It almost feels wrong to have this album, like rock’s most elusive cryptid has finally been captured and laid bare for the world to see. It was ultimately inevitable, though; Tool’s drip-feeding of information had to end at some point, and finally putting their back catalogue on streaming services seemed to be the most tangible bit of proof that they were embracing modernity and returning to the world in which it dominates. And yet, after thirteen years, how much do people really care? Sure, there will always be diehards who’ve been ready to pounce at the sight of any new morsel of info for pretty much of that interim, but in general, it’s hard to say whether Tool still have as solid a place in modern music as they once did. As much as they’ve become known as one of the most creative and experimental progressive metal bands of the ‘90s and 2000s, that means a lot more to a certain generation than it does now, particularly those who, up to now, have had no concept of what Tool are about through the sheer inability to access their music. And while, of course, there will always be detractors for whom this isn’t the event that so many see it as (see Pitchfork’s shambolic excuse of a ‘review’ of 2001’s Lateralus), but it’s difficult to know to angle with which to approach an album like Fear Inoculum, be that of the mythical album finally being released after so many years in limbo, or a new, individual prospect to represent what Tool is to a whole new audience.
But for all the steps they’ve made towards an accessibility that could be easily leveraged to pick up a brand new audience, Fear Inoculum is most certainly not that. This is exactly the sort of album that so many could’ve seen Tool making, the sort of relatively straight continuation that’ll no doubt sate longtime fans while leaving everyone else in the lurch as to what all the fuss is about. And honestly, it’s not hard to agree with that latter camp, as Fear Inculum feels like the sort of album specifically designed to sate the Tool fans who’ll care more about the fact that this is actually a new album rather than the quality of the material within. That’s certainly not to say this is a lazy effort – there’s still plenty of ambition and compositional acumen on hand that’ll always be among this band’s critical features – but even for a Tool album, Fear Inoculum sets up a high barrier for entry, and one that doesn’t always prove worth scaling to experience what’s inside.
That’s bound to be a rather contentious statement, but it doesn’t take that deep a dive to realise that Fear Inoculum’s implacable size comes as a result of languid, drawn-out passages largely taking the place of more progressive experimentation. If nothing else though, it does do a lot to highlight the musicianship of each individual player, and for a band like Tool with their oft-lauded technicality and synergy, there’s merit to presenting themselves in such a way. The biggest gainers come in the rhythm section with Justin Chancellor’s slithering basslines being imperative to the deep, belly-dragging atmosphere, but it’s Danny Carey who’s the real MVP here, whether that’s in a more textured percussive sound that gives an air of mysticism to the title track and Pneuma, or just a chance to let loose and show how great of a drummer he really is against the crushed, wheezing electronics of Chocolate Chip Trip. That leaves everything else though, and while Adam Jones’ guitar contributions are okay, beyond the more openly heavy 7empest that’s really the only moment of tremendous scale on the album, their biggest purpose seems to be to simmer in the background to fill out some available space. But easily the biggest disappointment is Maynard James Keenan, who’s already used sparingly in a way that doesn’t flatter the excellent vocal performances he’s capable of giving, but that’s also an effect of a very flat and unenthused presence overall.
His appearance seems to embody the greatest flaw of Fear Inoculum, namely the potential that’s undeniably here sidelined for the band to simply meander by and take up as much space as they can with as few resources. There are moments across tracks like Invincible where the mix feels so shallow and lacking in significant body that it ultimately drags more than it already does, and only makes an already exorbitant length seem unjustified. Besides a useless crop of instrumental interludes on the digital version that add nothing but extra empty calories, the shortest song here is Culling Voices which just about breaks the ten minute mark, and when that along with most everything else has had most of its dynamics ripped away, there’s an unnecessary amount of time wasted across this hour-and-a-half-long album. There are moments that, in isolation, are more effective; the title track on the whole probably the succeeds the most, and even if it runs long, 7empest at least injects some thrills into the mix that are desperately needed. For the most part though, Fear Inoculum just seems to drift on by off the back of the good will that Tool know they’ll inevitably get, and it’s easy to lose focus when there’s so blatantly little to pay attention to.
Now, to give Tool some credit, there’s at least some depth in the writing that’s a fair bit more interesting, at least when it actually shows up in Keenan’s scant contributions. It feels very Tool in essence, breaking away from oppressive forces and embracing a freedom based on knowledge and the spiritual, and while there’s not really any tissue to tie individual parts of that theme together, there’s a level of abstraction that feels like a deliberate workaround to that. Even just from the opening title track and its conceit of banishing the fear caused by some incorporeal, evil force, it sets a standard for the sort of poetry that Tool play with here, and it’s generally not too questionable, if only because its open-endedness sort of fits with the music its paired with. Invincible is a good example of that which, on its face, addresses Keenan’s and the band’s worries about their own relevance in an environment that they’ve been absent from for so long, but in tandem with 7empest’s notions of a higher force keeping those below it in blissful ignorance of the destruction going on around them, it’s not hard to draw some parallels with a showboating president dangerously close to being toppled. Those layers are in abundance across the album, but on the whole, the concept of escapism through rebellion is an interesting one to grasp, even if the parts don’t necessarily come together to make a better-functioning whole. It’s still too drawn-out for its own good as well, but the glimmers of focus peering through the walls of imposing sonic might are a fair consolation to some degree.
But to wrap everything up, it’s not like Fear Inoculum was ever going to arrive without its controversies and contentions, nor was it going to be the Tool album that won over the mainstream crowd that, honestly, they’ve never seemed all that interested in courting. Rather, this is for those who’ve stuck around for thirteen years of silence and who’ll have no qualms with an album as impenetrable as this, and it’s understandable why Tool would want to appeal to that most dedicated branch of their fanbase. But at the same time, Fear Inoculum is hard album to even like for anyone not in that branch, arriving with mountainous hype in tow that overshadows how unnecessarily long-winded and barren it actually is. The ideas are there, especially in the writing, but for as long as Tool have been away, you’d think they’d have been able to bring them together in a more succinct manner, rather than just throw out an unfocused, unkempt monolith to dig through and wait for the good parts to show up. And it’s not impossible to see why some would like this, especially Tool fans who want more challenging, different material, but that’s not mutually exclusive with being interesting, and Fear Inoculum simply doesn’t have that going for it. It’s here, though, and for some, that alone will be enough.
For fans of: Deftones, A Perfect Circle, The Mars Volta
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Fear Inoculum’ by Tool is out now on Volcano Entertainment.