Tool have always been somewhat of an anomaly to me. For the longest time, they maintained a four-album running streak of excellent and challenging progressive music, while simultaneously becoming one of the most popular and renowned metal bands of all time. It always mystified me that they managed to become so beloved, considering the wickedly demented atmosphere and the impenetrable musicianship the band so consistently created. But the fact that Tool has managed to connect with so many, never mind the fact that they’ve created one of the most ravenous fanbases you’ll ever find, is rather incredible.
With all that said, I can’t blame anyone for falling head over heels for Fear Inoculum. It sees the band returning after a 13-year hiatus, as refined and polished as they were the day they disappeared. But there’s an overwhelming sense of… familiarity when listening to every song on the record, as if they truly hadn’t changed or evolved at all in their absence. There’s something about it that feels inexplicably… safe.
And this, at its core, is where Fear Inoculum fails.
You’d think that if one of the most progressive bands of the modern age was to make an album that clocked in at an hour and a half, with not one song that dips below ten minutes (excluding the interludes), that the result of an endeavor of that nature wouldn’t be so remarkably toothless. There’s a borderline insufferable lack of flavor or bite throughout every second of Fear Inoculum’s overbearing runtime. Tool sound as though they are merely going through the motions, creating songs and melodies that give the impression of a lesser band tactlessly piggybacking off the success of their predecessors rather than a band at a creative peak.
Moreover, the vast majority of the record is indistinguishable from one song to the next. Nearly all the songs start the same way, with a clean guitar riff in a funny time signature, and slowly build into a distorted guitar riff or a bass riff in a funny time signature, over and over for more than ten minutes at a time, for seven songs in a row, only separated by some of the most unbearable interlude tracks I’ve heard in recent memory. This has always been a problem with Tool albums for me, but at least on their older output, the interludes lead nicely into the proper tracks or create an interesting atmosphere. And Chocolate Chip Trip… is just inexcusable. Like yeah, sure, the drum solo is great. But I can here Danny Carey drum his ass off on such an overwhelming number of great songs that it doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the “song” is just one of the band members dicking around with synths. It’s not interesting. It’s not progressive. It’s a waste of Danny Carey’s skills, and more to the point, it’s a waste of time.
The record isn’t without its positives. The title track and especially ‘7empest’ (sidebar; everyone in Tool is in their late 40s to late 50s. I hereby deign them too old to name their songs *** as dumb as ‘7empest’) are both truly stellar songs, with exactly the kind of punch and complex musicianship that I was hoping to get from the record as a whole. They feel as though they actually have something to say musically, whereas the rest of the album almost feels like an afterthought.
Truthfully, I’m glad Fear Inoculum seems to be going over well. I’m glad that most people can see it as another stellar notch in the belt of a well-weathered hallmark of the genre. And as I said, it’s not as though I don’t understand the response. But in terms of a one-on-one connection, with no outside context, there hasn’t been an album in recent memory where the widespread appeal has been so thoroughly lost on me.
Best Tracks: 7empest, Fear Inoculum
Worst Tracks: Chocolate Chip Trip, all the interludes, Pneuma