Innoculate Against Fear

Author: Bruce Jenkins   Date Posted:21 March 2020 

One of the most popular on-line music guides lists more than 50 adjectives to describe the latest album by progressive-metal masters Tool. This tells you a lot about the complexity of their 2019 eighty-minute epic. Some of the descriptors are pretty obvious… dramatic, powerful, intense, heavy… words that fans of the band will see as stating the obvious. But what about feverish, elaborate, thrilling? Do these fit Fear Inoculum?

The short answer is an upper case YES! This is complex, meticulously crafted rock music of the highest calibre. Fierce? Certainly. Harsh? Sometimes. Hypnotic? Sacred? Now you’re moving into territory that hints at the mythology, the spirituality, the otherness of Tool.

Their snail-like pace of releasing music is legendary (over thirteen years for this one) but be reassured: it was worth it. The shifting time signatures of a powerful rhythm section thundering under heavy-riffing guitars are illustrated perfectly in the opening title track. But it’s the way it sneaks up on you, beginning with spacey electronic sweeps and what sounds rather like a cello, before slowly ramping up to power-Tool levels. Similar progressions occur in “Pneuma”, and indeed in the six core tracks, all clocking in between ten and sixteen minutes. Listeners coming from a heavy prog direction will love the soaring, churning instrumental sections of “Descending” (13’). 

There’s a lot of music and a lot to digest. (The download includes some extra short electronic bridging pieces that serve to clear the bloodstream between the heavy stuff. They are an enjoyable addition, rounding the album up to almost an hour-and-a-half.)

Tool have always been innovative in the packaging and visuals for their albums. The Discrepancy post on Lateralus highlighted the work of visionary artist Alex Grey. Mr Grey is back for Fear Inoculum, exploring themes of duality, internal vs external, dream vs nightmare. It is a breathtaking package that seduces the buyer with invention and excess. There is just enough ‘wow’ factor to drown out the niggling voice worrying that this may be a tad elitist; how many fans could simply not afford this lavish release? But if you can, then grab it. All the Fear Innoculum versions I’ve seen are immersive and hugely impressive. You might not watch the video on the ‘screen’ version often, but it’s a ripper of an idea, even though one of the spikey spheres looks uncomfortably like the Covid-19 virus. 

Which raises the timely question: what does the album title mean? Are we being inoculated with fear or against fear? Is this hope or despair? Like all worthwhile art, the answers will be as varied as the number of listeners, but perhaps Fear Innoculum embodies a mystic prescience. Maybe Tool anticipated the world would need something strong, a tonic for desperate times, and they offered this huge yet coherent work of might and power. Yes, it is often brooding; bruisingly uncompromising. But it also embodies a kind of spirituality and—via the vocals and use of acoustic guitar—a much-needed humanity. Rock music can be both heavy and uplifting.

© Bruce Jenkins 2020

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