It feels like it’s taken 10,000 days for Tool to release their first studio album since their last one, “10,000 Days.” Well, in actuality, it took 4,869 days—over 13 years—for the prog metal virtuosos to drop their new record, “Fear Inoculum,” on Aug. 30.
Clocking in at a lengthy 1 hour and 26 minutes, “Fear Inoculum” is the longest Tool album to date, which seems somewhat fitting given how long Tool fans had to patiently wait.
Giving it a first listen-through, several descriptors came to mind: pensive, brooding, poetic, bizarre, ethereal, intellectual, technical, powerful, at times unsettling, mystical, mysterious, face-melting, mind-expanding.
These are not new adjectives for a Tool record by any stretch—if there’s anything that Tool does well (and they do a lot well, it’s refusing to bend their eccentric, avant garde sound to the mainstream, nor attempting to please the masses. Tool sounds as “Tool-y” as ever in “Fear Inoculum,” and all without sounding stale. Yet the band embodies these aforementioned qualities in “Fear Inoculum” more than elsewhere in the discography, retaining their unique sound and expanding upon it, while paradoxically also moving in a new, more modern direction.
The titular opening track, “Fear Inoculum,” is exemplary of this distinctive sound: the track opens with unusual electronic sounds and synths as guitarist Adam Jones comes in with volume swells and his familiar gritty, searing tone. Danny Carey’s complex tabla drum rhythm kicks in, followed by Justin Chancellor’s bassline, seeped in his signature chorus and delay one-two punch, as all of the instruments begin to intertwine, groove and crescendo. Finally Maynard James Keenan’s crooning vocals ring out clearly on top of the intricate instrumental arrangement.
Keenan largely abandons his intense, growling vocals of the “Undertow” and “Ænima” era, instead apparently drawing inspiration from his A Perfect Circle project, in which his vocals are especially pristine and melodic. His pure vocal quality is especially evident in tracks “Invincible,” “Culling Voices” and “Descending.” The overarching style of the album follows suit, trading the harshness and intensity of years prior (for better or for worse) for a more subdued and cerebral vibe.
“Fear Inoculum” is perhaps the zenith of Jones’ Tool career in terms of technical ability and songwriting. The incredibly tight, syncopated breakdown of “Invincible,” scorching slide guitar on “Descending,” soaring lead melodies and punching chorus on “Pneuma” and face-melting legato runs at the conclusion of “Fear Inoculum” are proof Jones has attained a higher level musically.
“7empest,” a 16-minute behemoth of a song, is Jones’ masterpiece, featuring a spacey, oscillating intro very reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s cascading guitar part on “Frame by Frame” by King Crimson. The track boasts a flashy main riff drenched in snarling distortion and an absolutely unreal percussive guitar solo in 21/16 time, which is the highlight of the song and (personally) of the album.
Any of the album’s 10 tracks that aren’t over 10 minutes in length are weird and frankly off-putting interludes that sound more like noise than music. However bizarre, the somewhat artful interludes serve to connect the tracks in the order in which they were intended to be listened to, so I can at least appreciate Tool’s effort to make the album unified and cohesive.
“Chocolate Chip Trip,” essentially a 5-minute drum solo that sounds a lot like you might expect, is maybe the strangest song I’ve ever subjected my ears to, but it’s difficult to not be floored by Danny Carey’s incredible drumming ability and rhythms throughout.
Although “7empest” and “Pneuma” come close, “Fear Inoculum” lacks a track that is as awe-inspiring or exciting as Tool’s most legendary songs, such as “Forty Six & 2,” “Schism,” “Vicarious,” “Lateralus” or “The Pot,” which is disappointing given the wait time. Simply put, none of the record’s tracks have that “something special” that other tracks do.
While Tool doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head with “Fear Inoculum,” it is a solid, well-crafted album nonetheless with a plethora of memorable songs and riffs and the incredible songwriting and musicianship Tool is so acclaimed for.