review: Tool’s ‘Fear Inoculum’ is an atmospheric new chapter of their career
For a while, it seemed almost silly to think a new Tool album would actually happen. The band talked about one, and played some new stuff live, but for years they continued to keep the talk very vague, troll their fans, and contradict themselves. Even once they actually announced the album, I had to wonder if it was really going to go as planned. And yet, here we are, with a new Tool album out in the world, right on schedule. It's their first in 13 years, and as is always the case when a beloved band waits that long, the reactions are going to be knee-jerk. It's probably either going to get hailed as a "masterpiece to be dissected for years to come," or get trashed as a failed comeback. (And actually, as of today, the reviews have only been positive.) And especially when it's a band like Tool, who write deep, long songs -- this album clocks in at over 80 minutes -- that do often take a while to dissect, it seems safe to assume that your initial reaction of Fear Inoculum may not be the same reaction you have to it in five or ten years. (I've heard it a few times before writing this review, and I keep noticing new things about it on each listen.) As we recently said about 10,000 Days in our Tool album guide, that album was met by some lukewarm feedback at first, but as it's sunken in over the years, it's become just as classic as its predecessors. If you don't love Fear Inoculum right away, you might change your stance after all the insane hype has died down. And though it has so far gotten universally great reviews, it won't be surprising if some fans can't get down with this one. It's not like any other album that Tool have ever made; if you were expecting to bang your head to some "Jambi" or "Ænema" rewrites, you've come to the wrong place.
As we've talked about before, Tool were often wrongly grouped with cheesy nu and alt metal bands, and a lot of that is because they probably do share more fans with nu metal bands than they do with, say, Radiohead. But there's always been so much more to Tool than the Headbanger's Ball-friendly songs; their psychedelic, atmospheric parts do have more in common with Radiohead (or Pink Floyd or King Crimson) than with metal, so it makes sense that people like Parquet Courts' bassist and Grimes are big fans. The more atmospheric, art rock side of Tool was stirring beneath the surface on Ænima, was embraced pretty strongly on Lateralus, and poked its head out a few times on 10,000 Days, but Fear Inoculum is the first time Tool have made an entire album focused on this side of them. There's not a single song that you can really call metal until the very last track, "7empest." Instead, Tool favor clean guitars, clean vocals, psychedelic electronics (courtesy at times of Lustmord), and meditative passages that gradually pull you in rather than hit you with instant satisfaction.
It isn't totally surprising -- Maynard James Keenan has talked before about preferring to play less metal material and Tool have made music like this before -- but it's still kind of badass that Tool would steer clear of their most crowdpleasing elements on the album that they made their fans wait over a decade for. It doesn't feel like trolling though, it just feels like Tool making exactly the album they want to make regardless of what anyone expects of them. There are a few kinds of albums that we tend to see artists make after a long wait like this: sometimes they return to their most classic and beloved sound, sometimes they pick up right where their most recent album left off, sometimes they make an album so bad you wonder why they bothered to come back, and sometimes they make the album that it seems like they wanted to make for most of their career, yet for whatever reason, never did. Fear Inocolum feels like the latter. You could tell from Lateralus that Tool wanted to make an album like this, but Lateralus didn't go all in on the clean, ambient sounds the way Fear Inoculum does. That album still had enough of a radio-friendly alt-metal side to maintain Tool's status as a force in mainstream rock, but on Fear Inoculum, they don't sound like they care if rock radio plays any of these songs or not. Especially with every song clocking in at over ten minutes except the psychedelic, instrumental interludes that are sprinkled in between some of the songs.
Fear Inoculum is Tool's most ambient album without sounding too sleepy and their most psychedelic album without sounding over the top trippy. And even though these songs are far from radio-friendly, and require tuning out from everyday life and really listening closely even more than any other Tool album, they reveal themselves to be almost as catchy as Tool's biggest hits. The hypnotic riff and the satisfying chorus of the title track, the little "become pneuuu-MA" in "Pneuma," the "warrior..." hook in "Invincible," the circular guitar patterns in the pre-chorus of "Descending" -- they're all just about as earwormy as Tool's biggest hits. And it's impressive how naturally these songs earn their lengthy running times. They're not grueling to listen to or overstuffed; they're over 10 minutes each because that's how long they need to be to get their point across, but they never overstay their welcome. When you get to the metallic album closer "7empest," which is easily the most accessible song on the album, it doesn't feel like the climax that Fear Inoculum had been building towards; it feels more like a satisfying encore to an already-great show.
It probably goes without saying for a Tool album, but in case there was any doubt, all four members' styles are heard distinctly, and all four bring a way above average level of musicianship. Danny Carey's drumming is as pounding and tribal as ever, Adam Jones' guitar riffs and Justin Chancellor's basslines never fail to mesmerize, and Maynard's voice continues to hook you even during the most heady, least accessible parts. He's one of those singers where people tend to love him or hate him, and if you love him, that trademark sneer will suck you right in. Fear Inoculum also finds Tool offering up slithering guitar solos and Rush-like math-prog without veering into overly nerdy, tech-y territory and taking away from the core songwriting. It's hard not to notice how much the album succeeds on a technical skill level, but that doesn't feel like the main point. Fear Inoculum is what happens when four virtuosos of heavy music attempt an album of light, meditative music; it's clearly the work of Tool, even if it doesn't sound like what the average person thinks of when they think of Tool, and that's what's so interesting about it. Tool manage to sound entirely like themselves, even when they're making an album that sounds like no other album in their career.