Review | Tool - Fear Inoculum
Tool's first album in 13 years is a disappointing release that dives into their worst elements while refusing to advance their sound.
Tool are an enigma of sound, with a unique and magnificent style of progressive rock and metal that nobody else has been able to successfully replicate. Since the release of their debut album Undertow in 1993, they've been one of metal's most iconic, legendary, and baffling acts of the past few decades - for better or worse. Their sound has evolved throughout their first four studio albums, but one thing that's been consistent is that they've a unique and irreplaceable sound. Their psychedelic, intense, technical and mysterious twist on the ever-growing alternative metal scene helped distinguish themselves from their contemporaries like Deftones, Jane's Addiction, and Faith No More. Each of their first four studio albums has something fundamental about them that makes them unique; Undertow's murkiness, coming straight out of the grunge scene, Ænima's raw, concentrated angst, the complexity and innovative rhythms throughout Lateralus, and the psychedelic, melodic playfulness and expert musicianship of 10,000 Days. Over 13 years later, Tool have returned to the table with Fear Inoculum, and while it's enjoyable enough for the traditional Tool fan, it showcases their worst elements without any interesting or evolutionary innovations in sound.
Was it worth the long wait? Not really. This is distinctively a Tool record, but with more electronic and glitchy sound effects over the same complex, technical, and atmospheric progressive metal the band honed in on with their previous albums. There are plenty of uncommon time signatures, examples of Maynard's quirky magnetism, and philosophical lessons to go about, and there's no shortage of moments that sound like they came out of their past albums. For those who really dig everything about Tool's sound, this album was made for them. Now, Tool's sound is good; despite how annoying Maynard's half-witted, psuedo-intellectual lyrics can be and how pointlessly long their albums run, they honed in on making unusual, forward-thinking and exciting progressive metal, and it's fair to say that Ænima and Lateralus are some of the best alternative metal albums of all time.
Unfortunately, Fear Inoculum shows Tool stuck in the past with only a little bit of evolution. The key elements are there, but there is marginal progress. There's a bit more experimentation with electronics - the instrumental "Chocolate Chip Drip" gets on with a steady rhythm that sounds like something from Tangerine Dream, but without the drum machines - and Maynard's vocals sound significantly softer, in contrast to his previously raw and unfiltered state, but everything else sounds grossly derivative. Tool were never a band that refused to evolve, hence why their forward-thinking sound has received critical acclaim, so this album's old-fashioned and unusually rigid sound is more agonizing than it is fun. Songs like "Pnuema" are some of the worst because they seem like the band is parodying their older material; this song in particular has the same exact structure to plenty of their previous tracks, as well as a riff that's almost exactly the same as "Schism". The drum rolls, the off-kilter rhythm, the vocal mannerisms, and the lyrical themes have been rehashed, explaining why there's no emotion or meaning behind this excessively-long and overtly-annoying track.
Coming along with the lack of evolution is the uncompromising lack of emotion here. There are many parts of this album that sound like the process of a band who jammed for a long time, recorded it, and carelessly packed it into the album, but there are few traces of emotion or reason behind the music. Some of this gap is caused by Maynard's poorly-mixed vocals, where his passion sounds drowned out, but the whole band is at fault here; this music has already been played in the past, and it feels like a run through the numbers, so what's the purpose behind this 79-minute slog? How is this not an antithesis of the band's "progressive" purpose? This album is not likely to spawn many "classic" Tool songs because of this lack of conviction, and this can already be heard from the self-titled opener, which lacks any momentum or useful dynamics. Compare this with their past openers; "Intolerance", "Stinkfist", "The Grudge" and "Vicarious" were all loud, angry, complex tracks that showed the band's energy and charm, and were all very effective album openers. In contrast, "Fear Inoculum" is drawn-out and lethargic that wanders around listlessly with an underwhelming closing section.
This is their most dense album. On the physical release, every song but the instrumental "Chocolate Chip Trip" runs into the double digits. The closing track "7empest" clocks in at a grueling 15 minutes and 44 seconds, which is their longest song yet; only "Third Eye" (from 1996's Ænima) comes close, with a run time of 13 minutes and 51 seconds. Clutching their influences in post-rock to the grave, these songs are complex and do more to confuse than to give away answers, and none of these songs (bar the instrumental) are as accessible as previous ones, like "Schism" or "Prison Sex". The run time isn't anything unusual for a Tool album, but the individual lengths of these songs make this a more exhausting album, without much replay value. It's one thing to sit down for 80 minutes to listen to a varied, lively, and intense album, but the production and aimless jams that plague this album give little-to-no incentive to replay it.
Fans who insist you need multiple, intense periods of listening to "understand" the "deep and complex" meanings behind the album would have a point if there was any meaning behind this slump of an album. Fear Inoculum is theoretically more daring and ambitious than their previous efforts because of how long and complex each song is. However, this reveals one of the band's biggest issues: their theories are extremely spotty in execution, which is the same issue that The Mars Volta, Dream Theater, and countless other progressive rock bands suffered from, both in the scene's prime and in today's wide world. Fear Inoculum is their laziest release because it lacks any energy and feels more recycled than new, and sounds more like an excuse to brag about their complexity while being incredibly shallow.
There aren't many memorable moments from this album, even after repeat listens in different settings and whatnot. There also aren't a lot of remarkably bad moments, but this album is very dull with few exceptional moments. "Descending" is probably the best song here; although it sounds like an outtake that wasn't included on 10,000 Days, it's much stronger than most of that album's songs and sounds fairly unique as far as this album is concerned. Its atmosphere primarily dwells on the sound effects replicating an ocean and lyrical themes of impending man-made doom (which Maynard sung about in the latest A Perfect Circle album), but the music is fairly lively and has some technical, but interesting, moments. "7empest" is another highlight; still too long and excessive to be great, but it has some intense moments that reflect the best parts of their past work, all while not sounding completely rehashed. Carey's drumming is technical, but fluid and loose enough to break the album's relative monotony. It doesn't deserve to be over 15 minutes long, but it's definitely one of the album's finer moments.
Ultimately, Fear Inoculum is Tool's worst album. While it keeps their core elements, it doesn't do anything new and it doesn't have the energy or purpose that all their previous albums benefited from. Reflecting on Maynard's work with A Perfect Circle from this decade, this sounds equally as shallow and lifeless as Eat the Elephant, but far longer and more annoying. It excels in musicianship, but musicianship is nothing without solid songwriting. Fear Inoculum features the same vocal mannerisms, the same psuedo-philosophical lyrical themes, and the same progressive and technical compositions as before, but for what good?
Best song: "Descending"
Worst song: "Pnuema"