Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’: Decoded

The legendary band’s long-awaited new album and its deeper, hidden meaning discussed.

Let us say that you have been waiting for Fear Inoculum for 13 years. You are dying to finally hear it, so as soon as you hear about a Las Vegas-based leak of the physical edition’s 7-track format you run like the wind towards your computer. It feels like quenching your thirst after endless hours drifting through the Sahara desert. You know the title track already, but you just needed more, even though you know that’s not the album’s complete tracklist. Then, after basking in your perceived glory of being ahead of most people, you wait for days for the album to hit the streaming services. The special edition looks exquisite, but you find it too pricy. After all, all you ever wanted was the music, the rest is a sleek-looking afterthought. Who buys records these days, anyway?

So the 30th of August finally comes and the whole world fades away for 24 hours. You let the digital edition’s final 10-track album sink into your ears, and everything you’ve ever loved about Tool is right there, slowly blooming before you in calculated composition. The drumming feeds into your theory that Danny Carey cannot possibly be human. Justin Chancellor proves he has one of the best tones in Rock/Metal bass history, and knows how to use it. Adam Jones has chosen not to be the main focus of the record with the 3-or-more-amplifier assault on 10,000 Days, choosing to blend-in ever further with his bandmates with the use of his ever-faithful Gibson Les Pauls and Diezel Amps. And Maynard James Keenan goes for a more contemplative and soothing vocal register that is perfectly aligned with the album’s meditative nature. You realize the album might be the band at its proggiest, while hoping that doesn’t come along with misguided indulgence. Fear Inoculum takes its time and is layered to the brim, much like other 2010’s masterpieces (like Swans’ To Be Kind for instance, albeit with a noticeably different style and direction), and the fact that it is mastered at a lower volume level than most contemporaries allows the listener to crank up the speakers without sacrificing the quality of the mix. Nothing clips and everything sounds pristine.

“Fear Inoculum has the beautiful and mysterious atmosphere only Tool knows how to conjure up”

“Fear Inoculum” has the beautiful and mysterious atmosphere only Tool knows how to conjure up, with controlled and slightly distorted electric guitar volume swells, a thick and leading bassline, Danny Carey’s always fantastic drum performance and Maynard James Keenan delivering us from the aforementioned fear with the anthemic cry “Exhale! Expel!”, before changing gears and plunging into slightly harsher territory for a grand finale. “Pneuma” has got that initial delay-drenched bass riff from Justin Chancellor that calls back to the bridge of Lateralus’ standout first single “Schism”, before being masterfully complimented by guitars and drums that accentuate the track’s rhythmic focus like punches to the stomach, and Keenan’s lyrics are at their most positive and beautiful (“We are born of One Breath, One Word. We are all One Spark, Sun becoming”). The synthesizer of “Litanie Contre la Peur” takes the listener on a short ride elsewhere, setting the stage for “Invincible”, an absolute standout in the tracklist, opening with a palm-muted guitar intro that calls to mind the best days of Mastodon (playing a chord sequence that could come right out of Crack The Skye), an abundant use of polyrhythms, and the story of a worn-out warrior whose glory days seem behind him despite his difficulty in accepting his own mortality and the inevitability of aging (a topic members of Tool insist is one of the album’s most important, but one which is only made an obvious reference to in this track). The song grows into more and more powerful territory with the main chorus mutating and displaying continuously heavier arrangements, and after an instrumental beatdown and a section of vocoded vocals, at 09:35 the band delivers one of the most glorious moments of its whole discography, with a heavy guitar riff and straightforward drums in polyrhythms that make this section of the song sound like planets orbiting around the same star at different speeds and eventually meeting at the same starting point in cycles. “Legion Inoculant” seems to close out a chapter, reutilizing vocals from previous tracks, and audibly featuring the vocals “Bless this immunity” from “Fear Inoculum”, and then “Descending” comes.

It’s been a great ride so far, but something now seems to be clicking in the back of your mind. The first half of the tracklist has been covered and the last track had vocals from the first song… why? This might have been an interesting intro or a foreshadowing moment to “Fear Inoculum” and the previously mentioned tracks, but they are now behind us. Also, wouldn’t a litany against fear (“Litanie Contre la Peur”) logically come before being inoculated from said fear? You shrug your shoulders and keep going. It was probably just a cool interlude for the listener to chill out a little bit.

Hum, “Descending” is a pretty suggestive title, come to think of it… no. “Overthinking, overanalyzing, separates the body from the mind”, remember?

“The lyrics sound like Maynard’s got beef with a sociopathic and pathological liar… wait… Mr. President?”

