Tool fans have waited a long time for this. 13 years to be exact. Their last record was released back in 2006, before social media and streaming services came to dominate our internet addicted lives. Despite having appeared during the early 1990’s their discography is fairly small, with just four full-length studio albums one EP and a limited edition live album in almost thirty years. But it’s more a case of quality over quantity with the Hollywood-based four-piece comprising of Danny Carey on drums, Justin Chancellor on bass, Adam Jones on guitar and Maynard James Keenan on vocals.
One of the most distinctive and compelling bands of all time, Tool have become known for their dynamic songwriting featuring complex instrumentation, odd time signatures and fascinating song concepts, in addition to the stunning visual art of collaborator Alex Grey and the strange music videos directed by their guitarist and one-time Hollywood special effects designer Adam Jones. There’s always several layers to unpack and the level of thought that has gone into their work has earned them one of the most obsessive fanbases in the world, but also a fair bit of derision for their perceived “pretentiousness”.
Starting out as an angry, grunge metal band on their 1992 debut EP Opiate, they fine tuned their darkly hypnotic sound on 1993’s full-length Undertow. Then came their massive commercial breakthrough with 1996’s Aenima, a more philosophical and progressive yet still angry album that many fans feel is their best. This was followed by 2001’s epic masterpiece Lateralus, a blend of psychedelic and progressive metal that took inspiration from sacred geometry. Five years passed before the somewhat divisive 10,000 Days in 2006, a more personal record which was in part a tribute to Maynard’s late mother.
Ever since a 2008 MTV interview were Maynard said work would begin on a new record “right away”, Tool fans have been desperate for album number five. 13 years is a long time. But just as some had all but given up hope, a new album was confirmed to be on its way. A string of announcements followed, including their past work finally being added to streaming services plus the album title and artwork, causing the hype to reach insane levels. However, amongst all the excitement, few dared to ask: “What if it’s a bit… shit?”
To label Fear Inoculum as essentially “shit” as some have, is perhaps a too strong. But it’s hard to deny that this is Tool’s weakest and least innovative album, with their discography being close to perfect up until now. Doubts about their long-awaited fifth came when the 10-minute title-track and opener was released. Compared to previous album openers, ‘Fear Inoculum’ is incredibly flat. The overall production leaves it feeling a bit lifeless, with the track never really taking off. While Maynard’s experiments with different vocal styles are somewhat mixed.
The 12-minute ‘Pneuma’ has an air of familiarity about it with its partly recycled ‘Schism’-like guitar sections. We’re also introduced to one of several failed efforts at incorporating synths on the album (something they did brilliantly in the past). Whereas their previous three albums struck a great balance between progressive epics and shorter, hook-driven tracks, Fear Inoculum is dominated by six sprawling pieces which take up the vast majority of its 85-minute running time, with 12-minutes reserved for four forgettable interlude tracks.
Much of Fear Inoculum leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed or scratching your head as the band make some strange choices. The album’s centrepiece pairing are perhaps the best examples of this. The near 13-minute ‘Invincible’ starts off well with Maynard reflecting upon ageing and morality, building gradually before an awful synth lead and vocoder vocals come in around the 8-minute mark. Slow-paced guitar chugging then takes over, before being replaced by some fairly generic sounding metal riffing towards the end.
The near 14-minute ‘Descending’ starts by building with a ‘Wings For Marie’-like bass line and Maynard’s gorgeous vocals, gradually getting heavier before Adam Jones surprises you with some slide guitar around 7-minutes. As the track settles back into itself it begins to echo ‘The Grudge’, before you’re hit with another surprise in the form of a totally out of place solo as the 11-minute mark approaches.
Ignoring the 4-minute drum solo over a dreadful synth that is ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’, the final 1/3 of the record is where the most positives are to be found. ‘Culling Voices’ is a reflective, 10-minute piece featuring Maynard at his monk-like best on vocals. It may not the most mind-blowing song Tool have ever written, but after what came before it’s a relief to hear they haven’t lost their touch.
Fear Inoculum closes with ‘7empest’, its longest but also its most exciting track where Tool try something new and pull it off. More of a straightforward, riff-heavy track than its almost 16-minute length implies, it breathes new life into the band and makes you wonder what could have been had the opening 2/3 not been lacking in energy and originality, or harmed by poor choices. Unfortunately though, it’s a little too late to save the day.
If Fear Inoculum is your first taste of Tool then you may well be very happy with this album. But if you’re more familiar with what they’re capable of then it’s hard to not feel at least a bit disappointed after waiting 13 years for it. You’d like to think it isn’t their last record but given how long it took them to put their fifth one, you wouldn’t hold out for a sixth any time soon.
Fear Inoculum is available now via RCA Records