Review by Joe Dorsey
I struggle to think of too many I know who are both 1. Aware of Tool, and 2. Blasé of Tool. Many people aware of the band, spanning across groups of other musicians, diehard fans, and casual listeners have a strong opinion of them. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are the Tool haters who are just as rabid as the obsessed superfans. For such a polarized group of listeners, it’s easy to imagine why the culture surrounding this new album Fear Inoculum would be one of the most divided in recent music history. Taking a quick peek at the comments section for the Fear Inoculum over at www.rateyourmusic.com will give you just a taste of the disconnect between Tool fans, as well as the occasional troll or two. Inevitably, this new releasewould have been a divisive follow-up to 10000 Days regardless, so the thirteen years of waiting and hype only added to the enormous expectations.
With all of this in mind, I feel like I almost have to explain my experience with Tool; I’m certainly a fan but have never experienced a release cycle from them. Coming out in 2006, their 4th studio album 10,000 Days was my introduction to the band. The hooks on Vicarious and The Pot, the aggression of Jambi and Rosetta Stoned, and the emotional climaxes of Wings for Marie Parts 1 & 2 are what drew me in. I discovered their back catalog soon after, experienced their progression in reverse, picking up Lateralus (2001), Aenima (1996), and Undertow (1993) in that order. Though they evolved to be more progressive and experimental throughout their four major releases, Tool has a sound that is undoubtedly theirs to keep.
On Fear Inoculum Tool sounds like Tool. However, there is also a noticeable shift in their approach to pacing, song structure, and reliance on brewing atmospheres. The overall production quality of Fear Inoculum is immaculate, perhaps even a bit too clean. Regardless, the quality of the sound is clear and crisp, an ample headspace when using headphones. The dynamic range could have more accentuated but is still much less compressed when compared to 10,000 Days and many other major releases. Instrumentation-wise, the band is sticking to their tried and true rock/metal backline, other than some creative and exotic drum samples and above-average use of synthesizers. Overall, I do love the way the album sounds: clear and vast.
The content on Fear Inoculum is different from previous albums in that it focuses more on building tension over long periods. Except for “7empest”, Tool has never sounded this calm and meditative. Tool also manages to pull off many pieces here that sound simultaneously improvised or jammed and through-composed, an aspect to the album I love. During my initial listen of Fear Inoculum, I was not impressed, finding myself losing interest, and honestly, a bit bored at times. However, after five or so spins, many of the songs started to reveal themselves and grow on me.
The first example of this happened with the single and title track “Fear Inoculum,” a song I completely blew off when it first came out. I now really enjoy the track, as a way to ease into the tone and themes of the rest of the album, with a beautiful hook in the center of the song (“Exhale, expel, recast myself…”). It’s one of the most colorful songs on the album and is a beautiful introduction to the sonic flavors and lyrical themes going forward.
“Pneuma” is a track that seems to be a favorite with most, but falls a bit flat to me. The melodic content in the vocal is a bit lacking until the “One Breath, One Word” hook blossoms out of the chanting of the verses. The runtime on this track is also a bit long for the amount of content that’s present, though it is capable of putting me into a trance-like state if I’m in the right mood. I especially love the percussion towards the middle of the track, a perfect example of the “sacred geometry”-style polyrhythms Carey loves to use. Unfortunately the writing here feels a bit by-the-numbers and overly long.
“Invincible”, on the other hand, is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The chord progression that kicks off the song is very brooding and, harmonically speaking, one of the most complicated and unusual riffs on the whole album. From evocative lyrical moments (“Caligula would grin”) to emotional guitar melodies, and a slow build in intensity from beginning to end, Tool shines on this song.
In “Descending,” I hear traces of “The Revealing Science of God,” “No Quarter” and “Anesthetize,” creating a psychedelic early 70’s feel in the first few minutes. Then, much like Invincible, builds intensity into an extended instrumental, finishing with another climax in the end. Like Pneuma, this track could have used some trimming, but I found the music and melodies here to be more engaging.
