I’ll try to keep this short.
I have written before about music as magic before, and I think that this Tool album, as a whole, fits within that framework (and within the religious affinities of Tool itself).
Magic is art, but not all art is magic. To be magic, there has to be some desired effect, some experience for the audience, usually one of awe or wonder, which results in a change in consciousness. Magic, in other words, has some purpose; it seeks to establish some sort of change or transformation. Music which seeks merely to entertain or to explore some theme or leitmotif is wonderful in its own right, but it is not magic. But in Fear Inoculum, something more calculated is going on.
To say that their aim is calculated, however, is not to say that it is particularly hidden. In fact, their purpose seems to be right there in the title of the album itself: “fear inoculum.”
The purpose of this album is to purge and inoculate the listener of fear; catharsis, to borrow an old phrase from Aristotelian poetic theory. But what makes this album so magical in its effect — so successful in its apparent aim — is not the lyrics in the music (good as they are), but the sheer length of the tracks.
As of 2019, the average song length in the top 100 pop songs is 3:07 long. Most of the reports describing this phenomenon blame streaming algorithms and other technical factors, but even twenty years ago, songs were still relatively short. “Hey Jude,” an unusually long Beatles track, was seven minutes. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was just under six, as was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” another epic, thematically transforming song, comes in at five and a half. And “The Sound of Silence” (1967) came in at a contemporary three minutes.
By contrast, Fear Inoculum songs are long. Even by Tool standards.
The tracks can be broken down into two kinds, the “songs,” and the instrumental interludes:
- Fear Inoculum (song) – 10:20
- Pneuma (song) – 11:53
- Litanie contre la peur (instrumental) – 2:14
- Invincible (song) – 12:44
- Legion Inocululant (instrumental) – 3:09
- Descending (song) – 13:37
- Culling Voices (song) – 10:05
- Chocolate Chip Trip (instrumental) – 4:48
- 7empest (song) – 15:43
- Mockingbeat (instrumental) – 2:05
The instrumentals themselves roughly match the average length of a radio pop-song. But the songs themselves average a whopping 12.3 minutes in length.
Why so long?
Perhaps a better question: why are contemporary songs in general so short, and getting shorter?
Operas and classical compositions of the past regularly lasted a very long time. Mozart’s “Requiem” was just shy of an hour. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was forty-two minutes. Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle” (an opera) lasted a marathon seventeen hours. Not all classical music was so long (Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was roughly nine minutes), but there was definitely a capacity among the musical audience of the past to sit through longer stretches of musical exploration, development, and build-up.
Might there be some relation between attention, patience, and fear?
I believe that there is.
I think that it is natural for people to be more anxious when they are constantly flitting from one thing to another. There is less stability, and instability is inherently anxiety-inducing. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the instability is something environmental or if it is just our own shortened attention-spans getting overstimulated and distracted; attentional instability is still instability, as far as the brain is concerned. In an age of detached headlines and television news conveyed in soundbites delivered across short (and context-divorced) video clips and bright lights, the medium itself is anxiety-inducing… let alone the content. The digital attention-economy likes to break down time into smaller and smaller chunks, and this chunking — in addition to being destructive to our ability to think deeply — feels somehow inherently conducive to anxiety and fear.
In Fear Inoculum, Tool seems to be trying to sit down their audience, putting two firm hands on their shoulders, and getting them to be still. To take some time to really listen and focus, to experience to something that actually takes some depth and development. Some of the tracks are almost minimalist in their patient development of their themes.
If the listener can be persuaded — perhaps hypnotized by Danny Carey’s unusual rhythms, perhaps soothed by Maynard’s cool and calming voice, or the good ‘ol violent Tool sound of Chancelor’s bass and Jones’ guitar — to fasten their attention for longer than three to four minutes, and to find some stability in their inner ear, then perhaps the fear that comes from the frantic scurry of modern life might be, in some small way, purged from the audience.
Of course, this kind of length might also feel tremendously uncomfortable to an audience who has grown used to short, easily-ditched songs… perhaps in association with weak-ties elsewhere in their life as well. I can’t help but hear a kind of defensive note in the pen of reviewers who call Fear Inoculum “overworked and undercooked” and other such phrases. The feeling is understandable, but that isn’t Tool; that’s your own brain being rewired by a hyperactive, ADD world. It’s the same feeling we all have when we sit down to read a book and suddenly realize it’s a lot harder to truly focus and read for more than twenty or thirty minutes without intrusive expectations and impulses breaking our concentration. Much of this seems related to social media, but I think there may be other things at work too.
Overall, it is a phenomenal album, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You don’t need to buy the fancy deluxe edition, but I would recommend getting the CD, and not just buying the digital tracks, precisely so that you can listen to the album as a whole. This approach seems more in line with the purpose of the music, and it all fits together nicely in a way that surpasses previous Tool albums, which were dominated by more powerful stand-alone singles. “Fear Inoculum,” “Pneuma,” and “Invincible” all make for great singles, but the rest of the album hangs together in a way which 10,000 Days and Ænima really didn’t, and really puts a punch into the final track — “7empest” — which many people believe to be not only the longest, but also the best track on the whole album.