Review Summary: A Warrior Struggling to Remain Consequential
It’s nearly impossible to simply listen to Tool’s latest, Fear Inoculum
, without regard to the enormous shifts in society and music since 10,000 Days was released. This review aims to test that thesis because in the great scheme of things, time seems not to have shifted the ensemble’s near inhuman synergy and focus since 2006.
is the 90 minute plus work of a musical cadre seemingly incapable of losing their touch, though seemingly beginning to lose their edge. The album run-time is daunting at first and second glance, but most of the tracks ebb and flow with a persistent, slow burning energy that could hold the attention of even those most deficient. ‘Descending’ and ‘Fear Inoculum’ both feature distinctly different methods of hooking the listener, the former having a low key, underlying rhythm that builds and crests to a climactic conclusion. Amidst all this, familiar bass lines effortlessly weave in and out of the classic drum patterns Danny Carey is known for.
So effortlessly, in fact, that the whole affair nearly comes across as lackadaisical. Each and every song on Fear Inoculum
(sans the instrumental cases) sounds and feels like an extended jam session; as if each of the members had collected some ideas a few weeks before sitting down to record, and stretched out these ideas into the foundation for each piece. Whatever was left on the cutting room floor has haphazardly been inserted at random into the 10-15 minute long tracks. The biggest offender in this regard is ‘Invincible’ where, for every intriguing guitar line, there seems to be an equally uninspired one. The palm-muted faux bridge that pops up a couple of times is a carbon copy of the tone and timing of Godsmack’s ‘Bad Religion’. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some basic chugging in an odd time signature. However, here it is inserted in a way that makes it feel as if the band are simply trying to pad out certain sections of the song to achieve a reasonable track length.
Except 10 minutes is not a reasonable track length when the ideas contained within are not engaging. Tool are no strangers to writing elongated material. Indeed, some of their best work comes in long form from Third Eye to Wings for Marie (I & II). But every… single… song? The resulting pieces often meander like cows in a pasture. There is nothing here as direct and driven as Schism, nothing so groovy as The Pot. Granted, a longer track length gives room for the instruments to breathe, even more room to parse out each instrument and clearly hear who is contributing what to the overall motif. When you have a group of such phenomenally skillful musicians, listeners owe it to themselves to let each aspect of the music sink in. But this in turn amplifies the disappointment when you give repeated listens to a 10 minute song, only to find it just doesn’t have that much to offer.
On the subject of skillful musicians, every member more than pulls their weight here. It’s actually fairly remarkable after all this time Tool still sound as cohesive as they do. The odd time signatures are still there; each pound of the snare, splash of the cymbal sounding natural. The bass and electric guitar continue to play off each other in lock step, without hardly ever sounding mechanical. Guitarist Adam Jones deserves some special recognition for his work here. In the band's discography, guitar solos are a rarity, not a necessity; but he showcases some classic 80's high note hair metal bends with great wah-pedal action on a couple of tracks to great effect. The moments where he lets loose help inject some buoyancy and, dare I say it, FUN, into the pieces where they’re incorporated. In fact, Maynard is arguably the only below par performance. His delivery still matches the music on display, and there are even some great lyrical change ups as seen on ‘7empest’ that help showcase his range and fantastic delivery. However, the raw frustration that perpetrated earlier works, the otherworldly roars that elevated songs like ‘The Grudge’ into the stratosphere, are sadly missing.
Writing this, it seems the thesis has been disproved. Time has passed and will continue to march forward. As much as Tool have always played with the notion of time, it seems now to be the very thing that anchors them. Longer compositions and the lack of youthful anguish have turned most of these tracks into meditative jam sessions.
The good news: a slightly above average jam session for Tool is a career highlight for nearly any other rock band. If the listener is willing to let go of what once was and settle for what is, they will find that Fear Inoculum
has a lot to offer. Just go in knowing that Tool are not and have never been “above it all”. They are human, after all.