unlike Meshuggah or Opeth, providing somewhat of an 4/4 anchor in the syncopation storm. It’s, well, a lot. But nothing the band has done in the last two decades suggests they want it any other way. B+