No band in recent memory has been more polarizing than Tool. They seem to instill fervent adoration among their fan base, and an almost toxic hatred among their detractors. What’s even more amazing is the fact that both of these factions seem to fall on polar opposite sides of approval when it comes to Fear Inoculum despite having either not heard it at all, or perhaps only once.
Despite that, we are a review site, and our job is to tell you whether or not Tool’s fifth full-length, and first in over thirteen years, is worth a listen. If you hate the band, you’re probably only clicking on this review to further reaffirm said hatred, and if you love them, you’re probably reading to look for some negativity to vehemently deny. But if you just want to know if Fear Inoculum is good, here you go: Tool have delivered a sprawling, epic, and enthralling album – but not without its flaws.
The digital release is 87 minutes long, spread over six 10 plus minute songs and four interludes (the CD is missing three of those interludes, so as to fit on one disc). Let’s get the interludes, something that can be way too self-indulgent, out of the way. Two of these are must-listens: Adam Jones’ guitar break “Litanie contre la Peur” is a short yet hypnotic experiment, and “Chocolate Chip Trip” is a Danny Carey masterpiece, a stellar drum solo underpinned by some wandering, psychedelic synth work. The other two instrumentals could have been safely dropped from the digital album with no ill effects.
The songs themselves range from déjà vu to stunning, in all and in part. The title track and “Pneuma” are both outstanding expositions, featuring arrangements that make the 10-12 minutes fly by. They are a great one-two punch to launch the album, giving us that unique Tool sound (oddly-timed rhythms, growling bass, choppy guitar riffs, and murmured vocals) with some new twists which we’ll get to later.
The two opening songs both hit the mark, but Tool knock it out of the park later in the set, with “Descending” and “7empest,” the two longest songs. “Descending” opens with a simple Justin Chancellor bass line, before Jones clean-picks beneath Keenan’s plaintive lyrics. It’s pure atmosphere, akin to Lateralus’ “The Patient.” And the build-up near the six-minute mark is as epic as any of the band’s work.
“7empest” is the band’s longest song (if you don’t count Undertow’s hidden track, “Disgustipated”), and after a mystical intro Adam Jones greets us with one of the best riffs he’s written, and the band kicks in with a fury reminiscent of Aenima. The ebbs and flows of the track are exquisite, and Adam Jones gifts us with some otherworldly solos.
By the time we get to “Descending,” it’s obvious that Fear Inoculum is very much Adam Jones’ coming out party. Jones has made it clear that his biggest influences are Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, and he wears those influences proudly throughout the album, with guitar solos that pay no heed to scales or structure (Belew) and rock-solid rhythmic discipline featuring jarring, disparate riffs (Fripp). On both 10,000 Days and Lateralus, the album highlights were Carey’s virtuoso drumming and Justin Chancellor’s amazing bass riffs. Here, Jones takes over, and does so in unexpectedly brilliant fashion.
The biggest change on Fear Inoculum isn’t the track length: it’s the feel. The songs here are very calculated and precise – yes, one can say they are lacking the passion of older material. This isn’t the same band that gave us “Hooker with a Penis.” That was 23 years ago, and I would put forth that Tool are no longer an alt-metal band with math-y, progressive tendencies; they are very much a progressive post-metal band, more comparable to acts such as The Ocean than contemporary counterparts such as Soen.
Like the band’s previous two albums, Fear Inoculum is going to take a long time to settle into. Heck, I went nine listens before even putting pen to paper here, and my thoughts are still disjointed. But taken at face value, Tool have delivered an excellent album that lacks the immediacy (“The Pot”) and fury (“Ticks & Leeches”) of past albums, instead opting for pensive and deliberate, yet no less effective sprawling tracks. Time will tell where this ultimately slots into their discography, but unless you hate the band you won’t be disappointed.
(released August 30, 2019 on RCA Records)