For a while “Culling Voices” was my least favorite track here, but something about the creepy and lonely, dissonant clean guitar riff, paired with the beautiful and meditative vocal melody, as well as the paranoid lyrics creates a feeling of being trapped in one’s head. Then we have “CHOCOLATE CHIP TRIP” (I know I’m editorializing, but I feel the urge to all-caps this track name because its absurdity) is a track most people seem to dislike. Hilariously enough, it’s one of my favorite moments on the album. If you haven’t heard this one yet, imagine an early 80’s Discipline-era Bill Bruford drumming over a looped sample from a Shpongle record. I read an interview with one of the engineers at the studio stating that everything, including the synth sequence, was programmed and performed on the fly within the same take, which, if true, puts a smile on my face. It’s perhaps too goofy and grating for some, but just weirdly charming enough to be endearing to me (Danny Carey also plays the hell out of his kit here).
Finally, on “7empest”, it’s Adam Jones’ turn to give the nod to 80’s Crimson, and I mean this only in the most positive of ways (Fun fact: Jones stated in a Guitar World article recently that the top 3 most influential people on his playing are 1. Robert Fripp, 2. Adrian Belew, and 3. Trey Gunn. I am not lying). Here are also some of the most energetic and engaging vocals on the record by Maynard by far, as well as the absolute best riffage, soloing, and jamming on the album. “7empest” is one of the longest Tool songs sitting at 15:43, but by the nature of its structure and engaging content, ends up feeling shorter than some of the other tracks on here.
The transition tracks “Litanie Contre la Peur”, “Legion Inoculant”, and “Mockingbeat” add space and atmosphere to an already very atmospheric release without adding anything of substance, so as much as I want to appreciate their placement here, they feel unnecessary. I think that Tool has made better use of transition tracks on previous releases, especially on Aenima. I do, however, like how “Legion Inoculant” contains a callback to the title track.
I do hope that my main gripes with Fear Inoculum are ones that may go away over repeated listens. I also believe time itself is to blame for these issues: some moments here feel overwritten and unconfident. Thirteen years is a long time to sit on new material, and it shows. I can’t claim to know anything about the creative process that went into developing this album. However, if I had to guess, some of the content on Fear Inoculum sounds like it may have suffered from “Masterpiece Syndrome.” This is when the artist revises and re-revises their songs intending to make them perfect, sometimes with the undesired effect of removing the soul and essence of the song in the process. There are stretches on this album that sound uninspired and stale. The total runtime of over 86 minutes only exacerbates this compositional issue; it is not abnormal for Tool to create a mammoth listening experience on previous works, but Fear Inoculum is their longest record yet, and it lacking the content and spirit at times to fill the vastness. Fear Inoculum as a listening experience can feel like falling, spiraling into a void. Whether that experience is enjoyable will depend on the listener, their mood, and their taste.
Performance-wise, however, some of my favorite Danny Carey, Adam Jones, and Justin Chancellor moments are here. This is especially the case with Carey’s drumming, which is consistently monstrous and engaging throughout. His playing is exciting, energetic, and dynamic. The riffs of Adam Jones sometime fall a bit flat compositionally, but his performances are spot-on. His jammed-out approach here also works pretty well most of the time, and some of the solos, especially on “7empest,” are blistering. My biggest issue with the performances is the vocals. In general, Maynard has never sounded so “sweet” on a Tool album before, making more use of his approach with APC. While Maynard’s vocals are pleasant and technically well-executed, there are missed opportunities all over Fear Inoculum for a more inspired vocal melody or a more passionate/energetic delivery. To me, Maynard sounds as if he is going through the motions and not as emotionally engaged when compared to his previous body of work with the band.
Fear Inoculum is not a masterwork by Tool, but it is a great album by their standards, especially considering the pressures and anticipation. It succeeds as a logical step after 10,000 Days. Comeback albums always face the most scrutiny, especially for a group with the trademark sound they are known for, and I think they succeeded in making something that their fans will enjoy, in addition to putting themselves back in the spotlight without compromising their creativity. Was Fear Inoculum worth the wait? I think that depends on the expectations of the listener. Finally, I do hope this is just the first of a handful of new records, as the band once again starts to climb the charts and gain their footing. Perhaps they will follow in the same footsteps King Crimson did in the 80’s leaving us with a 20’s era of new Tool music.
“Stay the grand finale / Stay the reading of our swan song and epilogue / One drive to stay alive” – “Descending”
Tool’s latest record, Fear Inoculum, was released on August 30, 2019 through RCA Records. Buy it here.