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Album Review: Tool – Fear Inoculum

It’s finally here. Quite possibly the most anticipated record of the decade, surreal as it may seem. Tool’s Fear Inoculum has been released to the public, and I’m sure you are probably sick of hearing about it by now. Fear Inoculum has exceeded all expectation in terms of sales – absolutely blitzing some of the biggest names in mainstream music, eg. Taylor Swift & Lana Del Rey. While this probably has something to do with the cunning marketing scheme of adding all Tool’s previous albums to streaming platforms only weeks before the album drop, and hence creating a snowballing level of interest surrounding the band. It’s still remarkable that such a complex and progressive album managed to top today’s rather dull charts. Everyone has an opinion about the record, but the inevitable bias of such opinions focuses on what people wanted out of Fear Inoculum themselves and doesn’t look at the bigger picture that has been painted over the past thirteen years. So with the dust beginning to settle, let’s try to look through that lens now, and evaluate the album with as much scope and information as we can – one track at a time.

(Side note: There are instrumental interludes on the digital version of the album. These are relatively insignificant; therefore I will be focusing solely on the albums format on CD)

Right of the bat, I have to acknowledge just how much there is to take in on this record. Fear Inoculum is simply monolithic. If we exclude the interludes on the digital version, we are left with seven tracks, all but one of which go beyond the 10-minute mark. Gone are the days of 5-minute rockers like 10,000 Days’ “The Pot” or Undertow’s “Sober.” Guitarist Adam Jones stated in an interview with Revolver Magazine that the album was ‘about the little things in life…’ With drummer Danny Carey adding that it about the process of ‘becoming more comfortable with yourself.’ The opening track, which is also the title track, is unlike previous openers in Tools discography. It is not the punch in the face that is Ænima’s “Stinkfist” or the ripping criticism served up on 10,000 Days’ “Vicarious.” It is, however, the albums pacesetter, much like these two tracks were, yet proof of how much Tool have evolved since 10,000 Days – taking another step into the realms of progressive obscurity and mind-boggling composition. A slow-burning track radiating vibes of psychedelia, Maynard continues where he left off in the discussion of the human mind beginning with the desire to achieve immunity from our fears. Careys’ Asian/Middle Eastern percussion influences are more prominent than ever from the very beginning, and we are even treated to a cult-like choir passage in the middle.

After the opener, we delve into the real meat of Fear Inoculum. For the next 40 minutes, Tool chooses not to hold your attention but rather grab it by the throat and keep it trapped in the grasp of an exceptionally strong pair of invisible hands. These next three tracks – “Pneuma,” “Invincible” and “Descending,” are perhaps Carey’s best-supporting evidence that his original idea of the whole album being one song was quite a considerable one. Guitarist Adam Jones seems to have an endless supply of 7/8 grooves that crawl into your ear and stay there long after you finish listening. In each of the three songs, these ideas are played within tandem with the rest of the band before tailing off into all sorts of incomprehensible directions as the songs progress. This section of the album is Tool in their comfort zone. Maynard’s metaphysical exploration has always been the idea of ‘crucifying’ greed, esteem, and narcissism. This is the kind of tinkering and experimentation the band simply enjoy writing; the kind of well-refined, complex music that to me, seems to be the most logical step forward after such a long hiatus and a massive amount of talk surrounding the album, regardless of the percentage of people who they may or may not please.

The beginning of “Culling Voices” is the first sign of the Fear Inoculum’s stylistic transition. Another slowly building crescendo that is soaked in the psychedelia we have seen the band utilize on some of their most ambitious songs, such as “Rosetta Stoned” and the infamous “Disposition/Reflection/Triad” trilogy. It comes at a point on the album where the rhythmically unorthodox chugging began to suffocate, and the change is a nice chance to regather, as it crawls to a typical climax much like Tool epics before it. Next on the list and the only song to clock in under the 10-minute mark is “Chocolate Chip Trip.”  It’s Carey’s five minutes in the spotlight to simply prove why he is one of the worlds best drummers. The electronica-tribal inspired percussion solo that acts as a bridge between the rest of the album and the final leg. The piece would not only be immensely difficult to transcribe but also challenging to play with any less than eight arms. Carey’s unique setup and sharp technique is at full disposal for the song’s entirety. Ending abruptly, we now move on to the last chapter.

“7empest” revisits the familiar territory of mind-twisting irregular rhythms (as hinted at in the title) and structure, yet this time with a newfound level of aggression that people have been complaining about the absence of since the dropping of the first single. Maynard finally stops acting as a bystander in the chaos and takes center stage, delivering his vocals in a manner that would have been right at home on Ænima. This is undoubtedly the most ambitious standalone piece on Fear Inoculum – both technically and lyrically climactic in its exploration of the universe and its inevitable destruction.

On the whole, this a very complete and well-refined yet expansive and almost avant-garde album. To me, at least, it seems to have been the most logical step forward for the band, and one of the more sensible routes to take in response to such an enormous snowball of hype built up over the band’s hiatus period. It builds upon the unique blend of psychedelia, rockstar-style metal and mind-boggling progression they began to carry down a path of rich cultural music influence with Lateralus and 10,000 Days, yet also maintaining the philosophical themes and ideas that allow the listeners to think for themselves and interpret the songs in individually unique manners. The supreme musicianship of each ensemble member is almost flaunted on the album, yet in a more obscure sense than what we most commonly see. In place of overindulgent technicality, we have exemplary songwriting, seamlessly constructed from pieces that simply should not fit.  You get the strong sense that this is Tool in their most comfortable element, creating cohesive music that plods along at a natural and undefined pace – one that will not reward those who aren’t prepared to devote time to the uncovering of its secrets, yet will embrace those who do with warm, open arms.

To reiterate, this album is not for casual music listeners. It is unlike any of their other work and those who thought that the ‘old Tool was better’ will now be even more disappointed with the band’s forward-thinking approach. It is, however, quite arguably their best work, so enormous and mystical in its stature. Perhaps not the perfect blend of progressive beauty/metaphysical philosophy seen on Lateralus or the mix of scathing condemnation and progressive experimentation seen on Ænima, but a matured and balanced middle-ground. Those who take the time to make a genuine connection to this album will be rewarded very, very generously.

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