Maynard James Keenan admitted that if felt like “a weight lifted off my chest” when Tool announced the title of their fifth album this week. The long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s 10,000 Days is called Fear Inoculum, and it’s set for release on Aug. 30.

Keenan’s lyrics spread far and wide, across songs he writes for Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer; but it’s possible to guess at what “fear inoculum” might mean before the LP arrives.

First, the literal: “inoculum” is the substance placed in a syringe to deliver an inoculation, and so the suggestion is the deliberate injection of fear. Inoculation is the act of introducing a bacteria to a new place in order to allow the place to respond to it; in terms of healthcare the aim is for the human body to identify it as a negative influence and develop antibodies to kill it, so that if it should ever return the body is ready to react and destroy any resulting infection. So in the terms of the Tool album, it could suggest the deliberate injection of fear wth the intention of preparing humans to deal with it.

If that supposition is on the right track, then there are (at least) two possible interpretations: the first is that the album itself is a fear inoculum, which will prepare the listener to fight against being afraid; the second is that the LP explores the structure of the bacteria of fear – and both could have positive or negative outcomes. Certainly no one will deny that there’s a sense of raised tension in the world today, and that perhaps inoculation against fear is a good idea; but then, the result depends on whether the intention is good or bad, and also, of course, whether the inoculum is effective. Who made it and why? Is that the subject under scrutiny?

A recent interview with Keenan may hint at what he was thinking while writing the new Tool lyrics. “All the stuff going on in the world, everybody’s divided and freaking out and going down the dopamine rabbithole of clickbait," he told the Joe Rogan Podcast in a wide-ranging conversation. I feel like the polarization of it, everybody has a position, taken up a stance and this cause. And I get that; to feel connected, to feel that you’re part of a little bit, for injustice or whatever. I get that you need to do that. But I think at some point when you start fighting with your neighbor you start to kinda lose connection.”

Things became even more interesting when he discussed the results of a human experiment provided to him by a friend. “The purpose when oxycodone first came out was that they discovered in that drug something that interrupted and helped fix people who were meth, heroin addicts,” he said – outlining something that could at least vaguely be described as an inoculum. “It was helping them get sober and getting off the heroin because it replaced that feeling that they were getting – the dopamine womb-like feeling, that escapist thing that they were getting from heroin.” However, his friend noticed that subjects quickly became addicted to oxycodone instead. “Unless she cut your hand off you were going to take another one. So you just replaced the heroin with another thing.”

Keenan went on to say that researchers had begun to look at the possibility that always-on social media and its associated devices were being abused the same way: “Now they’re finding that that whole process of likes and validating – or not validating; you’re getting depressed because nobody likes your post [is similar to a trained lab] rat that keeps hitting the cocaine button. It’s the same thing, It affects the same part of your brain … if you can’t go 10 minutes without looking at your phone, you are an addict. You have to understand that the actual chemical reaction in your body to the charge you get on that.”

In the same interview he also discussed an idea he had for a TV show, which in the context of Fear Inoculum could be an examination of how well or badly the imaginary substance works. “The idea is that we find six different people from completely different backgrounds that have a very strong feeling about something … Just something, whatever it is. They state their position, and the idea is they get these people together with each other and not talk about what they don’t agree on – find the things they agree on and build on the things they can agree on.

“Then at the end of it, they go back and… whatever their statement was about who they are, it doesn’t change. They believe what they believe; but in that, without compromising the core of who they are, they end up finding in somebody else an ‘agree to disagree’ position, where they can talk to each other and find out what they do like.” That's not a bad definition of a socially-injected fear inocolum.

Keenan doesn’t like to explain his lyrics in detail, presumably preferring that the ideas he suggests engage with the listener and find new meaning with each individual. However, he still has points to make and ideas to express. 10,000 Days is said to have been a reference to his mother, who spent the last 27 years (10,000) days of her life in a wheelchair as a result of a stroke; but the frontman once said the time period was roughly how long it takes Saturn to orbit the Sun and that the renewal of the orbit was an opportunity to “ let go of old patterns and embrace a new life.”

The name of previous album Lateralus, he once said, was “lateral thinking and how the only way to really evolve as an artist – or as a human, I think – is to start trying to think outside of the lines and push your boundaries.” He added that it also referred to the lateralus leg muscle to a lesser extent. Before that, Aenima was said to encapsulate “anima,” meaning intellect, consciousness, mind; and “enema,” meaning liquid used for anal cleansing. Debut LP Undertow, perhaps carrying the most direct title, deals with the consequences of being trapped in a cycle of abuse.

With the notable exception of their first album, Tool appear to have tried to present two opposing ideas in one phrase – so perhaps the words “fear” and “inoculum” are to be read separately. Here’s another suggestion: that, following on from previous autobiographical lyrics, Keenan is referring to the band dealing with the personal issues, legal action, illness and other struggles behind the 13-year wait for their fifth release; in which case perhaps he means Tool themselves have become, or have received, a fear inoculum. Perhaps that journey is the reason the record contains tracks named “Descending” and “Invincible.”

More will be revealed at the end of August – but probably not all.

 

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