Tool - Fear Inoculum (2019)
Well… this happened. It wasn’t quite 10,000 Days, but it sure felt like it to longtime fans of this group, which I include myself into that list. 13 years since the last album. TOOL have always taken their time releasing new music, but this was unprecedented. But, the legal disputes that this band found themselves in kept them out of the 2010s almost entirely. And as a result, their music was only just released on streaming platforms within the last month, which must have made the wait feel even longer!
I’ve gone back and reviewed every single studio release in anticipation of this, so if you want to know where I stand on one of my favourite metal groups and their discography, knock yourself out. But going into Fear Inoculum, I had no idea what to expect. I tried my to hinder my anticipation as more information was revealed because... there was no way this could live up to the sky high expectations that the TOOL cult have given it. So here we are. How does it stack up as a metal album in 2019? How does it compare to the rest of the groups music? Was it worth the over decade long wait?
Well… yes and no. For one, I am finally glad to see TOOL back making new music that is as polished and unique for a time where progressive rock and metal seem to be in full nostalgia effect. The bad side is that, despite my best efforts to not do this, TOOL haven’t really evolved that much since 10,000 Days. And as a result, the new album feels… underdeveloped. Not bad by any stretch; TOOL are a competent enough group to never release anything “bad”, just not where it should be.
And before we begin, I have to mention a couple of things. First, that this review will discuss only the tracks on the physical release. Not that the electronic interludes on the digital release are bad, but because they act more as moments of reprieve rather than contributing to the experience.
The other that needs to be abundantly clear to the cult fans that this album must be compared to modern metal albums, not just other TOOL albums. Because (1) the last TOOL album came out in 2006, and (2) the landscape of progressive rock/metal isn’t the same as it was back then either.
So to begin, if Lateralus was the band experimenting with their progressive side, and 10,000 Days was the band attempt at commercializing that sound, then Fear Inoculum is TOOL experimenting with “progressive sludge metal” or “atmospheric sludge metal”. These songs are long; not a single “song” is less than ten minutes. And many of them are built around a handful of different melodic themes and ideas that are woven together to make these songs worth their runtime. “Pneuma” starts with a disjointed guitar riff during the verses, and the chorus consists of long tones, while Danny Carey fills around the drum kit. The later portions of this song combine these two ideas together quite wonderfully.
And now I commit the first act of heresy by comparing TOOL to another band. And the album that I kept comparing this to was Winter, the 2017 masterpiece by English black metal band Fen; an album that at the time I gave a perfect score to and upon revisiting it, I stand by my score. That album was long as well and used brooding quiet sections to compliment the thunderous blast beats and howling vocals. Also as an item to make you, the listener, anticipate the release even more. With this, while many of these songs do manage to pull off dynamic contrast and release exceptionally well, it gets a little tiresome when they all follow the same formula.
Don’t get me wrong, “Invincible” and “Culling Voices” are two fantastic tracks, but especially for the later, when you know what’s coming before you’ve even heard it, that’s a problem. It’s why tracks like “Pneuma” and “7empest” are a little bit more unique, with “7empest” being a heavy metal assault from beginning to end. It does still have some strong dynamics, but nothing like the reprieve of the tempo change during the bridge of “Invincible”.
The title track is a song that could have been cut down to size a little bit, especially during the outro. The song starts off pretty post-metal, before transforming into an odd time signature riff that at least feels like it belongs with the beginning, but the outro just sounds like TOOL and didn’t fit in. The same can be said for “Descending”, a track highlighted by its last seven minutes as a jam session with prominence on Adam Jones guitar solo. I like the melodic stuff, but the chugging riffs just go on way too long. A damn shame because the first half of that track is phenomenal.
Which takes us into the performers themselves. As I said, Adam Jones seems to have much more prominence on this album as a melodic instrument than even before. Just look at “Descending” and “7empest” for that. Danny Carey is killing it on “Pneuma” and “Chocolate Chip Trip”. Justin Chancellor’s bass work is as prominent as ever and everyone complaining about how Maynard’s vocals sound need to stop. He’s 55. His voice has been dipping since Ænima, give him a break.
From a production standpoint, it’s not surprising that on an album that is diving even more into the atmospherics of sludge metal, TOOL is using more electronics and synthesizers on this album. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been listening to a lot of ambient, spacey, electronic music. Specifically, the Mass Effect: Original Soundtrack. The spacey intros of “Fear Inoculum” and “Culling Voices”, the dank low synth tones that are prominent on the outro of “Descending” and the electronic ostinato on “Chocolate Chip Trip”.