“Descending” starts with the sounds of an ocean and waves breaking softly on the shore, giving way to a great bassline, and the track’s sonic spectrum and dynamics expand slowly and methodically, much like the previous songs. The lyrics have an altogether different vibe from the previous material, however… there is a darkness to them (“Falling isn’t flying. Floating isn’t infinite… Come, Our end, Suddenly. All hail our Lethargy.”). The accentuated use of the eolian mode in Adam Jones’ guitar playing at the 10:33 mark and the somewhat doomy section that comes as the result conceive something a bit different from what we have heard thus far. And after ending with the same sounds that started the track, in comes “Culling Voices”. And there’s something even darker and moodier to this one… for half of it, it’s all mostly quiet and atmospheric instruments. That phrygian mode in B calls to mind the darkness of Post-Metal giants like Amenra or Cult of Luna. The guitar and vocals take the center stage for a long time, and the drums only come in halfway through the song. The lyrics are even darker than “Descending” (“Psychopathy. Don’t you dare point that at me.” and what could be a great comment upon our current social climate, while also seeming to have deeper undertones: “Judge, Condemn, and banish any and everyone without evidence”). The song eventually explodes beautifully, showcasing how patience can lead to a powerful payoff (much like the wait for “Fear Inoculum” itself to come out). “Chocolate Chip Trip” is a shorter but no less mind-melting moment, with alien percussive sounds that answer the question “What would happen if Joe Rogan had Trent Reznor on his podcast and gave him DMT?”, followed by one of the best drum solos ever committed to tape, with Danny Carey letting it all out in one furious performance. And the song everyone has been talking about, “7empest”, finally comes in. You wish this was track 7, like in the album version, but now it is track 9, and something about it seems odd… then your thought is interrupted by a ripper of a riff from Adam Jones, and the band does not take long to chime in on the sonic assault that this track is. The time signatures are far more linear than the rest of the album is (at first, that is), and the directness of the lyrics calls to mind the band’s “Opiate” EP (the lyrics sound like Maynard’s got beef with a sociopathic and pathological liar… wait… Mr. President?). Cue in the eventual odd time signatures and polyrhythms, as well as some of Adam Jones’ most badass and intricate guitar work ever in the shape of incredibly elongated guitar solos, and it becomes rather clear that this is one of Tool’s finest moments in its discography. The final moments of the song choose to cool things down, with Maynard pleading “Control your delusion” and assuring you that “A 7empest must be just that”, and the final notes fade away, hanging in the air, instead of ending the track with a bang. And finally things end with a strange note: “Mockingbeat”, a simple beat and the distorted sounds of what seem to be birds and monkeys.

And there it is, Fear Inoculum. So many moments to listen to again and have fun with. So many polyrhythms, solos, interesting lyrics and well-written songs. That’s all you wanted from Tool, right? Some nice songs you can stream on Spotify when you have the time and feel like listening to them. Like most of the rest of the music you listen to. Let some other sucker spend his hard-earned money on some CD, ahah. Some questions arose as you heard the album, but they are probably nothing you need to pay attention to. It’s just Tool messing with you. That’s all there is to it, right?

Right? No.

“To some these might seem like a Pepe Silvia conspiracy theory, but long-time Tool fans know that the band takes long to craft their records and they leave absolutely nothing to chance.”

You see, Tool has always been about way more than just the music. Their albums have been filled with easter eggs from day 1, like the extra tracks at the end of Opiate and Undertow. Other theories on easter eggs and hidden meanings have been discovered eventually (like the connection of the song “Lateralus” to the Fibonacci sequence or how the two “Wings for Marie” tracks and “Viginti Tres” connect to form one massive song) while others remain only theories (like the idea that the Lateralus album can be rearranged with an alternative tracklist influenced precisely by the Fibonacci sequence, which the fans have dubbed “The Holy Gift”, in reference to “Parabola”). To some these might seem like a Pepe Silvia conspiracy theory, but long-time Tool fans know that the band takes long to craft their records and they leave absolutely nothing to chance. It has been like that since the “72826” demo.

Many thought that Tool had given up in its battle against streaming, and the vast majority was happy about it. Masterfully, though, Tool have chosen to use streaming as a chance for people to appreciate the tip of the iceberg, especially with Fear Inoculum. Your bank account might be horrified to know this, but the truth is: the only way you’ll be able to grasp this album’s deeper meaning is by getting that physical edition.

Welcome to: Fear Inoculum Decoded.

