Fair warning: if you’re not very interested in music or big questions, this post probably isn’t for you.
TOOL are having a moment. After a thirteen-year break from studio albums and a famously long digital music holdout, they have finally released their monolithic library to the streaming masses. Even their old albums are dominating the sales charts. Five of the top ten slots were recently taken by their complex, heady, raging albums. Just think about that, considering the popular competition. And now they have something new for us. Oh boy, do they have something new.
Fear Inoculum, the album that no one expected in 2019, is a sheer triumph. This is true musically, but that’s just par for the course given, well, TOOL’s TOOL-ness. There’s no one like them. It’s even more true, however, of the album’s lyrical content. Clearly the last thirteen years have offered much time for contemplation. It’s an intensely thoughtful and meaningful album about what the west has done to itself and where we might go from here (hint: maybe the old ways weren’t so bad). At one point it left me in tears as I realised afresh the power of the Holy Spirit to heal our wounded world. This, while listening to a TOOL album? Yes. Welcome to Fear Inoculum.
The Serpent and the Spirit
In Fear Inoculum, the great enemy of present humanity is fear itself, hence the serpent on its cover and its central cry to ‘inoculate’ ourselves against its venom. It’s a metaphysical album. It makes claims about the nature of reality and the hidden arc of history. It assumes that truths exist beyond materiality, and that the unseen world contains good and necessary elements. Its claims, criticisms and exhortations are, on my view, deeply Christian. (Whether or not the band or its members would be called ‘Christian’ by your measure or my own is irrelevant. If it helps for you to think of this album as ‘the rocks crying out’ [Luke 19:40], that’s fine.) From the first song’s foundation, the album slowly and triumphantly reminds us what happens when we try to live without a God of love and mercy as our binding truth.
Here’s my interpretation of the album’s structure and narrative, focused on its six enormous set-piece songs, which are sometimes separated by short intermission tracks.
The Album’s eponymous opening track is a kind of transcendental anthem against the great enemy of fear. It’s a rally cry for humans to resist this serpent and its divisive ways. The serpent’s name in the song is Deceiver, a biblical designation, and especially when considered alongside the track which follows (‘Pneuma’), this serpent is essentially seen as the one who divides. So, the path of this sprawling album is set. Humanity is divided, and must find a way to shun the voice of deception and division.
Over and against this arrives the hopeful and climactic ‘Pneuma’, (from the Greek πνευμα, meaning spirit, breath or wind), which refers to the Holy Spirit. While the serpent brings deception and division (with titles like Slanderer and Accuser being the primary ones in Christian scripture, usually left untranslated as ‘Satan’), the Pneuma always brings life and unity. Again, this is pure New Testament material. It is the Spirit who falls on both Jew and Gentile equally, as well as slave and free, male and female, without distinction. It is only the Spirit who empowers us to “be one, as the father and I are one”, to quote Jesus’ final plea before his crucifixion (John 17). Crucially, this Pneuma is the very same spirit that lived in Jesus, made available to us after his resurrection (Rom 8:11). The message (of both scripture and this song) is clear: If we are truly walking in the way of Jesus, and listening to his Spirit, graciously gifted to us, we will be ones who bring unity and reconciliation into the world. If we live in a way which brings division, we are in fact unwitting instruments of the serpent. (If you think it’s unlikely that Keenan would write such a Christ-affirming song, just listen to ‘TalkTalk’ and ‘The Doomed’ from A Perfect Circle’s 2018 album. APC is one of Keenan’s other projects. While slamming confessing Christians who live hypocritically, he also praises the actual way of Christ emphatically.)
My tears came in this song’s final lines:
Wake up, remember,
We are all born of One Breath, One Word.
We are all One Spark, eyes full of wonder.
When hearing ‘One Word’, which summons the divine Logos of John 1, any who previously doubted the song’s biblical parallels should be silenced.
From here, as in history, the high dreams of the album’s early narrative are slowly undermined.
The Christian World Versus Itself
The next ‘full’ song, after one of the album’s necessary ‘Selah’ intermissions (each full song is a thoroughly-consuming ten-plus minute epic), is ‘Invincible’. This song seems to broadly depict the institutional church some centuries after the western ‘enlightenment’, possibly in the present day. Rather than a place of inclusion and embrace, the Pneuma community has regressed into an exclusionary and defensive group:
(An) age-old battle (is) mine. Weapon out and belly in…
Once invincible. Now the armour’s wearing thin.
Heavy shield down, struggling to remain relevant.
A warrior struggling to remain consequential.
The church which TOOL critiques here is one of which I am equally sceptical. The institutional church has, in its very worst moments, been no more than an edifice and a monument unto itself. It has made the great mistake of seeing its battle as one against the humans who are not within its walls, rather than a selfless battle for them. The true Pneuma community knows no enemy except the spiritual; the serpent and his unseen subjects. All humans are embraced in its arms, most of all those on the ‘outside’.
Then, the inevitable happens. What seems like good news — the church’s demise — spirals the whole world into chaos. While a younger TOOL might have danced on its grave, the TOOL of today knows that the only thing worse than an imperfect faith is no faith at all. The songs which follow seem to represent the Nietzschean nightmare of a world without God. TOOL plays with this chaos masterfully, even utilising its Selah tracks to new effect (see the chaotic drum solo of “Chocolate Chip Trip”, the whole of which is deliberately absurd and rhythmically disturbing… and glorious).