Okay, so what are the band trying to say on this record? Well this album seems to be showing the band at their most fearful/anxious. The critical point is when Maynard becomes personal on “Invincible”. Perhaps a very relevant song for the group, as they were forced into hiatus while they were still at the peak of their popularity, the band worries whether or not their fans will return to them.
“Fear Inoculum” discusses “The Deceiver”, an antagonist character who has brought our protagonist misery and anger, and the protagonist now begins to reject them. “Descending” is the band showing their fearfulness for the future of our planet and how our irreversible damage may cause the downfall of humanity as we know it. “Culling Voices” discusses the echo chambers that we form as individuals (in our own head) or as part of a group, and how constant replies of assurance are inevitably bad for us. And “7empest” is the rejection of the authority figures who tell the people lies to further their own narrative. And when those figures are called out for it, they blame somebody else. How relevant in 2019. With the themes of fear and anxiousness near the front, it makes sense as to why some of these songs feel long: these opinions are not fully formed or realized yet. They need to be refined and cut down to the proverbial meat and potatoes. I think for what the band is trying to say, the lyrics match the songs, even if I don’t like it.
So where are we? TOOL’s Fear Inoculum is a puzzling project. One that requires the attention of the listener to really grasp everything that is going on. That is to say, make sure you’re sober when you listen to this. It’s far too long for its own sake and should have been refined. As a metal album in 2019, it does stack up favourably to whatever the heck that last Slipknot album was, but compared to Saorand Spirit Adrift? Not so much. What about compared to other TOOL albums? It’s certainly a better than Ænima and it will have longer staying power, but compared to Undertow and 10,000 Days it feels like a step down. It’s a good comeback album, but it should have been a lot better.
Is it safe to say that this is the most anticipated album of the 2000's so far, maybe of all time?
In 2006, Tool released 10,000 Days, and while different than any other of their previous albums, it still served it's purpose as being a great collection of material. As years went by, fans were speculating whether a new album would come out at all. This changed in 2019, when two new songs were debuted live (they would be Invincible and Descending) and gave a release date for the new album. Along with the title track, Fear Inoculum, being released on August 7th, 2019, fans were more excited than ever to hear new Tool for the first time in thirteen years.
Thanks to the Great Fear Inoculum Vegas Heist that took place on Reddit in late August 2019, the world got to hear the CD version of the long-awaited album a bit early. The CD version has 7 tracks and the total runtime is 79:10, making it the longest Tool album they have made, beating Ænima by around two minutes. However, having a long runtime does not automatically make an album fantastic (look at Reload by Metallica, which came out in 1997.)
It takes a special kind of music to have an album be consistently good for the long time. Does Fear Inoculum hold up to the previous four Tool albums (five if you count Opiate from 1992, but that is more of an EP)?
The answer... is ABSOLUTELY
This album is a work of art, and an absolutely PERFECT collection of songs. Each song, minus the drum solo track named Chocolate Chip Trip, is over ten minutes, however it does not overstay it's welcome. To compare it to something, I will reference the 60 minute ironman match between Joey Janela and David Starr at Beyond Americanrana 2019, a professional wrestling show. They went crazy for an entire hour, with many revolutionary spots, and telling a fantastic story with it being the last match between them before Janela goes to All Elite Wrestling. This album is the music version of that match: nothing feels too long. It is like the phrase "Time Flies When You're Having Fun," but the fun is listening to one of the greatest albums ever made.
Talking about the songs some more, the top tracks (besides the whole album) are Pneuma, Culling Voices, and 7empest. Having to follow up the insane title track is one thing, but being able to actually top it is another. Pneuma keeps a consistent pace that is interesting. Culling Voices, for the first half, is very soft, similar to the ending tracks of Lateralus. This might be the best paced song since Leader of Men by Nickelback, from their 1998 album, The State. The second half picks up, and is a notable song off of the album, which is one of my favorites.
And then we get to 7empest, which is the second longest Tool song, only behind Disgustipated by four seconds. This is the angriest I've heard Maynard sing since Ticks and Leaches, and the best Tool song since The Grudge. I've never heard a song that can keep a CONSISTENT, HEAVY tone for over 15 minutes, that is absolutely fantastic. This album is music at its BEST
Long story short, this is one of the greatest albums in the history of Mankind. Go out of your way to listen to this album on release day. Long Live Tool!