The band has alluded to the number 7 in several interviews (and the number serves as the “T” in “Tempest”, even in the lyrics of the booklet), and Tool members have also said that aging is a big theme on the album (apparent in “Invincible”). But that seems to be just scratching the surface. As soon as you open the first panel of the album’s special edition to your left, you find a dark humanoid figure hanging upside down, and if you open the second panel to your right you find a second brighter humanoid figure upright (I’ll be referring to these figures as “dark” and “bright” from now on). The middle panel’s HD screen displays an exclusive video created to enhance the artwork experience of the album, with visuals in the artistic style of the official video for “Vicarious”. In the video, these two humanoid figures are connected to the same body, one in each side. The booklet also displays these figures, but in an interesting way, with the bright humanoid featuring in the beginning of the booklet, and the dark humanoid featuring in the end, “bookending” one another. Right in the center of the booklet, the complete figure of the two connected to the same body appears, separating the lyrics to the songs “Invincible” and “Descending”, with the head of the bright humanoid pointing towards the first songs and the head of the dark humanoid pointing toward the last songs. Remember how it was almost like there were two halves to the record? It started confidently and got progressively darker… it is like we are listening to two sides of the same “body”, bright and dark. In the digital version of “Fear Inoculum” there are 10 tracks, these could be 5 tracks for each side. In fact, if split that way, our two “albums” have main songs on tracks 1, 2 and 4, with tracks 3 and 5 serving as interludes. The two tracklists mirror one another.

And then there are the lyrics. It’s rather confounding how the last proper song of the album starts with the lyrics “Keep calm. Keepin it calm. Keep calm. FUCK. Here we go again”. I cannot be the only one who finds the placement of these lyrics incredibly strange. These seem fit for the start of a record, especially one that has took 13 years to make and tested the patience of millions of fans. And, as previously written, the song doesn’t end in the most conclusive of ways, especially considering it is the last track and it was a banger of a song for most of its runtime. “Fear Inoculum”, the first track, has a very definitive and explosive ending though, ending with the lyrics “Deceiver, chased away. A long time coming”. So could that deceiver be the sociopathic and pathological liar alluded to in “7empest”?

And so this begs the question: could/should this album’s tracklist also be played backwards, from darkness to light instead of the opposite? Are there any other clues that point in that direction?

Wait, what is the name of Alex Grey’s artwork and concept for the packaging of Fear Inoculum?

…oh crap.

“Fear Inoculum seems to offer two paths: a path toward darkness (the normal order of the tracklist) or a path toward brightness (the reversed order of the tracklist)”

Now, dear reader, it’s not like Tool hasn’t used out-there concepts and principles with its art before. The “Lateralus” album, for example, embraced hermetic principles such as alchemy, the “as above, so below” axiom and the “Kundalini” form of energy in ways that are now documented. The first track of that album, “The Grudge”, even brought forth the astrological idea of “Saturn’s return”: the idea that, in one’s late 20’s (and then late 50’s once more), this event brings forth the sobering weight of mortality, and thus becomes a moment of awakening clarity, when one can finally leave his/her hang-ups behind and is finally free to pursue his/her desired path without hindrance. And this isn’t just some theory, Maynard James Keenan has addressed this concept in several interviews before. Come to think of it, the band is, as of the time this article is being written, 29 years old. With its “Saturn’s Return” happening in earnest and its realization of its looming mortality (hence the band’s emphasis on the theme of aging throughout the album), “Fear Inoculum” seems to offer two paths: a path toward darkness (the normal order of the tracklist) or a path toward brightness (the reversed order of the tracklist). And upon realizing this, those with that special edition of the album can flip through the two paths like the Holographic Principle is now incarnate in the packaging of an album.

It’s easy to dismiss ideas like this as mere theories. But when you take into consideration that all of this was crafted by a band for which every aspect of its art is fine-tuned with intent, you realize that, to quote some of Tool’s best-known lyrics, “the pieces fit”. It is far easier to toss aside any attempt to make sense of art that trusts its audience to decode it than it is to do the thinking required to understand it. Tool, like a good movie director, trusts in the audience enough to let them figure it out by themselves. The art and packaging of “Fear Inoculum” masterfully display the dual nature in every single human being, with those two contrasting humanoid figures, and the album means to say that you can forge your own path in a “the wolf you feed is the wolf that wins” sort of way. You can either be lost in a “7empest” or, as “Fear Inoculum” (the song) puts it, you can chase away the deceiver. You have a say in how you perceive life and choose to live it. And the best way to live it is without fear. Without fear of the cosmos, the Earth, others and yourself.

A life in brightness.

Words: Bruno Costa // Photos: Travis Shinn – Fear Inoculum is out now on RCA Records.

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