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Do the Math: Tool Is Older and Requires More Patience, Just Like You

The heaviest, scariest band on ’90s alt radio is back with ‘Fear Inoculum,’ its first new album in 13 years

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Real quick, in honor of Friday’s release of their first new album in 13 years, let’s everybody say what your favorite Tool song was when you were 15. Mine was “Swamp Song.” See if you can guess why. You guessed it: all the swearing in the chorus. Hit it, fellas:

This bog is thick and easy to get lost in
’Cause you’re a stupid belligerent fucker
This bog is thick and easy to get lost in
’Cause you’re a dumbass belligerent fucker

I hope it suck
I hope it suck
I hope it sucks you, fucker
I hope it suck
I hope it suck
I hope it sucks you down

Take that, algebra. In 1993, armed with their debut full-length Undertow, Tool were the heaviest, scariest, grodiest band on alt-rock radio, L.A. egghead metalhead degenerates who somehow got the gross claymation video for their breakout hit, the pulverizing dirge “Sober,” in front of MTV’s two dumbass princes Beavis and Butt-Head, who dug it very much (“Yeah yeah! Cool! Yeah!”) but did not perhaps treat the macabre stop-motion visuals, crafted in part by Tool guitarist Adam Jones, with the proper reverence. (“If I could move my arm that fast,” Butt-Head observes, “I’d never leave the house.”)

Immediately, you-at-15 were invited to take these guys either 0 or 200 percent seriously, with little middle ground, though even at 0 percent you could still marvel at the sheer perverse audacity of following up “Sober” with another pulverizing gross claymation-video hit called, yes, “Prison Sex,” whose lyrics I thought about quoting here but never mind. (“That dude’s, like, saying, ‘Dammit, quit messing with my head and go get my legs,’” Butt-head observes, at least attempting a thoughtful interpretation of the video.)

“Swamp Song” was an Undertow deep cut, but deep cuts were where the grodiest, heaviest action was: Even before the band (Jones, enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan, 1995-and-beyond bassist Justin Chancellor, and drummer Danny Carey) fully turned toward atmospheric steakhead prog rock, this bog was thick and easy to get lost in. And now? Let’s just say that Tool’s long-long-long-long-awaited new album, Fear Inoculum, is 10 tracks and a belligerent fuckin’ 86 minutes long, each Homeric epic of a song a swamp-themed planet unto itself, a 50-billion-ton labyrinth that sprawls out in every direction for light years, the Fuck No to Yes’s Yes.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I have fully or even partially absorbed Fear Inoculum yet, an impossible task at this hour no matter how many Labor Day weekend cookouts you might’ve chosen to terrorize with it. But as an immersive, overwhelming experience, it’s a very pleasing combo of pummeling black-hole density and vaporous New Dark Age atmosphere. It rewards your close attention but will tolerate your inevitable post-millennial distraction. It is, in Tool’s long-dissected but still somehow inimitable way, a graceful and warm and welcoming beast. Don’t worry so much about digesting it and just let it digest you.

My favorite Tool song when I was 18 was “Third Eye,” the terrifyingly bonkers 14-minute closer of their much-beloved 1996 album Ænima. A quintessential philosopher-bro jam from the Bill Hicks sample on down, it is gloriously pretentious and shockingly rad, with an eerie seven-beat refrain—pry-ing op-en my third eye—that knocks you flat as both a muted kick-drum heartbeat and a throat-shredding, Ozzfest-ravaging roar. As pure indulgent prog-metal goes, they’ve never topped it, or at least never balanced the prog and the metal so perfectly.

