Tool - Fear Inoculum
Volcano
Alt/Progressive Rock
10 songs (1:26:38)
Release year: 2019
Tool
Reviewed by Goat
Major event

Let's assume you've heard of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet and skip the backstory, shall we? The obvious danger in this comeback was Tool mistaking the music scene of today for that of thirteen years ago. Nothing here suggests that they've progressed since then, from their music to that decidedly dated-seeming artwork. This album could very easily have come out thirteen years ago, if not longer. And sure, Tool have a style all of their own that is either timeless or tiresome depending on your views, and going into a write-up of this length it's not hard to (correctly) assume that your reviewer considers it timeless. The band probably are overrated, yet it is easy to push back against both the waves of critical kudos that follow them around like groupies (any allegations regarding said groupies being, of course, wholeheartedly denied) and the resentful backlash from people who never got it to start with, who hate Tool fans as much as they hate the music. Both groups will probably be happy to agree that Fear Inoculum is, by a mile, the worst Tool album to date, almost entirely lacking in the hooks and even dynamics that made past hits like Sober and Schism so memorable. Your first listen will be downright boring. Yet it's not an album without charm, it definitely isn't an album without atmosphere, and if you're willing to put some time in (and at nearly an hour and a half long, you'll have to put a lot of time in!) and allow this lengthy, self-indulgent pop-cultural event to work its magic, then there's a lot to digest here.

Of course, you shouldn't expect to have a poor experience going in. All of the pieces that make up their unique style fit together as perfectly as ever, from Maynard James Keenan's oddly ageless voice to the fantastic post-King Crimson instrumental skills of Danny Carey, Adam Jones, and Justin Chancellor. And although the title track is the first of multiple meandering, oddly pleasant trips through terrain performed more succinctly and interestingly elsewhere, it's a fine introduction to the album. It leads well into first real highlight Pneuma which is where the band's heftier side begins to stir from slumber, those slow, almost doomy riffs bringing back memories of their earlier albums as, again, the song slowly builds to something of a plateau, keeping your attention well with the remarkably intricate guitar/drum interplay but not really advancing so much as remaining in its mid-paced comfort zone for much of the near-twelve minute running time. But it could easily have been an even better six-minute song. And this is where innate positivity towards a band that you love begins to clash hard with the critical senses, because while we all have fond memories of Tool, describing an album as a series of lesser repetitions of songs you look back at with nostalgia is a barbed compliment at best; aftershocks after the quake.

Sure, a lot of bands have done this for years in the metal world, relying on diminishing returns repeatedly pumped out for touring excuses. Yet Tool aren't, say, Slayer; give them their due, they have released four distinct, individually-compelling albums that have made them legendary for a reason, making fans feel like they're uncovering buried treasure as they discover each of them. And so it's disappointing to find that after a thirteen year wait your first instinct is to describe this as a weak return, an echo of past accomplishments. The band are definitely weaker than before, less energetic, less furious with the world. Most importantly they're weaker in the writing; that every interlude piece here is genuinely boring and skippable compared to past slyly clever mini-highlights like drug edible recipes spat out in rabble-rousing German is not a good sign, and they drag the album down. And the main songs can easily grow boring, not least for the lack in dynamics that means every long track builds in much the same way, and again, the fact that this album is one and a half fucking hours long does not help at all.

What helps save Fear Inoculum from being a completely tedious enterprise is, however, that same nostalgia and, perhaps, a little age. Not maturity, because then we get onto the awful suggestion that only mature people could like music like this! But age, that's different; presumably you liked the band before, you've hit your thirties hard, you have responsibilities now and are a little less willing to spend your increasingly precious time on an hour-and-a-half voyage that you know going in will probably disappoint you. You've learnt the meaning of wasted time. And even so, you're wearing rose-tinted spectacles as you settle down to listen, expecting to discover something quietly, personally profound as you have with Tool's past releases. Even with this willingness to forgive the band for the flaws they've grown into as you have yours, your energy is understandably flagging twenty-five minutes in. It's here that the album begins to atone for itself with the utterly gorgeous Invincible, telling the story of beaten-down warriors returning to battle (perhaps too obviously a metaphor for the band struggling to remain relevant, let alone us millennials/post-boomers trying to thrive in a world we thought we'd successfully rebelled against) built around one of the most infectious Tool-y riffs on the album as well as what must be a career-best performance from Keenan, completely selling the weary determination of the lyrics.

It completely changes the album, injecting a hefty dose of adrenaline and reinvigorating the listening session to the point that the following Descending takes on an understated beauty as it builds through a fragile opening to a stronger Lateralus-esque build in the centre section, those riffs getting louder and more impactful before turning psychedelic in the latter half of the song, trippy and gripping. Even prior interlude Legion Inoculant doesn't sap too much momentum as a result (though you are still best off skipping it and the rest of the interludes after your first listen) - it's hard to think of another example of how an album has been so rescued by a single song. Without Invincible it would be much easier to damn Fear Inoculum as a retread of past Tool glories; with it present as the centrepiece, the heart and soul of the album, it elevates the rest of the material and makes you re-examine tracks that you previously thought poor like the indirect Culling Voices. Even the fantastic 7empest benefits, the longest track present at over fifteen minutes and also one of the best, ironically with its penultimate place in the tracklisting the first that feels as if it has a real energy to it, the riffs and drumming gripping harder than any other track present and Keenan sounding genuinely angry, like he used to when ranting about how much he'd like Los Angeles to get hit by tidal waves. Nothing here is as powerful as the repeated venom of "learn to swim" but "a tempest must be just that" still packs a punch. As the last real song on the album, it's a good way to end things on what may well be the final Tool album.

For a band of such legendary status, the fact that Tool have only released five albums in nearly thirty years' existence is astonishing, and shows what an impact each has made. And although they're no longer the furious trailblazers who write hits about prison sex, their fanbase has aged with the band to the point where the usual criticisms of Tool's music as up itself, pretentious, overblown nonsense no longer hit home quite as hard. We're used to that, we grew up with it! It's the Steely Dan of this generation, in some ways; impenetrable to some, nerdy and obnoxious, fine. But comforting and enjoyable in a way that few bands manage, hard not to love despite its clear faults. Little sums Tool or its fans up as much as the fact that the physical release of this album (assuming you can still find one for sale!) contains a four-inch HD screen and speaker as part of the packaging, playing an exclusive track not available on the album itself. That is utterly ridiculous but also rather incredible in 2019! Tool haven't at all moved on since 10,000 Days if not Lateralus and the music scene then, but that can be a strength and is what helps to make Fear Inoculum something of a masterpiece despite all its flaws. As with all albums of this cultural magnitude we'll be arguing about it for a long time but despite, still, ranking at the bottom of the Tool discography it's something of a brilliant album. It would have been easy to improve with some shorter, punchier tracks, and cutting a good 20/30 minutes from, but then it wouldn't be a Tool album in all its resplendent, flawed glory, would it? Would you cut out and delete the worst ten years from your life thus far?

Killing Songs :
Pneuma, Invincible, Descending, 7empest
Goat quoted 70 / 100
Other albums by Tool that we have reviewed:
Tool - 10,000 Days reviewed by Al and quoted 95 / 100
Tool - Undertow reviewed by Al and quoted 93 / 100
Tool - ├ćnima reviewed by Jay and quoted CLASSIC
Tool - Lateralus reviewed by Danny and quoted 96 / 100
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