Album Review: Tool – “Fear Inoculum”

13 years. Tool fans have eagerly awaited 13 years for the follow-up to the 2006 masterpiece ‘10,000 Days’. Of course these art rock legends have not spent that entire expanse of time actively working on new music. Between length legal battles, intensive wine-making and other musical endeavours, it’s almost a miracle that ‘Fear Inoculum’ released. Anyone who has followed the band since their early 90s debut will not be surprised to discover an even lengthier, instrumental-driven journey on offer here. From visceral beginnings (‘Opiate’) to major prog intellect (‘Lateralus’, ‘10,000 Days’), Fear Inoculum is an expected next step in the sound definition of Tool.

This review will focus on the intended original seven songs first, with the three bonus segway-style tracks touched on afterwards.

For opener and title track ‘Fear Inoculum’ you can almost hear the excited echoed squeal of Tool fans worldwide, knowing that a 13 year wait is over. One minute and the masterful tabla work of Danny Carey (drums) swoops in, building into a precisely rhythmic bass line offset by guitar swells. This entrancing 10-minute structure sets the album tone with Maynard James Keenan (vocals) wavering between beautifully sung verses and whispered chanting. Thematically strong and darkly poetic; “Bless this immunity” indeed.

With ‘Pneuma’ almost hitting the 12-minute mark, you get the sense Tool are rejecting any sense of limitation or immediacy; opting for purely artistic expression. Intertwined with the delay effect, Adam Jones (guitar) and Justin Chancellor (bass) speak through their instruments; to the point where alien language feels real. The vocal stabs work very well (particularly upon return), while an extensive mid-section instrumental makes the ending feel like it’s dragging a little.

‘Invincible’ is a must play. As one of the standout tracks, this song builds emotion as it soars further into a sonic rumble with added robo-flavour. The guitar solo work here emits emotion in a quasi-orchestral fashion; sublime. For those seeking metal chops, the kick-to-riff factor is strong yet jangly in a truly lifelike performance.

In some ways ‘Descending’ feels like a spiritual successor to ‘10,000 Days (Wings Pt 2)’ in both its feel and audio sampling. Opening with aqueous textures, Maynard’s ethereal and tender vocal lines marry the music inclusively. There is a powerful sense of finality here that would not feel out of place in a film’s triumphant third act. Around the 7.30 mark we hear an atypically-Tool guitar harmony; a welcome surprise. Instrumental to end.

Then arrives my pick for the entire album. ‘Culling Voices’ is simpler in its approach but fuelled by an omnipresent sadness. While I don’t like to compare side projects, it’s easy to mark some similarities to Maynard’s melancholic ‘A Perfect Circle’; but only for the first third or so. A subtle layered tension grows, pulled along by the recurring line “don’t you dare point that at me”. I love a good start-stop riff; Adam Jones heard my cries and threw in a cheeky one for me!

Unfortunately, the album’s primary misstep is on full display through the instrumental and oddly titled ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’. If this were one of the labelled “bonus tracks” it may soften the jarring blow. Imagine if one of your bandmates brought in their own song and you didn’t have it in you to say no… yeah you see what I’m getting at. Technically impressively and intriguingly off-kilter, this inclusion cuts the thematic flow and feel of ‘Fear Inoculum’. If released as a Danny Carey solo piece, I’d be far more receptive.

Tool take their self-explained theme of ‘seven’ literally with ‘7empest’. Fans receive a return to a more immediate and aggressive vocal delivery, while retaining the soundscape exploration of the aforementioned songs. As most Tool songs go, they are lyrically open to interpretation yet feel entirely relatable without warranting a deep-dive. “Blameless, the tempest will be just that” stamps a level of decision and understanding for the listener to embrace and use at their will. Adam’s rolling picking here is intricate and incredible, progressing to a savage final passage bringing the album’s original order to a close.

‘Fear Inoculum’ can be processed in an extended 10-track form, which is an exciting prospect on paper but ultimately unnecessary. I appreciate the role of the segway, and in some instances they can be executed to full effect. For Tool this time around, they are unquestionably filler. I hate to say that as someone who “gets Tool” and as a life-long fan, but the truth hurts sometimes. ‘Litanie contre la Peur’ is like Daft Drunk, and ‘Mockingbeat’ sits awkwardly at the end, primed by obnoxious bird noises. The only redeeming segway would be ‘Region Inoculant’ had it been delivered in a ‘Parabol / Parabola’ (‘Lateralus’) order.

13 years is a long time and I am truly grateful that we were able to experience another Tool album. Everything about the core songs (excluding the Chocolate thing), screams artistic gratification and completion. I feel Tool are at the stage where they’ve said what they need to say, created musical brilliance and have the opportunity to seal the legacy of their work.

Now find a dark room, quality audio equipment and immerse yourself in what could be and should be Tool’s swansong (just skip the instrumentals).

Tool: Fear Inoculum – RCA Records

Fear Inoculum is the fifth studio album by American rock band Tool. It was released on August 30, 2019, through Tool Dissectional, Volcano Entertainment, and RCA Records.

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