Tool - Fear Inoculum - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Tool - Fear Inoculum

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2019-08-30
Tool - Fear Inoculum
Tool - Fear Inoculum

It’s been an absurd amount of time since we had a new Tool record. The prolific Maynard of the 2000s withdrew from mainstream music towards the end of the decade to focus primarily on his id-motivated solo project Puscifer, to mixed results. Most of his priorities shifted to family life and wine making, a normal expectation for a rockstar who has literally done everything necessary to call his career a success: Grammys, platinum-selling albums, sold-out tours, and a die-hard fanbase that hangs on every word he says. 

It’s also the cause for malaise, which might explain the lengthy time between releases. Last year’s A Perfect Circle album Eat the Elephant was atrocious, and fear crept into the minds of fans that the next Tool album if it ever manifested into a reality, would suffer the same fate. With every Tool album, there’s been a natural progression in sound. The early grunginess of Opiate paved the way for the alt-metal beginnings of Undertow, before giving us Ænima - the album that essentially cemented the band as one of the most fearsome acts in rock music. 

Lateralus, on the other hand, showed a huge leap from the moderately conventional, to the not-so-conventional traits of radio-friendly rock music, and the band endured a cult status level adulation. It was at this point that Tool, and Maynard James Keenan specifically, could literally do no wrong. Even if Maynard came to your house and defecated on your lawn, you’d still love him. With Lateralus, the band also moved into a more serious tone. Gone were the in-jokes about politics and thinking for yourself. It was a spiritual album, that moved them closer to the prog-rock area. Then there’s 10,000 Days, the last album we got from Tool, and pretty clearly their weakest album to date. It showed no progression in sound and mostly relied on already tested and verifiable methods. Don’t get me wrong, there are good songs on 10K Days, but pound-for-pound it doesn’t hold a candle to anything before it. 

So now here we are. The impossible has become possible. Fear Inoculum has impossibly high expectations to meet from a rabid fanbase. There will be those who love it regardless, because again - Maynard can do no wrong; there will be those who hate it because it’s drifted so far from what the band originally did that they are hardly recognizable. Outside of doing what APC did last year, and that’s gutting whatever qualities they had and replaced them with sophomoric and idiotic lyricism, Fear Inoculum merely has to exist for it to be a success in the public eye. 

After 13 long years, the first sounds we get from the opening title track “Fear Inoculum” pretty much set the tone for the next hour and a half. It’s unmistakably Tool. The expansive intro - nearly 2 minutes of instrumental buildup including tablas, the strong guitar and bass structures that are so welcoming from the band, lead way to a weightless Maynard vocal. The approach to Tool has always been different than A Perfect Circle or Puscifer. And with this first track it's apparent that more thought and care has gone into not just the lyrics from Maynard, but also his outlook on it. If you’d talked to Maynard a decade ago, and asked him about the future of Tool, there would have been so many jokes and snide comments that it would put you off. It seems now, after having taken such a long break from it, that Maynard actually likes being in Tool again. 

“Fear Inoculum” however isn’t the resounding success some may have hoped for when it comes to the first taste of a new album. The track succeeds at being a safe reminder that Tool still does what they have always done and that’s spiral out into a bit excessiveness in their own hype. Gone are the days of the 5-6 minute bangers. At this point in their career, it’s hard to imagine Tool writing a fully-fledged song under five minutes. It doesn’t matter, mind you, that their songs are 7-10 minutes long, so long as they actually have a purpose and aren’t simply fuller. That’s sadly how “Fear Inoculum” feels at times - lots of filler to stretch this track out. Instead of giving their fans an 85 minute album with 10 actual songs Tool is firmly embracing the next step in prog rock, giving us only six actual “songs,” three segues, and one drum solo called “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Gone are the days of “Vicarious” and “Stinkfist.” It ultimately won't hurt them, fans will lap it up easily, but “Fear Inoculum” is, fortunately, the weakest part of the album. 

All of the familiar tones are there, like on “Pneuma” how it invites us in with the trademark Adam Jones riff that invited us into classics like “The Patient” and even “Right in Two.” “Pneuma” is classic Tool, with its extended intro, and “Schism” like build-up, it would be easy to just pneumatically start singing “I know the pieces fit” before Maynard chimes in with “We are spirit bind to this flesh.” Everything about “Pneuma” screams Tool, and it’s comforting that after all this time gone, Tool still deliver a stunning track that pleases fans of all eras. It may lack a catchy chorus, but “Pneuma” is every bit the Tool-song fans love, and it catapults Fear Inoculum ahead of its opener’s short-coming. And that’s the main thing about Fear Inoculum that fans will discover is how much better the rest of the record is compared to its first single. 

