Photo: Travis Shinn / Courtesy of Speakeasy PR

Tool Reclaim Their Crown with Some Caveats on ‘Fear Inoculum’

Tool's Fear Inoculum meets nearly every expectation admirers could have and ranks as a worthwhile extension of the band's legacy.

Fear Inoculum
30 August 2019

Arguably no other music release this decade has been as heavily awaited and lampooned as Tool’s exhaustively prolonged fifth album. Considering that Tool issued only four LPs between 1993 and 2006 (each showing exceptionally idiosyncratic evolution and experimentation), it’s both astounding and apt that the exemplary metal foursome achieved near-Godlike status by the time their last opus, 10,000 Days, arrived. The quartet — drummer Danny Carey, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, bassist Justin Chancellor, and guitarist Adam Jones — are kings of their craft who continually deliver their formulas that countless peers emulate but never equal. Thus, it’s no surprise that the 13-year delay for a follow-up has been vexing.

So, was Fear Inoculum worth the wait, and does it measure up to the almost insurmountable hype? Yes and no. Undoubtedly, the sequence feels monumentally mesmeric in just about every way devotees hope for, with the utterly gripping and distinguishing riffs, rhythms, and melodies at which Tool have always excelled. Likewise, the lyrics and themes of the record uphold their trademark cryptic philosophical and intellectual leanings. The themes revolve around the number seven and the notion of growing “older and wiser”, as the band told Revolver earlier this month. At the same time, it’s a bit too familiar, unvaried, and basic, coming off like a less ambitious, peculiar, and challenging blend of Lateralus and 10,000 Days. Fear Inoculum is still quite good but falls just short of matching its two immediate predecessors, even if it had come out ten years ago.

Tool have always kicked off their collections with iconic pieces, and Fear Inoculum is no different. An awesome statement of purpose and reclamation of their stylistic reign, the title track’s ominous and tribal build-up alone is a wonderful welcome back. Jones’ licks are hauntingly gruff, Keenan’s vocals are simultaneously threatening and fragile, and the duo of Carey and Chancellor maintain an inventive yet complementary grounding the whole time. Admittedly, parts of it conjure the older “Disposition” and “Jambi” too overtly—a trend that persists throughout the journey—but how it patiently grows toward awesome eruptions of outraged syncopation, chords, and vocals is masterful. Frankly, it’s an instant classic in their catalog.

Fortunately, the rest of the set habitually satisfies. The subsequent “Pneuma” evokes “The Patient” and “Rosetta Stones” in its deistic drones and rebellious panic, with meticulously shaped segues and reprisals successfully making it (like virtually all of the other ten-plus minute treks) seem like a multipart trip. Later, “Descending” is especially rich emotionally as it traverses its spacey catharsis and futuristically guttural revelations. That’s particularly due to Jones’ captivating multilayered guitarwork. Afterward, “Culling Voices” mostly offers relative respite via sparsely poignant meditations before “7empest” acts as a sort of tour-de-force of everything Fear Inoculum offers. At times, it’s among the heaviest things Tool has done, with the music crashing hypnotically around Keenan’s fed-up declarations. “Acting all surprised when you’re caught in the lie / We know better / It’s not unlike you / It’s unlike you / We know your nature.”

Nevertheless, the LP does suffer a bit overall from being too predictable in terms of its tricks and traits. Whereas past ventures have maintained their essence while also finding the quartet imbuing each one with its own specialties and persona, Fear Inoculum feels more like a composite of the past than another daring step forward. They still do what they do better than anyone, but they’ve also done far too much of this already. Also, a couple of entries–“Invincible” and “Chocolate Chip Trip”—outstay their welcome. With the former, it’s chiefly because of Jones’ reliance on playing the same riff ad nauseam near the end. Meanwhile, the latter track’s glamorized but grating drum solo (with computerized garnishes) is cool at first but tedious by the end. In both cases, more experimentation would have benefitted the music.

Flaws aside, Fear Inoculum is a fun album and an almost completely triumphant return for Tool. It manages to meet nearly every expectation admirers could have and rank as a worthwhile—if slightly subpar—extension of the band’s legacy. Yes, it’s surprisingly monotonous, safe, and rudimentary in spots compared to what’s come before it, but that’s only because it has such monumental shoes to fill. On its own, Fear Inoculum is unquestionably remarkable, cementing just how much magic Tool has retained in their absence. Let’s hope that it’s not another 4,800 days or so before the next one arrives if it ever does.

The version of Fear Inoculum with ten tracks is the essential one, as its three additional inclusions enhance the record’s representative weirdness and sense of grand conceptual unity. In contrast, the regular seven-track disc is less substantial and singular.

RATING 7 / 10
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