Monday, 30th October 2017

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Tool up

After sitting out music’s digital era, rock band Tool has returned — and zoomed to the #1 spot on the Billboard chart

By Abhishek Sikhwal
  • Published 14.09.19, 8:17 PM
  • Updated 14.09.19, 8:17 PM
  • 4 mins read
Tool, the prog-rock metal band, finally released their much-awaited fifth album Fear Inoculum Travis Shinn

If you ask most youngsters today if they are excited for an upcoming album of rock music, then you’ll probably come across a lot of blank faces. This is on account of two developments over the last decade. First, the rise of EDM and hip-hop (and how the two often combine to make mainstream pop) has meant that guitar-based rock/alternative music is not as ubiquitous as it used to be over the last 70 years. Secondly, the concept of an album itself is dated to the generation that consumes most of their music via YouTube, Spotify and iTunes in singular installments.

I’m not here to make a case for how this near-death of the rock genre is unfair. After all, each generation deserves its own soundtrack and the zeitgeist has decided that they prefer computerised beats, inane lyrics and auto-tune over traditional rock ’n’roll (just like I preferred the “noise” made by Nirvana over the charms of The Doors… much to my father’s dismay). To be honest, I myself have not been too excited with the current crop of rock music doing the rounds because most of it is used to sell cars in adverts or clothes at Zara. Rockstars today are vegans who are more likely to talk about kombucha than throw a television set from their hotel window. However, something happened recently which provided some hope: Tool, the prog-rock metal band, finally released their much-awaited fifth album Fear Inoculum.

Immerse yourself in soundscapes

To fans of the band, this was too good to be true. The album has been anticipated for so long that its arrival almost feels like some sort of elaborate prank. Even those who are unfamiliar with the band’s oeuvre have been subject to countless discussions on it over the last 13 years. The reason for this anticipation is that the band has always been avant-garde and has produced multiple Grammy-winning albums such as Ænima, Lateralus and 10,000 Days, which wowed critics and masses alike to go straight to the top of music charts with each release.

Their style of music — with its odd time signatures, transcendental vocals and a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic — has proven to be so unique that it has been impossible to copy by other bands. Add to this their psychedelic album artwork and David Lynchian music videos and perhaps you would realise why that guy in your college who listened to Tool always had the peculiar whiff of contraband substances emanating from his dorm room.

Many were of the opinion that surely an album that is so eagerly awaited could only disappoint. Life makes cynics of us all. However, I am happy to report that Fear Inoculum is no Chinese Democracy (Guns N’ Roses 2008 album after 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?). Even if you are not a dedicated Tool fan, it’s hard to give it a listen and not find yourself headbanging numerous times (and let’s be honest, when was the last time you found yourself doing so?). They may have taken more than a decade to complete it but these guys know what they are doing and, by Jove, they are hell-bent on doing it their own idiosyncratic way.

The title track breaks a 13-year-old silence with the lines Immunity/ long overdue accompanied by a steady tabla beat and heavy electric guitar. Immediately one knows one is in Tool territory. Maynard James Keenan’s voice is as arresting as ever and hasn’t aged at all despite him being 55 and currently performing in three separate bands. This song provides an adequate 10.22-minute welcome into the album. Pneuma (Greek for spirit) has a suspenseful, snaky build-up, which erupts in short incendiary bursts provided by Adam Jone’s loud guitar. Chocolate Chip Trip gives drummer Danny Carey enough space to showcase a manic John Bonham-style drum solo and 7empest is an amalgamation of several of the band’s themes and riffs and rhythms. Other songs of note are Descending and Invincible.

The thing is, you can’t break this album into individual tracks because it is best experienced in its entirety. While all music is math, Tool have consistently utilised math to give an added edge to their music. The result is that their calculations come together to yield a guaranteed, and at times predictable, satisfaction. Every note is accounted for and is placed piecemeal to lead up to a primal crescendo. These aren’t songs as much as they are soundscapes in which to immerse oneself; this is an album to put on for a gym workout or a long drive where the journey is more important than the destination. Fear Inoculum, like other Tool albums before it, invariably swallows you whole and isolates you from the world like some sort of sensory-deprivation tank albeit by bombarding you with aural overload.

A billboard in New York’s Times Square, announcing Tool’s new album
A billboard in New York’s Times Square, announcing Tool’s new album Picture: The Telegraph

Something else to consider is the state-of-the-art packaging for the album’s deluxe CD edition, which features a four-inch HD rechargeable screen with exclusive video footage, charging cable, two-watt speaker, a 36-page booklet and a digital download card (due to high demand it is already out of stock and currently reselling online for hundreds of dollars). It’s been a while since we wanted to own a physical copy of an album in these times of streaming and downloads. With all this convenience, something was lost in the bargain. One can only hope that other artistes take a leaf out of Tool’s book and put as much thought into their album to give their intangible music a tangible avatar.

While Fear Inoculum has proved itself worthy of the wait by surpassing expectations, getting rave reviews and climbing to the top of all music charts, what it should actually be credited for is bringing rock music back from the dead. Perhaps by giving it a listen, the youth of today can be inspired enough to trace back the rich heritage of guitar-based music. Maybe they will realise that there is something quite mesmerising about a group of individuals coming together to create something unique by hand instead of resorting to digital aids. In the chorus of their song Invincible, Tool sing: Warrior struggling to remain relevant/ warrior struggling to remain consequential. If their latest album is anything to go, then one can only hope that the war for rock music’s relevance is on the way.

The author is a furniture designer and freelance writer observing politics and culture