Ænima is Tool’s biggest and also weirdest and also grossest album, from lead single “Stinkfist” (it’s a metaphor) to the near-10-minute dirge “Pushit” (it’s a portmanteau) to the unnerving fake Nazi rally skit “Die Eier von Satan” (it’s a hash-cookie recipe) to the brazen and thrilling title track, in which Keenan begs Mother Nature to let California fall into the sea (it’s an ethos). My second-favorite Tool song at this point was [cue Beavis and Butt-Head giggles] “Hooker With a Penis,” in which Keenan lambastes a backstage fan who accuses Tool of abandoning the straightforward metal bombast of their 1992 Opiate EP and thusly, gasp, selling out. Cue lots of swearing in the chorus. To wit:

Well, now, I’ve got some advice for you little buddy
Before you point your finger you should know that I’m the Man
If I’m the fuckin’ Man then you’re the fuckin’ Man as well
So you can point that fuckin’ finger up your assssssssssssss

Take that, college. My favorite Tool song when I was 23 was “The Grudge,” the screamy opening track to 2001’s knotty Lateralus, which got hella sassed by Pitchfork but nonetheless debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and snuck the windy and unnervingly lovely single “Schism” onto what was left of alt-rock radio despite the song’s Wikipedia page having a whole hilariously nightmarish subheading for Time Signature. When I was 28, I’d regressed emotionally and gone back to “Swamp Song,” having failed to give 2006’s extra-knotty 10,000 Days its due beyond the requisite lame jokes about 10,000 hours being how long it took to listen to it. That record debuted at no. 1, also, and included an 11-minute song called “Rosetta Stoned,” and if you put in the time you probably finished fully absorbing it around … now. In the interim, Tool took a hiatus longer than the Pleistocene Epoch and twice as frigid.

That hiatus, as Jones attempted to explain to Rolling Stone in 2014, was triggered in part by a cascading series of lawsuits involving disputed artwork credits and the band’s insurance company and a near decade of comical but paralyzing legal calamity. “The fans are pissed at us,” Jones allowed, and that was five years ago. The band prevailed in a 2015 settlement presided over, to Jones’s delight, by a judge named Randy Rhodes, but by then they’d become synonymous with Chinese Democracy–grade stasis and delay, and their absence nearly outlasted their prime. For much of this era Tool were still occasional festival-circuit heavyweights, and Keenan, who also leads the (slightly) more straightforward rock band A Perfect Circle, remained one of his generation’s strangest and most magnetic frontmen. But Fear Inoculum is, first and foremost, an anticlimax, a long, furious post-hibernation yawn that evolves, slowly and carefully but quite impressively, into a decidedly adult art-metal roar.

You can view Fear Inoculum entirely through that 13-year-layoff prism: “Warrior / Struggling / To remain / Consequential,” Keenan intones gravely, as Jones’s guitar hardens into an alt-rock-radio crunch and Carey ramps up his multi-kick-drum octopus escapades. (Carey’s drum kit apparently looks like this but sounds like this, at least.) “Come our end, suddenly / All hail our lethargy / Concede suddenly,” the frontman moans on the especially languorous “Descending,” which gives you nearly 14 minutes to realize he’s probably talking about mankind as a whole. But Fear Inoculum’s self-titled leadoff track and first single finds Keenan at his prettiest and most reflective, long past his point that fuckin’ finger up your ass days and touting, in interviews, the grim joys of “wisdom through age, through experience.” He’s better off for it, even if nobody else is:

Immunity, long overdue
Contagion, I exhale you
Naive, I opened up to you
Venom and mania
Now, contagion, I exhale you

It is not designed to be a 15-year-old’s favorite Tool song, but, well, remember this band’s initial mid-’90s target audience, and do the algebra. Your reward, for sticking with Fear Inoculum for more than an hour (including a rambling bullshit interlude, one of several, called “Chocolate Chip Trip”) is a quarter-hour-long precision rampage called “7empest,” in which Keenan gets closest to a “Swamp Song”-style excoriation: “No amount of wind could begin to cover up / Your petulant stench and demeanor.”

Who is he lambasting, exactly? The Man, most likely, and as we’ve established, The Man could be anybody, him included. Tool have rewarded your extraordinary patience—and ignored, when applicable, your longstanding derision—with a lumbering, wizened, decadent behemoth that will itself require a great deal of patience, but reward it, too. Let it—let you—sink in.