The Rickety Old Shack

Tool — Fear Inoculum

album cover

Aside from the fact the band took 13 years to record and release the follow-up to their last album, 2006's 10,000 Days, Tool made the stakes even higher simply by virtue of being one of the biggest bands in the modern prog-metal scene. That last part might seem a little unfair, but that's the reality of being a band with a celebrated back catalogue that includes records like Ænema and Lateralus — everything you do is going to be compared to those legendary albums. I've never counted myself among the most ardent Tool fans, but I've always enjoyed their work since I first saw the video for "Stinkfist" on Much Music many moons ago.

The biggest concern with such a long gap between releases is whether the band still has the same creative fire as they did before. Releasing truly unique, original records like the aforementioned Ænema and Lateralus is a rarity; to consistently push boundaries and evolve as a band is extremely difficult. 10,000 Days was a strong effort, but it did feel a bit repetitive when compared to its predecessor, Lateralus. This did not assuage any fears I had, concerning Fear Inoculum, nor did my initial impressions of the title track and "Pneuma," which were previewed ahead of the album's release.

The new material, unfortunately, feels even more like a return to familiar territory. Quite a lot of Fear Inoculum sounds like it could have been written in the same sessions as the previous 2 albums. The title track, specifically, feels like the result of a machine learning algorithm being fed the entire band discography and outputting its best approximation of a standard-issue Tool song. The track finally gets interesting in the final minute-plus, with a nice distorted guitar jam emerging from an anotherwise meandering, melodic piece. "Pneuma" has a main riff, which the song comes back to several times, that also sounds like it was taken right from Lateralus.

In terms of composition, this record feels very much paint-by-numbers Tool. They are accomplished enough musicians that this still yields respectable results, but for a band with an otherwise deserved reputation for innovation and unique song-writing, Fear Inoculum is easily the band's least impressive album to date. Where it felt like the band was starting to fall into a pattern of long, spacey jams and writing in odd meters on 10,000 Days it's much more prevalent on this new album. There are still flashes of brilliance throughout the record, but the material doesn't feel fresh and each track feels longer than it needs to be.

There are also several segue tracks that don't add anything to the album except for increase running time. We've got a bunch of 10+ minute songs here, what is the purpose of breaking them up with 3 minutes of generic, throwaway synth lines and little else? "7empest" is 15 fucking minutes long, what could possibly neccessitate tacking another 2 minutes on to the end of the album as a separate track?! The physical release only includes "Chocolate Chip Trip," but it's by far the longest one at almost 5 minutes in length. It's basically a drum solo with some questionable backing synths and loops, and it feels like an incomplete idea at best. I'm fine with Danny Carey getting time to show off, but surely that could have been worked into the context of a full song.

The production, as always, is phenomenal; Tool have never sounded better, sonically, than on this album. The way the guitar and bass tones blend in and out, anchored around the virtuoso drumming of Danny Carey is as impressive engineering-wise as it is compositionally. It's a shame I don't like this record more, as it is very evident that a lot of effort and attention to detail went into these tracks. On paper, at least, the concept of repeating the number 7 throughout the record, is kind of interesting but I wonder if this didn't confine the band's writing. The guitars are powerful and even majestic at times; there's nothing outright terrible on Fear Inoculum, but the high points are few and far between, while the bulk of the record is very average. The material is very intricate; Maynard's vocals are evocative and down-right haunting at times; you've got flashes of brilliance like the middle portion of "Invincible" and the majority of "7empest" but there is a significant amount of chaff on this album as well.

Ultimately, Fear Inoculum lacks of the hooks and memorability of this past work. After multiple listenings, it is difficult to remember much of what I heard; portions of each track are really good, while the rest is just generic Tool as far as my brain is concerned. It would make more sense if this record was a hasty follow-up to 10, 000 Days rather than material released after nearly a decade-and-a-half of silence. Of all the tracks on the album, "7empest" felt the freshest, so obviously they have not completely lost their touch, but that's only 1/5 of the Fear Inoculum. This is a decent album but far from the mind-blowing experience of their previous work. I wouldn't say outright avoid Fear Inoculum — and maybe you'll have a better experience than I did — but it failed to live up to the standards the band themselves set in past decades.

Summary

After 13 years, prog metal legends Tool drop a surprisingly mediocre record in Fear Inoculum. Lengthy tracks that feel far too familiar, long builds that don't always pay off, and 13.5 additional minutes of bland, unnecessary segue tracks help make the album feel even longer than its 86.5 minute running time would indicate. This album isn't outright terrible and hardcore fans may still find a lot to enjoy, but this is a very average release from an exceptionally talented and creative band. If you are familiar with Tool at all, then you can easily guess what this album sounds like. For a record that is supposed to be built around math, the whole ends up being less-than the sum of its parts.

Album Information

Release date: August 30th, 2019
Record label: RCA Records / Volcano Entertainment / Tool Dissectional

Maynard James Keenan — vocals
Adam Jones — guitar
Justin Chancellor — bass
Danny Carey — drums, synths

Track Listing

  1. Fear Inoculum
  2. Pneuma
  3. Litanie Contre La Peur
  4. Invincible
  5. Legion Inoculant
  6. Descending
  7. Culling Voices
  8. Chocolate Chip Trip
  9. 7empest
  10. Mockingbeat

Link: toolband.com

—by Derek

Published: October 1st, 2019.