Review Summary: Make no mistake; Tool are back, and they’re sounding as good as we could ever expect.
Let’s get the hard facts out of the way first. Fear Inoculum
is a Tool album through and through. It won’t win over those who have long been skeptical of or have flat-out disliked Tool’s music, and it doesn’t reinvent or evolve the band’s style in any significant way. It may even disappoint certain fans who expected something completely new and fresh after the enormous 13-year wait since 10,000 Days
. And it probably won’t surprise
anybody, even hardcore fans who love everything they’ve ever released (myself included). Stylistically and even compositionally, this is Tool as you’ve always known them. For some, this may be to the band’s detriment (I remember when the title track was first released: a comment I saw in various threads again and again was “this sounds like every previous Tool song thrown together”). But I can’t stress enough that Tool’s decision to stick to their tried-and-true style was the best choice they could have made for their comeback album, and the result is one of the most consistently great releases of their career.
The aforementioned comment that I saw on all those threads admittedly has some basis in truth, not just for Fear Inoculum
’s title track, but for the entire album. Familiar melodic motifs, chord progressions, and rhythmic structures pop up on a fairly consistent basis throughout the album’s mammoth 86-minute runtime. This is well-illustrated by the title track, with its opening bongo solo, its reverberant bass riffs, its noodling guitar melodies, and those repeated power chords at the end which have closed so many Tool songs, all accompanied by a characteristically ethereal vocal performance by Maynard James Keenan. But despite the presence of so many familiar elements, what’s immediately striking about this song is how well-crafted it is. The pacing is perfect; tensions slowly build and release, culminating wonderfully in an intense conclusion that never feels overstated or forced. This kind of compositional intelligence is exactly what drew me to Tool in the first place, and to hear that they still have it after 13 years of silence is deeply satisfying.
These trends continue for the rest of the album’s runtime. Almost every song here is a slow-burner, taking familiar elements from previous albums and rebuilding them into winding structures that crescendo into powerful codas. “Invincible” is the highlight of the entire album; it gradually burrows its way into your mind, masterfully executing this compositional approach with impressive subtlety. Melodies and chord progressions weave back and forth again and again, always with greater intensity than before, and the climax doesn’t explode so much as it aligns
everything the song was working towards. It takes me back to when I discovered Tool for the first time, listening to songs like “Schism” and “H.” over and over again and gradually unraveling the layers of intelligent structuring behind them. The same depth is present in songs like “Invincible”, and the effect is just as hypnotic. By contrast, “7empest” really does explode, and it wastes no time in doing so; right near the start, it features heavy riffs and a belting, in-your-face performance by Keenan. I almost don’t like it, but I do admire the boldness of it, and it genuinely took me aback on my first listen. The song’s dynamics wax and wane throughout its 15-minute runtime, but it always keeps a sense of urgency and intensity not quite present in the other songs; it serves as a long climax to the album itself, and Tool execute this tremendously well.
Even the interludes are pretty enjoyable on this album. Rather than going the Ænima
route, where the interludes primarily consisted of ugly and strange sounds, these ones are generally interesting and pleasing to the ear. The highlight is “Chocolate Chip Trip” which is almost more than an interlude, featuring off-kilter synthesizers and a fun drum solo. These tracks don’t overstay their welcome, and they offer a nice change of pace from the long, dense full songs that surround them. Tool have also made a very smart choice in not including these tracks (with the exception of “Chocolate Chip Trip”) in the physical version of the album: this communicates clearly that they are optional, supplementary, and that they don’t have to interfere with your listening experience if you don’t like them. On top of this, the full songs flow together very well without them, and I’m sure many listeners will prefer to simply leave them aside. Either way you look at it, they’re perfectly fine and don’t interfere with the rest of the album at all.
All things considered, Fear Inoculum
is one of the better releases in Tool’s stellar discography. It’s a more mature release than Opiate
, and it’s more stylistically and narratively consistent than 10,000 Days
. It may not reach the brilliant heights of Ænima
, but more than anything, this album shows Tool to be in as fine form as we could possibly expect, especially after a 13-year hiatus. Their songcraft is as strong as ever, and their performances are tight and focused; this is the band we know and love through and through. Hopefully it won’t be such a long wait before the next album, and maybe the next one will push the band’s sound a bit more, but Fear Inoculum
absolutely proves that Tool haven’t lost a step, and the music world of 2019 is all the better for it.