I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
Welcome any change, my friend…
JG Chancellor, D Carey, A Jones, MJ Keenan. Lyrics © BMG Rights Management
Ænema, Tool (Zoo Entertainment, 1996)
It’s been a week now; 10,000 minutes, give or take. And since the exponentially hyped and hyperbolically trumpeted release of Tool’s Fear Innoculum last Friday (Aug 30), I’ve persisted, playing the album at least once a day. In other words, I’ve sat through all eighty-six sodding minutes of their thoroughly predictable, tediously self-derivative, and frankly wholly disappointing new opus more than seven times over.
Why the musical masochism? Well, I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that I’m missing; what’s in the bits/grooves of Fear Innoculum that others apparently hear but which completely passes me by? To say that the album has received critical acclaim would be quite some understatement; it’s been described in the hushed, awed, reverent tones that greets just about everything Tool produces. Moreover, Fear Innoculum is shifting units like no-one’s business, even potentially knocking Taylor Swift from the #1 Billboard spot.
But…but…but… it turns out that I’m not missing anything at all. It’s virtually the same bloody album as they released in 2001, Lateralus, and again in 2006, 10,000 Days. (If I hear just one more recycled variant of that hammer-on Schism riff I’ll scream…) This, from a band that is meant to be the pinnacle of progressive rock/metal? There’s no progession at all. Zilch. They’re been running in circles, treading water, spinning their wheels for literally decades (if you’ll excuse the Keenan-esque mixed metaphors.)
As a huge Tool fan of old , I was eagerly awaiting Fear Innoculum. From Opiate, through Undertow and Ænema, and up to Lateralus, I bought almost entirely into the Tool mythos (slightly irritating though it was at times) and was rapt when I went to see them play live. Being a prog rock/prog metal fan — Rush, Queensryche, King Crimson, Yes , Dream Theater , Opeth , Haken, Shattered Skies, ELP, the afore-mentioned Marillion …etc., etc. — lengthy, rambling, self-indulgent songs are my aural tonic of choice; Rush’s 2112, Hemispheres: Cygnus-X1 Book II, and that archetypal exercise in self indulgence, La Villa Strangiato, are not the snappiest or pithiest of compositions. Tool similarly have a penchant for long, intricate songs, which their fans, including yours truly, lapped up. (Reading the reviews of “Fear Innoculum”, I was put in mind more than once of Mark Kellys’s quote about Marillion’s song writing: “We could do a 15-minute fart into a paper bag and some people would be happier with that than a three-minute classic.”)
But what distinguishes Rush, Crimson, Yes, Marillion et al. from Tool is that the former set of bands didn’t release the same damn album three times in a row. They each experimented and evolved, and while I didn’t always like what they did, I admired their willingness to challenge themselves and move forward musically; to progress.
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a musical template; I love AC/DC as much as — probably more than — the next rock fan. But this is Tool, a band admired for their musical adventure, for their intelligence, for their willingness to push boundaries. And yet Fear Innoculum isn’t so much the sound of a band dialling it in, it’s the sound of a band having it dialled in for them — like the music an AI would produce if it were trained on previous Tool outputs.
Fortunately, not every review was on-brand and on-message; some, including Pitchfork — thanks, Peter, for sending me the link — and the ever-reliable Prog, were more than happy to point out that the emperors are, if not stark bollock naked, at least drastically underclothed.
Perhaps the band themselves put it best on “Penuma”, track 2 of Fear Innoculum: “(we) go round, one foot nailed down.”
 And not in a good, metal, Maynard-James-Keenan-channelling-his-inner-demons way.
 To highlight just how much of a Tool nerd I was… I not only included a homage to “Lateralus” in the piece of music, The Tau of Phi, described in this Numberphile video, I made damn sure it appeared at 1:09 into the track in question. Tool aficionados will know why.
I guess I should also admit at this point that I smuggled a Tool lyric into my introductory thermodynamics lectures for many years: “I’ve done the math enough to know… the dangers of our second guessing.”
 I even like parts of Tales From Topgraphic Oceans, for feck’s sake…
 …who’ve also been treading water since about 1997.
 …who, on the other hand, continue to evolve and progress.