EDIT NOVEMBER 8TH, 2019
For many great albums I listen to, the magic often wears off after a certain amount of time, and those once great songs felt regular again. In a less extreme measurement, that happened to me with Rush's Rush from 1974, however that is still a very solid album in it's own right. There are other albums that grew on me as I listened more, such as Load by Metallica, or The Sound of Perseverance by Death. With this album, the love I have has not gone anywhere. You can argue that I appreciate this album even MORE than I did before. I understand that not everyone likes an album filled with ten-plus minute songs (and I am not mentioning the interlude tracks found on the digital version of the album), however that style is right up my pathway. To me, if done right, longer songs can be the most complete form of music imaginable. Other bands have had fantastic long songs, such as Mercyful Fate by Metallica, from Garage Inc. (11:11); every part of Close to the Edge by Yes, from Close to the Edge (18:38); the title track of 2112 by Rush(20:33), and many more.
With Tool in general, and specifically in this album, all of my favorite qualities of a song were blended together to form "super songs," and then the whole album turned "super."
In my original review, I never gave track four on the CD version, Descending, the credit that it deserves. Just like the track right after, Culling Voices, in which I mentioned in my original review, masters the art of pacing, and at around the five-to-six minute mark, one of the brightest moments of the album blesses the listener's ears. The slow build of Maynard's vocals, specifically in those two tracks, have an explosive climax that makes the song like a roller coaster, or a wrestling match that is telling a fantastic story.
On a semi-final note, I do not feel that I put enough emphasis on how incredible 7empest is, just as a piece of art. In my eyes, this is probably the best song the band has ever created, and top three in the best songs I have ever heard (the other two are South of Heaven by Slayer, off of South of Heaven; and Mouth for War by Pantera, off of Vulgar Display of Power). Unlike almost every track on the album, that has a great build that leads to a fantastic climax, this song starts off white hot, and never lets up on the quality. For wrestling fans, I can compare this song to a match with nonstop action, and it receives five stars for the effort. Every band member shines on this song, however I feel that this was Adam Jones's moment to prove that he is an elite guitar player. Lots of complicated riffs were played during this 15:43 masterpiece, and every second of it was better than perfect. To me, this is a six star song that ends one of the greatest albums I have ever heard.
As an album in general, Danny Carey shined like no other, and had a drumming performance not seen in decades (not knocking the other members, as without them, this album would not be close to the caliber in which it is at now.) I have seen fantastic drumming on albums, like every 1980's Slayer album, or every other Tool album before this. With this album in particular, Danny Carey can make a legitimate claim that he is the best drummer in the world right now. The technique in every pattern he does is insane, and is one of the many reasons why I rank this album so highly. I do not know if I would say that he is the greatest drummer of all time, however I would say that I have not seen a performance like this in a very long time; maybe since 10,000 Days.
Long story short, I cannot stress how much I love this album. I honestly feel that it might be their greatest work, or at LEAST on the level of Ænima. The long length of the full songs just make it feel complete, and like a New Japan Pro Wrestling show, the songs build up to the fantastic, 7empest main event, which is one of the greatest songs ever made. The songs fly by, and every song is absolutely perfect. This is a once in a generation album, with the thirteen year buildup and the hype behind it; and I do not know if there will be an album at this caliber again. Long live Tool!
Fear Inoculum: A substance or idea used to rid oneself and protect against fear.
As humans there are inherent fears that are pushed to the back of the mind each day in order to not dip into insanity. Constantly contemplating the 1 in 100 chance I have of dying in a car crash each time I drive to and from work isn't in my best interest if I want to be productive and hopeful for the future. Weighing the odds of success when releasing an album 13 years in the making against the hopeful but voracious clamors of devoted fans is also something I wouldn't want to think too heavily about. After all this time Fear Inoculum feels like a reboot more than a continuation, with Tool holding on to the same sound style but taking it in a different direction. With all the craze around this release it's easy and convenient to jump to whatever conclusions suit a chosen narrative, so I've found myself taking a step back to look at some objective facts regarding the creation and overall nonsense that Fear Inoculum had to go through to hit the shelves and streaming services.
