Review Summary: Falling isn't flying, floating isn't infinite
I really cannot blame a lot of Tool's fanbase for second-guessing them, and their ability to provide a quality product 13 years after their last one. That may seem as though I'm enabling the delusional mindset from a lot of fanbases that bands owe their fans shit, but 13 years is indeed a long time to keep a fanbase waiting. Granted, it's not entirely Tool's fault, either. All four of their band members are human beings, after all, and like to keep themselves busy- especially Mr. Maynard, who's something of a polymath, and in addition to his bands, has other business endeavours to look after such as his vineyard and acting career. Then there's also the fact that the band has been up to their necks in record label lawsuits and artwork technicality cases, so much that it would almost be considered a realistic outcome that a new album will never see the light of day.
And yet, against all odds, it has.
Tool are probably one of the few bands that comes to mind if someone asked you to come up with a band who could "break the internet". Even the mention of mere tours, in the past 13 years, have gotten near-messianic responses from the fanbase. And with people like Adam Jones constantly teasing, for the past 5 years on twitter that the album is "90 percent done", nobody saw it coming that the band's first studio effort in 13 years would actually, erm, exist
. But it did- the band played 2 full songs at concerts and flashed the album's release date on their video screens as teases, and then Maynard himself confirmed: yes, it is indeed happening. And here we are; Fear Inoculum
is here, has made nothing short of all sorts of airwaves. So, where do we go from here? Better question: is it actually GOOD? I'm pleaseed to announce: abso-fucking-lutely.
Speculation on what Tool would sound like in the year 2019 has ranged from "how they've always been" to exaggerated. And no surprise, the latter is absolutely true. Contrary to popular belief, the band isn't exactly the type of band that could re-invent the wheel, instrumentally or songwriting-wise; they took their rather minimalistic style and made the most of it, which is what made songs such as the Fibonacci-inspired "Lateralus" or the cheeky "Rosetta Stoned", or even the built-on-suspense atmosphere of "Reflection" something palpable. And Tool seems to take this to an extreme on Fear Inoculum
. 7 songs, with 6 of them exceeding 10 minutes, or if you own the digital version, the 10, with a number of 2-3 minute interludes. This may seem excessive, but somehow felt as though Tool was always going to make an album like this someday. Granted, it doesn't always work, as there a number of repitition issues and structural issues do plague some of the tracks, but even still, Tool's decision to stick to their "tried and true" formula is what makes the tracks feel a lot more honest. Even still, there's some great surprises here and there that keep the songs from completely
What makes the songs as great as they are is the fact that they almost all feel like EPs in their own way. 5 of the 7 tracks seem to be centered around building up to a climax- they usually spend their first 4 minutes easing you in with simple riffs, "explode" somewhere in the middle and end the way they began. One of the songs where this is most effective is the second track, "Pneuma". The song begins with some light guitar strumming, drum tapping courtesy of Danny Carey where he gives us one of his most unique drum sounds yet, then segues into a section reminiscent of "Schism". It' around the 6 minute mark where the song truly evolves into something special: the same guitar riff that opened the song begins playing while Danny Carey drums up a storm on his electronic kit, with a synthesizer solo in the background, building more and more tension until an outburst of heaviness occurs- and it's absolutely glorious. Better yet, it truly feels earned
. Whereas most modern prog-rock bands are happy to let 20 minutes pass by with endless wanking, Tool makes sure your attention is kept and similarly rewarded. A similar moment happens in "Invincible", where after 10 minutes of buildup- an absoluely heavy finale breaks out at 10:53, and the band roll out of the speakers at full force.
Despite nearly every song having a variant of this formula, not all of them go about it in the same way. "Descending" is probably the album's first semi-departure from this, with the song easing you in with the sound of waves, and a dreamy guitar riff, the song does build and build, but this time it's to an entire instrumental section. And this is one of the instances where Tool throw a few surprises your way; Tool decide to incorporate some elements of bands like Iron Maiden (a particularly delicious dual-guitar riff partway in), a particularly great solo and what not, and this goes on for several minutes while Tool gets more and more ideas and builds upon them, until the song calms down and, in tradition of Tool, ends the way it began. Similarly, "Culling Voices" spends it first half creating a dreamlike and ethereal atmosphere as Maynard sings, in an almost angelic tone of voice, "Psychopathy... don't you dare point that at me". Unfortunately, however, the song doesn't take long to disappoint on this potential- its last few minutes aren't as sophisticated as the song would have you believe.
That's right- although the album is better than any album released in a 13 year gap has any right to be, it isn't without its fair share of missed opportunities. "Invincible" is one such example- At 12 minutes in, and despite its very palpable climax, the song's structure is very uneven; for pretty much every good riff there's one agonizingly uninteresting one. The title track itself sounds as though the band couldn't decide how to properly end it, and it cuts off just before a doomy and positively kickass riff has a chance to "break loose". Additionally, as I mentioned, 5 of the 7 songs do repeat the same formula, which does kind of make it feel a tad repetitive.
However, the last 20 minutes are where the album truly gets sophisticated. "Chocolate Chip Trip" is where things take a turn for the more psychedelic. With the sound of chimes, and a repetitious synth riff laying the foundation, Carey gets into one of the craziest drum solos of his career, starting softly, but very patiently letting all hell break loose eventually. It's some of the craziest stuff Carey has done in ages, and if this song doesn't showcase what a great drummer he is, I dunno what will. And Tool leaves the best for last- "7empest" begins with a deceptively soft King Crimsonesque guitar riff, before Tool punch you in the face with just riff after riff, for 16 straight minutes in a row. Even better, Tool almost seemingly revisit their whole career over the course of 6 minutes of music. Maynard's vocals are among some of his most fiery, brutally berating a crook who is "always surprised when you're caught in a lie", and the band themselves get up to Maynard's level with fierce playing abounds. It's 16 minutes of Tool just crafting crazier and crazier ides, almost having a contest to see who can come up with the craziest on such short notice, and it's absolutely glorious to hear. And if you own the digital edition of the album, the sound of cawing birds, rain and soft percussion round out the album with "Mockingbeat", ending the album on a note as unsettling as the one it began on.
It's hard to tell exactly what's in store for Tool after this album. If this has to be Tool's final album, then for sure, it's a fine one to go out on. And if they decide to follow it up, well, they can be my guest. And that's precisely what makes Tool's sole contribution to the 2010s worth the wait. Tool don't need
to give us anything else. They've fed our appetites, and we'll be good for another few years- or 13- or even more. Either way, Tool have made every second of the wait worth it. While not perfect by any means, Fear Inoculum
is one hell of an artistic statement from a band whose best facet has keeping us on our toes- the album does just that, too, and rewards our patience with some of their most honest, yet sophisticated work yet.