First in this new movement is ‘Descending’. It’s a powerfully realised retelling of the western world’s descent into existential chaos:
Freefall through our midnight, this epilogue of our own fable…
Floating nescient we fall through this boundlessness.
This madness of our own making.
It’s almost fourteen minutes long, and earns every second of your attention. That’s enough from me — just listen to it.
Next comes the only song I don’t really understand, because I don’t know which character Keenan is assuming here. It’s all about discerning the right voices through the fog, and whatever character he does assume, they are obviously in the throes of madness:
Psychopathy, misleading me over and over again…
Judge, condemn and banish any and every one without evidence, only the whispers from within.
This could very well be speaking of the death of the spiritual imagination, and the new western obsession with empirical answers to everything. Apparently, we have collectively decided that unseen things are unworthy of our time because we cannot poke them in a petri dish. While this might seem to safeguard us against superstition, it also assumes that our five senses, each of which is severely limited, coupled with our finite brain matter, are capable of accounting for all things that exist. This is the height of human arrogance. No wonder it brings about a kind of “psychopathy”. By imagining that we are infinite in our capacity to perceive reality, we do not become more. In fact, we become less than human, because our faculties of imagination and wonder are effectively disintegrated.
And now we reach the album’s final set piece, ‘7empest’ (not a typo). Seemingly there is no escaping our world’s new chaos, and likewise there is no resolution for the listener here. Just another grand movement in a great unresolved drama.
My money is actually on this song stepping into the character of dogmatically Godless ‘new atheists’, or people much like them. The song begins with them ignoring moments of phenomena, scrambling desperately to explain the world without acknowledging the spiritual. They are sceptical of the ‘dubious state of serenity’ of those around them and continually return to criticism of people of faith as their norm:
We know better. It’s not unlike you.
It’s not unlike you, we know your nature.
Ready to pounce on any failure of any spiritual person, this character seems utterly convinced that all religion is evil. Their rage against religion is single-minded:
No amount of wind could begin to cover up your petulant stench and demeanour… we know better.
They promise a coming storm, a ‘7empest’ seemingly using the biblical number of perfection to indicate a storm against the ‘holy ones’.
Or, perhaps, the meaning is inverted. Maybe the voice of this song is that of closed-minded religious people resisting the ‘wind’ of the spirit acting within people who don’t fit within their expectations, and the coming tempest is another disastrous holy war in waiting. It’s unclear, but it works either way. I suspect it’s the former, since pious types generally drop less F-bombs.
And then, darkness. The album ends with a new primordial sea, a formless void, as we see before the Spirit hovered over the creation in Genesis 1. The closing track is a horrifying short movement, and then it’s all over. We have gotten nowhere. In fact, we have gone back. All the way back to the chaotic waters of uncreation. Welcome to the 21st century.
I may be wrong in some or all of my interpretation, but based on my tracking of the themes in TOOL’s material (and Keenan’s other baby, A Perfect Circle) this all seems very likely and unsurprising. I haven’t looked at the thoughts of others, and don’t really want to, and I have only listened to the album once. It was released only yesterday. But to say the least, it had my full attention. I haven’t listened more intently to an album in at least a decade.
Its basic propositions are clear:
Fear brings division. Fear is the voice of the snake, who is slanderous and accusatory in his very nature, dividing people with every syllable. We must inoculate ourselves against his venom. ‘Bless this immunity’, as the opening track says. Bless it indeed.
The voice of the spirit is life and unity. We must heed this voice. This idea deserves a library of its own, which is why the writings of great thinkers and mystics already exist, sufficient to fill any stadium and any open heart.
And lastly, the complete answer for humanity’s present existential condition does not lie and science or any materialist discipline or philosophy. To believe such is madness, since the domain of science is limited (however spectacularly it might perform within this domain). It answers some kinds of questions exceptionally well, and can’t answer the rest.
If you’ve read my blog before, you know what my ultimate answer is. Just as Keenan summons the ‘One Word’ in ‘Pneuma’, I believe that there is a foundational truth behind the universe. It has a particular shape and nature, even a personality, and that personality saw fit to reveal itself in history through the incarnation – that is, the coming of Jesus, the divine man who not only ‘saves’ us, but shows us the way and makes his Spirit available to all who accept his invitation.
This is not an exclusionary view of reality, but one which is radically inclusive and embracing at its core. It’s the greatest story of all time. It’s the story of a God who came as the self-sacrificing one, embracing and reconciling ALL in the great consummating act of the cross. It is also the story of a Spirit who lives on, and longs to bind us all together. Christian religion, once it gets much more complicated than this, can at times get quite dark and ugly. On this, Keenan and I fully agree, whatever else he might affirm. But, as this album proposes, to throw the baby out with the bathwater is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. In fact, the usually-untold story of the Church is the story of normal Christian men and women who quietly go about the business of showing Christ’s love to the people around them. This is the story behind not only countless unknown acts of kindness in history, but most of the west’s schools, hospitals and universities from the last two millennia.
As one final reflection, it may not be a mistake that the serpent on the albums’s cover looks synthetic. While the Biblical story depicts the snake as an organic being, that snake was symbolically crushed by the feet of Christ when he gave his life for humanity. This new snake, while equally disastrous, is something different. It is, at least in part, man-made. Good God, what have we done?
If you want to ponder the big questions of meaning, existence, and what our world has done to itself by evicting God, you can do no better than Fear Inoculum. It’s a masterpiece.