After the release of 10000 Days in 2006 and its preceding tour, Tool had announced that they were beginning to work on a new album in early 2008. From there, the next announcement came in 2012 when it was stating that the album was "half done". Plagued by legal issues, injuries, and family matters, progress on the album slowed to a crawl with no songs being truly finalized. Many of these issues resolved by 2015 and the band got back to work, albeit slowly. It wasn't until early 2018 that the instrumentals were fully written, agreed upon, and sent to Maynard Keenan, the vocalist, to begin writing the vocal melodies and lyrics. These final instrumentals came from years of tweaking and rewriting over 20 different song ideas that would eventually turn into Fear Inoculum.
So, what does this mean for Fear Inoculum? The most substantial takeaway is that this album was legitimately 13 years in the making, with jam and recording sessions spread out along this downtime in between court hearings and other projects. The 80 minutes of music isn't something that was written 13 years ago and only performed now, but it also isn't something that was written just last year. Whether or not Fear Inoculum is subjectively genius or idiotic, it's objectively what Tool finally wanted to release after who knows how many hours of jamming, arguing, rewriting, and jamming again.
What Tool released is definitely not an instant classic, but a glimpse of the band focusing on different aspects of their sound and how musical ideas can form over the course of many years. My first experience with the album wasn't the greatest, with most of the 80 minutes blending together with no real deviation in sound except for memorable moments during "Invincible" and "7empest". I thought they established some nice grooves with the obvious use of wacky time signatures having to do with the number 7, which seems arbitrary but it's nothing new for Tool. Other than the instrumental grooves and some skillful drumming from Danny Carey, there wasn't anything to latch onto, with Keenan's vocals being much more subdued and sparse than in their previous albums. After "7empest" ended I left feeling slightly bored and perplexed, but not disappointed. For whatever reason, I just wanted to listen to it again.
After multiple listens I'm finally able to form enough coherent opinions about Fear Inoculum to say that it's an example of both success and failure from a long, drawn out iterative process. After 13 years of jam sessions and refining one project, it's easy to lose the excitement of unbridled creativity, and that's what Fear Inoculum lacks the most of. Every note, every chord, every drum flourish, and every strange electronic sound effect in the interludes have been meticulously chosen and run through some algorithm to fit into the equation of Fear Inoculum's sound. Couple that with Keenan's previously mentioned softer singing and you're left with an album that lacks the same punch and passion as previous albums, although that's partially by design.
Where Fear Inoculum succeeds is creating an atmosphere of subtlety. There are no massive moments like the climaxes of "Vicarious", "Right In Two", or "Parabola", there are no crunchy riffs like "Stinkfist" or "The Grudge", and there are no powerful vocal performances like "Lateralus" or "Sober". Fear Inoculum forces the listener to create a new spectrum on which to judge what is powerful or interesting, since it never reaches the aggressiveness of their previous albums. Once I familiarized myself a bit more with the album, Keenan's vocals on "Culling Voices" and "7empest" had a much more resounding effect compared to my first listen. I even found myself humming the chorus and riff of "Pneuma" randomly throughout my day, which made me realize that Fear Inoculum isn't as repetitive as I initially thought. Although seemingly simple and stripped down, the riffs and grooves stuck with me in a unique way. It makes me wish I knew more about music theory and composition, as there's probably some very smart choices being made with how they created these rhythms.
The ultimatum for Fear Inoculum comes down what the listener's expectations are coming into it, and that's why I believe it will remain as Tool's first misstep. This release isn't for everyone and it's difficult to point to any of its successes without running into its failures simultaneously. While the riffs are great, it can get monotonous after 80 minutes of it. While Keenan's vocals are used for great dramatic effect on some tracks, his overall presence on the album is extremely thin compared to 10000 Days or Lateralus. While the subtlety of the composition choices can be exciting, a lot of the tracks drag and can easily be called boring. It's all about how the pros interact with the cons for each listener.
In the end, the pros outweighed the cons for me. I've consistently been noticing exciting new details and rhythms I hadn't picked up on before and it's been a refreshing experience hearing Tool break some new ground after all this time. The percussion is insanely interesting throughout the album and the grooves and overall vibe of the album is unique and thought provoking. What holds Fear Inoculum back is that the listener has to be ready and willing to invest themselves and look for an experience, which conversely means that on the surface it very much is a sluggish 80 minute riff-fest with little payoff. I believe it's worth the investment, but it's not difficult to empathize with the other side that feels like it's a whole lot of nothing. Ultimately I'm happy that Tool was able to reach enough agreements that they were finally able to release their meticulously crafted product, so the only thing left to do is find out which side of Fear Inoculum you fall on.