Unpacking the Tempest
Review: Fear Inoculum by Tool
Fear Inoculum is the long awaited fifth album from progressive metal band Tool, an album that took 13 years to come to fruition, almost half the 29 years the band has been together. It’s an album steeped in psychology, theology, and social commentary set to a soundtrack that feels organic in the way it flows and breathes.
Instead of pushing to create something entirely ground-breaking from scratch, Tool have worked to show how far they have come and what their past work would sound like if they were to revisit themes, and at times invoke the spirits of compositions past.
This is partly where the contention lies; it’s not “new”, and at first listen this was what I walked away with. But that’s the trap I think they set with the recording, because inevitably, you’re going back for a second listen, because there was “something” you heard on the first pass and you want to know what it was. It’s an itch that needs scratching, and now having spent two weeks with the album and having the time to reflect on it, there are a few things that stand out.
First: there is an unmistakable weaving of theology, philosophy, and psychology through this album and its narrative. This could be said about any of their albums, but what they have worked to create here is a manifesto.
Second: they are a band that have absolutely honed their craft and shown that they haven’t decided to fade into mediocrity as they get towards their sixties. Fear Inoculum sits as the introduction, one of the calmer tracks on the album that summons an image of someone wrestling with temptation.
The theologian in me saw reflections of Jesus’ time in the desert and being confronted by and refusing the serpent’s offer and invitation to turn away from the light. But if that wasn’t deep enough, there’s the social commentary, not as definitive statement or condemnation, but encouragement to reflect, grow, and change the world around you.
Pneuma flows as a realisation of the interconnectedness of a person to the space they exist in, and the potential to reach out and experience the world even though we appear to be stuck. It reaches further in closing and drives the point home that we are made of the same fundamental elements and born of the “One breath” and “one Word”.
The invocation of Pneuma and Word is to take one step further back from blood being the thing that makes all people common and immediately strips the ability of white supremacists to try and claim that the album is a call to stand against “white genocide”. We all breathe, breath is the thing that unites us.
On a more in-depth reading there are important questions being asked: is the invoking of the terms ‘Pneuma’ and ‘Word’ reference to being born of God through the Holy Spirit, or being born of the breath that burst forth from the big bang? Does this question hinge on perspective and the answer doesn’t matter because we are looking at the same thing through a different lens? There is also discussion around the exhortation to reach out, to become Pneuma and its being reflective of the story of Peter walking on the water to meet Christ; a lesson that we tend to look at pessimistically by saying that we are inherently flawed and can’t become like Christ instead of looking at the very idea of Peter being able to do it in the first place is the potential of humanity as a whole.
As a long-time appreciator of Tool and someone who has listened to the band wrestle and struggle with religious concepts, sometimes with hostility, other times with doubt, and grief, and exasperation; it’s fascinating to see harmony in the way it is used here.
Descending is Tool’s way of bringing to a close the speculation of what the point of Tool’s more serious work has been by forming a narrative around the idea that not only are we capable of becoming more than we are, but we are also obligated to once we have become aware of it, and part of that obligation is to help others come to this realisation.
It’s a way to push a discussion and encourage people to reflect on their morality, spirituality, and social conscience, while hopefully inspiring people to act in such a way that unites instead of divides at a time where we are lurching aimlessly toward midnight.
This album isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea as there are things beyond the complexity of themes that make it challenging; the tracks come in at no less than 10 minutes a piece.
It is recommended, however, if you are interested in exploring a masterpiece in progressive music that I could only compare to what early Pink Floyd would sound like if they had a little more fire in their belly.
For socially conscious Christians to explore and reflect upon? I couldn’t recommend it enough, even if you’ve heard nothing of Tool previously.
Fear Inoculum is available now.
Sarah Alice Vile is a freelance writer, artist, and student of theology