I have been trying not to eulogize people very often in this column. My goal has been to reserve my memorial pieces for people not being remembered elsewhere, by others with far more eloquence. If I talk about a recent death here, it will be someone who was important to me, but not necessarily famous to most of the outside world.
That said, we lost Terrance Dicks this week, and I’m quite sad about it. I’m sure most of you know I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who my whole life. I started watching when I was six years old, catching the U.S. broadcasts of the Tom Baker years (and later the Peter Davison era) on WGBH, Boston’s public television station. Some of my earliest Who memories, then, are associated with Terrance Dicks. The giant robot in Baker’s debut story. The creepy (and yet hilarious) Frankenstein creature in The Brain of Morbius. The horrific cat-and-mouse game that makes up most of Horror of Fang Rock. Every single minute of The Five Doctors.
Dicks was one of the most important figures in Doctor Who history. He first made his mark co-writing Patrick Troughton’s swan song, the epic The War Games. He then script-edited the entire Jon Pertwee era, one of the most consistent in the show’s long run. He wrote some of my favorite Tom Baker-era scripts, and returned for the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, which I love with all my heart. Dicks also novelized many of the classic series stories for Target Books and wrote several of his own Doctor Who novels. It’s no exaggeration to say that without his work, Who would have faded away decades ago.
Terrance Dicks died Friday after a short illness. He was 84 years old. Honestly, his importance to this little show I love cannot be overstated, and I just wanted to thank him for all the ways he enriched my life. So, thank you, Terrance.
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I’ve been known to express some dismay at the state of our singles-driven download Soundcloud pop landscape, because I am old and curmudgeonly. But I have to say, the fact that the most hyped album of 2019 (and the one most likely to topple Taylor Swift from the number one spot this week) is an 86-minute prog-metal monster with songs stretching to 15 minutes, recorded by a band who debuted more than a decade before Facebook was even a thing, has planted a big grin on my grumpy, ancient face.
That band is Tool, of course, and as I’m sure you have heard by now, they’ve returned after 13 years in the wilderness with Fear Inoculum, what is astoundingly only their fifth album. It’s almost hard for me to believe that people have been this excited about Tool, but they have been. The ten-minute title track from this record, released a couple weeks in advance, has more than 12 million views right now on a platform (YouTube) that barely existed last time Tool released an album.
Fear Inoculum (and that is not a title that screams “advance hype”) is the first Tool album of the social media age, if you think about it. Twitter, which seems so ubiquitous now as to be ageless, was founded a mere two months before Tool’s last record, 10,000 Days, hit stores. There was no Instagram. Download and streaming culture had barely begun – iTunes was only four years old, and Spotify had just emerged, blinking, into the sun. But there’s no denying how instrumental social media has been in building up anticipation for this album.
And sure, Tool’s absence over the last dozen-plus years certainly helped in that regard too. The fact that even after leaving a Tool-shaped vacuum for all that time, no other act has risen up to fill the void is sort of amazing – they’re still the only band in the world like them. I think there are two main reasons for that: what Tool is able to play, and what they choose to play.
Honestly, I think they could play anything – all three musicians are aces at their instruments, and Maynard James Keenan has a stunning voice that sends chills up my spine. They’re so far ahead of so many of their contemporaries in sheer chops that it’s almost unfair. And what they choose to do with that talent is to write epic, punishing prog-metal that sticks with only a few notes and slowly unwinds, hopping time signatures like lily pads while building in intensity. I once described it as sounding like being crushed by a slow-motion steamroller, and while I stand by that, there’s a lot more math involved too.
There are six main songs on Fear Inoculum, and they all pull off the same trick. Each one is a minimum of 10 minutes long (with standout “7empest” stretching to 15), and they all begin atmospherically and then slowly, methodically build up into powerhouses. They find some interesting detours along the way – “Invincible” has this whole Blade Runner sequence with fat analog synthesizers, and it’s awesome – but essentially they do the same thing six times. But man, not only do they do this one thing better than anyone else, there really isn’t anyone else doing it at all.
What amazes me about Tool is that, for a band often called pretentious, they’re remarkably ego-free players. There are no spotlight-hogging moments, no hubristic wankery extending the song lengths. When they get together, the members of Tool are a single-minded machine, playing this complex music as one mind and letting it speak for itself. I could individually praise the three players, I guess – this is the best work ever from guitarist Adam Jones, and drummer Danny Carey is just jaw-droppingly good throughout. (He gets his own solo piece in “Chocolate Chip Trip” and it’s much more of a sculpture than a solo.) But that misses the point.
The point is that the only way Tool’s trick works – the only way they can build up these songs convincingly through sections in 11/8 and whole minutes of instrumental interplay – is by simulating a hive mind. You could replace one or more of them with players who are just as good, if you can find them, but you can’t replace the four-man telepathy that they seem to have developed. “Pneuma” is just an incredible piece of music, rising and falling over 12 minutes in who-knows-what time signature, and if all of them – even, and sometimes especially, Maynard – are not in perfect sync, it doesn’t work.
All of these songs work. “Descending” is perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite deserve its mammoth length, but it’s still pretty amazing. This record builds on the more atmospheric sections of 10,000 Days, and it’s the most patient music the band has made. There’s no “Stinkfist” or “Vicarious” to jump-start things – this time the band trusts its listeners to follow them as they wind their way through these compositions, making no concessions at all to a wider audience. This is Tool without any interference, answering to no one, making exactly the music they want to make, and they don’t seem to care if you like it.
I really like it, of course. As great as I think songs like “Invincible” and “Culling Voices” are, the highlight of Fear Inoculum for me is its finale, “7empest.” This is the only one on the album that sounds to me like Aenima-era Tool, loud and crashing and crazy. For much of its runtime it’s basically a jam session, but one that is just as clockwork-complex as anything else here. Jones, Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor achieve orbit here, circling around one another like feral dogs. Their telepathy has rarely been this unchained.
If I have a complaint about Fear Inoculum, it’s that while it’s clear the band worked hard on each song, they didn’t put as much work into cohering those songs into an album. Previous Tool records like Lateralus and 10,000 Days took their macro structure seriously, treating the album-length experience with the same care as the song-length one. Here it sounds to me like they finished six songs and four interludes and threw them together. The record doesn’t climax as much as it ends, and while it’s an engaging and invigorating listen, I don’t feel like I’ve been somewhere by the end of it.
That’s not even getting into the differences between the CD version and the download version. This is the first Tool album released into a world where more people will download it than buy the physical product, and the band certainly played to that – the 10-track download version includes three interludes excised from the 79-minute CD version, and they help unify the listening experience somewhat. They’re not essential, especially the closing “Mockingbeat,” but they do help give the impression that there’s an order to these songs and a method to their sequence.
I bought the CD version, of course, which means I paid $47 for the only physical package that was available. It’s incredible – it comes complete with a video screen loaded with a lengthy animation, with sound, and a charging cord in case the battery runs dry. The oversized booklet is fantastic, filled with illustrations and embossing effects, and the package is gorgeous to look at. It’s also gone – I don’t know how many the band made, but they sold out in a day or so, and I only snagged one by the grace of my wonderful record store. So the download edition is now the only one.
However you get this record, though – and you can certainly pay $160 or more for the physical edition if you want to – it’s worth getting. I’m astounded at the attention being paid to such a challenging, time-consuming work, but it’s gratifying to see. In some ways Fear Inoculum feels like six complete experiences sold together with some bonus material, but six complete Tool experiences are more than worth your money and time. There’s no other band like them, and I hope it won’t be another 13 years before we hear from them again.
Next week, Bat for Lashes and Bon Iver. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.