Album Review : Tool - Fear Inoculum (2019)
If you aren’t really into music theory, listening to a progressive metal record can be like attending a convention for profession you don’t know anything about, like dentists or landscapers. It’s as pleasant as it can get without ever knowing what the fuck is going on. Because they only release albums whenever Halley’s comet is visible from Earth, it’s easy to forget that American prog metal icons Tool are like your dentist friends who coerced you into attending the convention with them, so that you can get shitfaced together on their dime at night.
Their new album Fear Inoculum is a great reminder of that.
Apologies for the suspicious metaphor. I meant that Tool are more accessible than your average prog metal band because of their emphasis on riffs, atmosphere and creative, but coherent song structures. They write actual songs that any music enthusiast can enjoy and you can hear some of them on Fear Inoculum. Tool don’t exactly reinvent themselves here. This album is not a tantalizing enigma like Lateralus or a monument to towering guitar riffs like Ænima, but it has a handful of powerful Tool moments to collectively nerd over for the upcoming years.
Pneuma is a good example of Tool doing what they do best. The song has a conventional verse/chorus/verse structure, but everything in-between in free flowing. Think of it like a river, it was a beginning, and end, two banks and a otherwise it’s never the same. The best part of this twelve minutes epic is a long, moody Danny Carey drum solo that transitions into one of Adam Jones’ best, heaviest guitar riffs that he’s ever came up with. The song works its way up to this transcendent apotheosis like magic spell and delivers one of these vibrant moments that make Tool who they are.
Carey and Jones are at the forefront of Fear Inoculum. In conventional rock bands, drums and bass form a rhythm section together, but not here. I don’t think I ever heard an album where drums were so heavily featured in the songwriting process, which is genuinely exciting. The instrumental interlude Chocolate Chip Trip among other (which polarizes the fanbase) is a long drum solo accompanied by a backdrop of electronic soundscape. The title track has this beautiful into featuring only drums and strings. Danny Carey comes in an out like he’s pounding the measure for a ritual.
Fear Inoculum does for Danny Carey what Lateralus did for Justin Chancellor. It’s simple ideas like these that give Tool the texture and nuance that makes them so unique.
The best song on Fear Inoculum and perhaps the best integration of their metal and psychedelic side on a single song I’ve ever heard is the 15 minutes monolith 7empest. It’s by far the most “conventional” rock song on the record. It’s filled with heavy, powerful guitar riffs and emotional, atmospheric solos. Adam Jones and Maynard James Keenan give grandiose performances and seemlessly alternate between spacey and angry moods, creating a quite lifelike feeling of emotional confusion. If there’s one song from Fear Inoculum bound to be remembered, it’s 7empest.
Fear Inoculum lives up to Tool’s legacy in many ways. It also falls short of it in many others. While Maynard James Keenan gives kickass vocal performances, the album is lyrically one of their weakest. The self-referential Invincible is particularly cringy, referring to the band as aging"warriors struggling to remain relevant”. For a band used to high concept songs and that actually has high concept songs on the record (hello title track), it’s really off-putting to hear them being so self-absorbed. But then again, we probably wanted this album more than Tool did.
So, Invincible might simply be a reflection of our neediness in the shifting landscape of commercial music seen through Maynard’s perspective. My man’s busy making killer wine and learning jiu-jitsu, so maybe that’s where the high concepts went. It’s tough to begrudge him. He just gave us what we spent thirteen years asking him for, you know?
Quick word for Descending and Culling Voices. The latter I particularly liked for its spacey, brittle instrumentation. In explored psychedelic and classic rock soundscapes that are very new to Tool. I didn’t understand what the hell the lyrics were about, but it’s perhaps the song that brings forward the most new ideas on Fear Inoculum. Descending could’ve easily been on any Tool album without standing out. It has great moments that feel way too familiar. If they can be accused of phoning it it on Fear Inoculum, Descending is an easy target for the argument.
After my first listen, I wanted to give Fear Inoculum an 8.9 score. I thought it fell short of Ænima and Lateralus, but that it compared advantageously to 10,000 Days and Undertow. Then I listened to it again and again. It remained an exciting and satisfying endeavor, but I started having déjà vus and some of the songs never really took a life of their own. Soundscapes started blending in together. Tool has such a high standard to live up to, but it’s of their own making. Fear Inoculum is a good album, but it’s just a little less inspired and exciting than their previous material.