Band: Tool | Album: Fear Inoculum | Genre: Progressive metal, Alternative metal | Year: 2019
From: Los Angeles, USA | Label: Volcano
For a band with the stature that Tool has, writing my usual two-paragraph intro feels almost superfluous. They’re one of the most popular progressive metal bands of all time; their first four studio albums all went platinum multiple times over and are critically revered. They mixed the darker sound of early ‘90s alt-rock with progressive ambition and mind-bending psychedelia to forge a unique sound that resonated with a huge swathe of the population, myself included.
It shouldn’t be a secret that I love all of Tool’s previous output, with their 2001 album, Lateralus, being among my all-time personal favorites. The long-running delays and recording difficulties since their last release had become a punchline among fans, with Tool’s as-yet-unreleased fifth album being considered as imminent as Half-Life 3 or The Winds of Winter. But Fear Inoculum has finally arrived, 13 years after their previous release, 2006’s 10,000 Days. Most reviews I’ve seen, as well as general online discourse I’ve observed, has tended toward rapturous praise. I’m not among those.
Yes, the songs are long and complex; and yes, the instrumentalism is weird and top-notch; and yes, Fear Inoculum sounds like a Tool record. However, it feels like Tool resting on their laurels. It feels like a computer program that listened to their albums and output a bland imitation. It feels like a Tool cover band that tried writing some originals.
Perhaps that was a little harsh. This album certainly isn’t bad, and there is some genuinely fantastic music here. But overall, I’d classify this record as okay-but-boring. It feels really safe, like the band didn’t want to take any real risks.
Fear Inoculum opens with its title track. The percussion is engaging, and Justin Chancellor’s bass has its usual biting, echoing quality. But the guitar has a strange, groaning character which I can’t say I’m wild about. Maynard’s vocals feel weirdly thin and washed out, which is the last thing I would have expected. There are elements of a stronger song here, though. The last couple minutes are better, driven along by a more to-the-point riff and a strong solo. If they’d more aggressively taken a knife to it during the writing process and trimmed it down to six or seven minutes, instead of ten, perhaps it would have been more engaging.
I could repeat the preceding paragraph for most songs on this album: too long, too plodding, weak vocals, too much atmospheric buildup to a less-than-satisfying climax. The biggest sin of this album, even moreso than playing it “safe,” is that it is boring outside of its handful of strong riffs. The weaker moments remind me of Mastodon’s last album, in that it feels like an imitation of songs I’ve previously heard from the band.
(There are also a number of brief, instrumental interludes between the longer tracks. These are just bad and only annoy.)
“Chocolate Chip Trip” is not one of the better songs in Tool’s discography, but it’s the first point on this album where they sound like they were taking some risks. It’s a weird instrumental consisting of just synths and drums, and it goes on for a minute longer than it should, but at least it’s something different.
Fear Inoculum ends on a strong note, at least. The album closes on the stupidly-titled “7empest”, which despite its title, is the best track on the album by a mile. The guitar snarls in a way that grabs you, and Maynard finally gets a chance to belt it out. The song’s segments flow together seamlessly, and the aggression sounds genuine. This is what I had hoped for from the band. Recognizably Tool, but it sounds fresh and inventive with no wasted space. It is becoming of its 15-minute runtime, with no padding.
It’s unfortunate that so much of Fear Inoculum wallows in middling ambiance and safe Tool-isms. Throughout their entire career, they’ve pushed the envelope, but their long-awaited comeback certainly is not worth the 13-year wait.