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The Replacements - Dead Man’s Pop Music Album Reviews

The new box set includes demos, a live show, and a fascinating, stripped-down remix of the band’s 1989 album Don’t Tell a Soul that reveals an alternate history of one of their most divisive records.
The Replacements story is filled with what-ifs and near misses. Their legend, essentially, is that if the chips had fallen differently, they might have become a popular band and had success into the 1990s, like their friends and rivals R.E.M. What if they had played ball with their label? What if they hadn’t made so many enemies? What if they hadn’t been so fucked up?

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Tool - Fear Inoculum Music Album Reviews

The prog metal band’s fifth album is exactly what you’d expect from a project over a decade in the making: a more mature, sometimes exciting collection that feels both overworked and undercooked.

Tool are just King Crimson in Joker makeup. They thrive in an enormously popular world of polyrhythms and prurience; of Jungian philosophy and Bill Hicks memes; of pewter dragon statues with orbs in their mouths and guys telling you that DMT is actually a chemical in your brain. Forged in the mad-at-my-dad fires of ’90s post-grunge and nu-metal, the progressive metal quartet has sustained a decades-long career on equal parts technical precision and psychedelic bullshit. Their multi-part songs are loosely about embracing pain, grief, desire, transgression, until all your chakras are open and you know exactly why the pieces fit. They’ve been a punchline for years.

But ever since hiding a song at track 69 of their 1993 debut album, Tool have always been sort of in on the joke. A song on their second album Ænima dramatically recited the recipe for weed cookies in German, they have pulled many exhausting April Fool’s jokes on their fans, including one that claimed they were in a horrible bus accident and one that stated the famously apostatical lead singer Maynard James Keenan had quit the band and found Jesus. It’s just that these edgy, twisted, “funny” parts of Tool are empirically stupid. Sure, Keenan has a versatile, emotive voice that granted Tool an audience beyond metalheads. But what he’s actually singing about is and has always been the province of pseudo-spiritual stoners and gamer intellectualism. You see, “Forty Six & 2” is about the Jungian concept of the shadow, and “Rosetta Stoned” is about tripping out and seeing aliens. His trickster humor has curdled of late, culminating in Keenan writing a song in response to a bad Yelp review about his winery.

In recent years, Keenan has spoken to the press far more about his Arizona winery than Tool’s music. (Keenan is a very serious winemaker who, nevertheless, named his vineyard after a pubic wig.) Recording sessions for the band’s fifth album, Fear Inoculum, revolved around his grape harvesting schedule. His wine, his other bands Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, and his restless and enigmatic nature are, in part, the reasons behind the 13-year break between now and Tool’s previous album, 10,000 Days, a gap made almost mythic by the band’s absence from streaming services until earlier this year. The band’s discography roared back into the digital marketplace, smashing Billboard records in the process. Fear Inoculum arrives at a moment of high demand for Tool’s music, filling a vacuum they themselves created.

If there’s one thing that the 86 minutes of Fear Inoculum provides, it is the sound of four people making long, complicated songs together. There are hardly any overdubs, production flourishes, or additional instrumentation, just Keenan’s delicate howl, bassist Justin Chancellor, guitarist Adam Jones, and one of the most lauded drummers in modern rock, Danny Carey. The stripped-down purity of sound here means that everything hangs on the songs themselves, all of which run over 10 minutes, save for a few ambient interludes and a palate-cleansing, nearly five-minute Carey drum solo backed by a giant custom synth. You get what is expected of an album over a decade in the making: a more mature, sometimes exciting collection that feels both overworked and undercooked.

It is hard to parse the difference between which choices here are wise (Keenan taking a back seat to showcase the interplay of the band more) and which are stale (for all the band’s rhythmic exploration, they couldn’t find one new harmonic mode to play in?). One of Tool’s problems on Fear Inoculum is that, with few exceptions, the songs feel static and brittle. They don’t have the live-wire feel of 1996’s Ænima or 2001’s Lateralus, the album that Fear Inoculum sounds most in thrall to. Songs like the opening title track feel long because they exist in protracted straight lines of mechanical riffs, as if assembled through an instruction manual. The hybridization that made Tool so popular on the radio in the late ’90s has rusted: They are part stoner metal, part prog rock, part mainstream metal, all working in ignorance and opposition to each other.

Things do come together a few times. The 15-minute closer “7empest” brings the biggest fireworks from Carey and Jones, the two undoubted stars of the album, adding alluring melody and texture to these bloated epics. But the highlight far and away is “Invincible,” with Keenan singing a revealing refrain about a struggle to “remain relevant” and “consequential.” It feels vulnerable in a new way, a lyric that finally doesn’t come from a defensive, get-off-my-lawn stance. And yet there’s still that Morrissey-level smugness when looking back at his glory years: “The things we’ve done/Caligula would grin.” That line lands poorly in light of a 2018 allegation from a woman on Twitter who claimed Keenan sexually assaulted her in 2000 when she was 17, an accusation that Keenan has denied.

“Invincible” builds to a climax where all the polymeter comes together in a mezzo unison that feels like “Forty Six & 2” with a mute on it. The fact that the ending of “Invincible” doesn’t try to kick you in the ribs points to the larger issue: When Tool think they are using time as a psychedelic additive, it comes off as simple riff-repetition from a band that sounds tired. The stoners of Sleep or the experimentalists of Sumac own this lane of daring, hypnotic metal songs because they bring stakes; you hear people moving in on the instruments and ripping out the notes. Save for Jones’ slide guitar solo, the 23 minutes that make up “Descending” and “Culling Voices” feel so barren and overwrought, you can practically see the band sitting on cushioned stools in the studio, quietly counting out the meter with polite head-nods.

What does the third decade look like for a band whose hit singles include “Prison Sex” and “Stinkfist”? It looks like an aging quartet betting on being calculating and precise, carefully reining things in and keeping everything familiar. Fear Inoculum could have come out any time in the last 13 years, or even the last 20 years. Above all, Fear Inoculum pays homage to Tool itself, a long-delayed encore that has fans racing back to the arena. In a recent interview, Keenan said that one of the main reasons this album took 13 years to make was fear, crippling self-doubt, and constant second-guessing. There’s no joke there, just a bit of self-reflective honesty, which is the one thing that helps keeps this hulking record afloat.

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