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Album Review: Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’

After a 13-year layoff, the art-damaged metal of Maynard James Keenan and company is back, as challenging and satisfying as ever.

Tool is heavy metal’s great anomaly. Though bathed in the rhythmic complexities of King Crimson, the decaying doom of Black Sabbath and the harshly twisted absurdity of Faith No More, the band’s thing was always comprised of a focused ferocity and a precise, unyielding aggression singular to them. For better or worse, no one comes across like Tool — yet it’s been 13 years since the group lent that sharp focus to new music.

Tool is a unit of snipers who displayed that blunt force intensity through each of its five gold and platinum albums, from 1993’s “Undertow” through 2006’s “10,000 Days.” With a sound as eerily enigmatic and algebraic as theirs, holding onto the imagination of a platinum-sized listenership would seem a rough task. But rather than go to pains to maintain that fan base, Maynard James Keenan — math-metal’s answer to the Night King — devoted his time in recent years to ongoing solo concerns such as A Perfect Circle, Pucifer and being a vintner (his 2010 “Blood into Wine” filming about growing grapes in Arizona is one of the finest things he’s ever done). Tool even kept its mellow-harshing catalog away from digital platforms such as iTunes and Spotify (a service that was born the year Tool released its last album) until earlier their month.

Thirteen years after that last group release, their return to recording with “Fear Inoculum” is split between between prayerful songs that top the 10-minute mark and cuts as short as two minutes. In the  nearly 11-minute opening track, Tool at first comes on all slithery and cool before beating the listener over the head with Danny Carey’s pitter-pattering drums, Adam Jones’ clarion-clear, cracking guitars and Keenan’s high, breathy vocals and William S. Burroughs refrigerator magnet poetry kit. Starting with a tinkling cymbal and a hollow tabla’s tappity-tap, Tool groove pensively, even softly, through that first song’s vaguely Middle Eastern melody until hitting upon the roaring thunder of its chorus and the line, “Exhale. Expel. Recast my tale. Weave my allegorical elegy.”

The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic has been a thing since the days of mad, bad post punks such as the Pixies and their grunge children, Nirvana. Only those bands gave it four minutes, tops, then out. Tool, however, turn that dynamic into a long night trip through a moonless desert. It takes patience to compose and produce songs with painstakingly time-consuming intros and then keep that tension going for 11 minutes.

“Pneuma,” with its strummed/slashed guitars and bone-rattled rhythms, has a similarly foreign and crepuscular melody, here with a set of lyrics grounded in how the spirit is “bound to this flesh” but “bound to reach out and beyond this flesh.” The steady majesty of this song is something to behold, a torrid tone akin to the ritualistic reach of David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” albeit without the creeping intensity of death’s door at hand. A similar “Lazarus”-like click and a tale of disembodied voices can be heard on “Culling Voices” as Keenan happens upon a rare thing for Tool — a definable, undeniably catchy chorus — in the phrase “Psychopathy / Misleading me over and over,” before the loud/quit/loud dynamic strikes hard again.

With a slight quiver to his occasionally shockingly smooth voice, Keenan jumps into the tubular percussion tics and clicking guitars of the nearly 13-minute long’s “Invincible” phase-shifting intervals. No sooner has Justin Chancellor pulled a thumbed bass flip than the entire track moves towards a chugging rhythm, a fuzzing guitar solo, and vocal FX that are half-Kanye “808s and Heartbreak” and half-Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.”

The wild winds and rippling waves of an instrumental “Legion Inoculant” roll peacefully into “Descending,” with its feel (and lyrical verse) dedicated to free falling, floating and boundlessness. Yet before we get too comfortable with the notion of sky-high freedom, Keenan reminds the listener, in a deeper voice than usual, that, “Falling isn’t flying. Floating isn’t infinite…” Not long after his ominous warning, the quiet storming guitars grow duskier and crunchier – even finding their way through a bluesy slide run – until everything chills again, and the waves hit the shore. With “Descending,” Keenan and company have found their most cinematically evocative moment, something equal parts Michael Bay pre-battle scene and a sheltering sky worth Bernardo Bertolucci’s time.

Weirdly enough, the catchiest — even most conventional — rocker here is the expansive, 15-minute “7empest,” with its mix of stuttering rhythm guitars and flanged solos, hard-rolling drums and a sneaky, growly vocal from Keenan where his chorus points accusingly: “We know better / It’s not unlike you / We know your nature.”

Neither that track nor this album — all 85 minutes of it — is as catchy, rangy or amorphously composed yet tight as Tool’s raging smashes of the ’90s, such as “46 & 2” or “Sober.” Not attempting to return to those particular commercial glories will be just fine by the group’s most ardent fans. They wouldn’t stick around for “Fear Inoculum’s” nearly hour-and-a-half stretch, let alone have endured a 13-year wait for new music, if they weren’t expectant of having fresh changes and new dramas added to the vintage wine of the quartet’s heady mathematical intelligence.

Album Review: Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’

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