Tool has almost always been the Maynard show. It’s his bravado and vocals that kept their fanbase coming back for more over the years. He’s the most outspoken member, the most prolific, and the most charismatic. This isn’t a slight against the masterful drumming of Danny Carey, or the iconic riffage Adam Jones churns out, or even the signature sound that Tool developed thanks to Justin Chancellor’s bass lines. But Fear Inoculum is the first Tool album that feels like Maynard takes a backseat to the rest of the band. Instead of having his lyrics bombard every song, there’s a highlight reel of each other member, primarily Carey with his thunderous drumming just repeatedly pummeling you. It’s no mystery that Fear Inoculum lacks the strong presence of Maynard that was so prevalent on previous albums. His lyrics are solid, but there’s a heavy emphasis on elaborate walls of sound that could have been filled with more lyrics. It’s not too disheartening though, the jammier parts of Fear Inoculum are still captivating, even if they sometimes meander. 

The two previewed tracks on their summer tour are on Fear Inoculum in better form: “Invincible” and “Descending” come off way more intricate than their live counterparts, and maybe that’s due to less hazy clouds filling the arena to distract, or maybe it’s because for the first time in their career Tool’s sound isn’t so muddy. The production quality of Fear Inoculum is surprisingly crisp. The muddy production of previous records - especially Undertow - worked for that era, but in 2019 it’s old hat. As the obvious transition from Lateralus, Fear Inoculum delves further into the concept of “self,” and our resilience. “Invincible” punches harder than even I expected it to in studio form. It’s electrifying Jones solo feels Sonic Youth-ian almost, a comparison I never thought I’d utter. 

Another outlier to the typical Tool approach is “Culling Voices,” a totally unpredictable track that features a lot more Maynard over a rather minimal guitar string similar to “Reflection.” One thing that stands out about Fear Inoculum is how far it is from the standard. “Culling Voices” doesn’t employ the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus template in the same way several songs on 10,000 Days did - like “The Pot” and “Right in Two.” It does keep a repetitive chorus like section with “Don’t you dare point that at me,” but this doesn’t stand out like a “Why can’t we not be sober?” Those days, as I’ve pointed out, are long gone. And yet, “Culling Voices” still feels riveting as it builds to its crescendo. I don’t think anyone expected this album to be quite like this after all this time - with such a heavy focus on atmosphere in lieu of hard-driving radio-friendly rock. Instead, it’s far more introspective than 10,000 Days and puts it more in the same gene pool as Lateralus. 

The big finale comes from “7empest” the most 90s sounding song on Fear Inoculum. It’s heavily influenced by those Undertow tones that older fans have longed for a recession to. After solid introduction similar to anything off of Lateralus, we’re treated to a pummeling retrospective of “Undertow” and “Crawl Away,” as Maynard delivers his most aggressive vocal display on Fear Inoculum. “7empest” is 20 years of Tool squeezed into under 16 minutes. It spans all eras and closes out the album by pulling all of their influences and trademarks. It’s a quintessential Tool track, and precisely what the longing fans needed to hear. 

Fear Inoculum isn’t the new masterpiece that some were expecting. It’s thematically light, kind of directionless despite its implied hyperfocus, and acts more like a “best of” album without including those hallmark cuts everyone’s been jamming since 1992’s Opiate. The religious imagery is thinned out, and content-wise Fear Inoculum wears its heart on its sleeve as it grasps for relevance in 2019. But along the way Tool have progressed. There’s unpredictable guitar work, truly awe-inspiring drum work, and while it may be Maynard’s most reserved vocal performance of his career, it’s no doubt enticing as a whole. You can dismiss the segues, and the drum solo “Chocolate Chip Trip” as fluff if you want, but as a whole Fear Inoculum works surprisingly well. It’ll be polarizing and adulated at the same time often by the same individuals. This may be Tool’s last breath as the grey-haired foursome moves into the next decade, or it might be a long time before we see another album, but if this be the inevitable swan song of Tool, it’s a hell of a way to go out: on top.

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Nice thorough review, looking forward to hearing it in it's entirety...I'm an old-school fan, so I was slightly disappointed with 10,000 Days and even Lateralus believe it or not...how do you think Fear Inoculum measures up to those 2 records?...

Nice thorough review, looking forward to hearing it in it's entirety...I'm an old-school fan, so I was slightly disappointed with 10,000 Days and even Lateralus believe it or not...how do you think Fear Inoculum measures up to those 2 records? Also agree APC's last record was kind of terrible.

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