Fear Inoculum

Written by: KW on 03/09/2019 17:50:04

It's always going to be a massive effort to do a comeback album after 13 years of almost complete silence. If you've got fanatic fans like Tool does, you can call that job near impossible. How was the band ever going to live up to the continually growing demand for the next masterpiece to add to their consistently fantastic backlog? I have to admit that after the less than stellar return of A Perfect Circle last year, I set back my expectations accordingly. But now we've finally reached the day that a huge amount of people, myself included, have been craving for well over a decade. I'll be perfectly clear before we start, and state that Tool is my favourite band of all time and has been the most influential one in my ever-evolving musical exploration, so realise that these words come from a place of undeniable bias. But as it turns out, Tool have managed to somehow both play it too safe and create one of their most difficult-to-digest albums to date (if the fact that no song is under 10 minutes long didn’t tip you off already).

"Fear Inoculum" fittingly starts out with its title track which is a 10-minute beast of recursive bass and guitar riffs that give off undeniable vibes of the song "Reflection" (from the "Lateralus" album). This is helped along with some creative use of the signature tribalistic drumming the band is known for, and one thing that immediately stuck out to me is just how fantastic the drums sound here: organic and punchy while including some entertaining use of stereo effects to totally encompass the listener. It also just sounds way more human than most modern metal albums these days, as the double bass drumming towards the end isn’t all just snapped perfectly to a grid - not that this usually bothers me much, but here it makes the album sound way more personal. Perhaps the general mix could’ve used more dynamics, as the heavy guitar parts don’t sound that much louder than the brooding, softer ones, which deflates the climactic sections somewhat. As such, the start of the album is actually quite good, though distinctly more mellow, jammy and less explosive than a usual Tool opener. Maynard James Keenan’s vocals start out silky smooth during the verses but really shine and hammer through in the grandiose choruses that also see the return of his ever-eclectic lyrical proficiencies:

“Exhale, expel

Recast my tale

Read my allegorical elegy”

"Pneuma" gives some clear nods to "The Patient" (also from "Lateralus) and perhaps even a bit too much so, as the swell of distortion into the simple power chord refrain sounds almost copy-pasted from that song. I don’t have a problem with Tool sounding like Tool after all these years - in fact, that’s all I could’ve asked for - but here it just seems too on the nose and the riff itself just isn’t all that interesting either. Luckily, this song really impresses on almost every other account and especially in the last leg of it where a lot more subtlety and mystical soundscapes become the center focus. The buildup to the fantastically effective break where Adam Jones mimics Justin Chancellor's bass line from the intro is simply spot on and ties together the 12-minute track nicely. The chorus riff just could've used a bit more flair and punch.

And then comes "Invincible" - the first entirely mindblowing track of the bunch and honestly one of the best tracks the band has ever produced. It still sounds signature Tool but the songwriting here dodges all of the other problems found on the record while it ebbs and flows through its different sections, utilizing some really interesting ever-evolving arpeggios in the intro with the polyrhythmic beats of Danny Carey complementing in the background. Maynard's soft vocals croon solemnly but rise and rise in intensity throughout the track as we head toward that groovy breakdown. The groove that is so groovy it should be illegal while at the same time screaming "Jambi" in Jones’ rolling riff, with layers of vocals and buzzing synths. This track in itself was worth the 13-year wait for me. This is why I fell in love with Tool in the first place. Just.. wow!

Being one of the more atmospheric tracks, "Descending" was one of the songs that didn’t hit me when I first heard it live but through numerous listens, it is one of the biggest growers of the album. It’s way jammier than most of the band's compositions and perhaps a bit too much for its own good, but I really enjoy the break of foreboding bass, swelling guitars, and electronic percussion effects in the latter section of the track, which is utterly hypnotic. I just wish that some of the resulting climaxes were a bit more impactful. Incidentally, "Culling Voices" suffers from the exact same problem: fantastic, mesmerizing, mellow clean section with a concluding heavy riff that is weirdly boring compared to the intricate soundscapes of the crescendo structure of the song. "Chocolate Chip Trip" I could’ve done completely without, to be honest, or at least in a severely trimmed version. Not only does the weird title completely break the immersion of the record but the track itself is basically the same, ever-repeating, disharmonic, glitchy electronic melody beneath a 3-minute long drum solo. Sounds interesting? Not really. I already know that Carey is one of the best drummers in the world - I don’t need this overly self-indulgent bullshit to remind me.

After that hiccup, we are thankfully treated to another 16-minute masterpiece of progressive rock in the form of "7empest". Don’t be fooled by the serene-sounding intro: this is by far the heaviest outing on the record. It sounds like a tribute to their sound all the way back to their beginnings of "Undertow" and "Ænima" as Maynard turns on the grit completely and chillingly shouts "We know your nature!". Jones sounds completely unchained as he freely indulges in one fiery guitar solo after the other in some of the most impressive instrumentation of the album overall. At one point it actually sounds like the guitar is screaming in pain from being violated like this, and this song is a prime example of the jammier, psychedelic side of the band working entirely in the band’s favour rather than against itself. I just really wished that Maynard would give us that one proper scream that he seems to be building towards - it almost seems like an intentional tease when he repeats "A tempest must be just that," with ever-increasing intensity as you sit and think to yourself "Oh shit, here it comes!" before he goes silent to let the groove speak for itself (an insanely satisfactory groove though, don’t get me wrong). Generally, Maynard seems way more contained on this record, which at some times works in its favour but at other times feels anti-climactic. But that’s about the only criticism I have of this wonderfully savage track, which serves as the perfect conclusion to this flawed but still beautiful record.

So while the album feels a little too familiar at points, it also completely lacks any instant gratification in almost all of the songs, which can both be a good or a bad thing depending on who you ask. I will be the first to admit that the songs seem to meander a bit at points and could've used a few more effective hooks. As such, this is mostly an album for the Tool fans. If you never got into them before, this is definitely not the album that will convince you. But if you're willing to invest the time, you might be rewarded with the satisfaction you seek. "Fear Inoculum" isn't exactly the unequivocal masterpiece I was hoping for but was it worth the wait to me anyway? Hell yeah - "Invincible" and "7empest" themselves were worth the wait. In many aspects, the album feels like an amalgamation of all of their previous material and perhaps not so much as a straight evolution of their sound. I am personally completely fine with this but I also think the general songwriting could’ve been more effective and trimmed. However, even a less than stellar Tool album is still a great listen, as it turns out, and I am positive that it will continue to grow on me in the future. Just like every Tool album before it.

Download: Invincible, 7empest
For the fans of: Tool, Soen, Karnivool
Listen: Facebook

Release date 30.08.2019
Tool Dissectional

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