Tool Unleash Long-Awaited Masterpiece, ‘Fear Inoculum’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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It’s difficult to judge a record by Tool absent the benefit of time. The legendary metal band’s penchant for sprawling songs entwined in a dark tapestry of albums does not lend itself to casual listening or easy criticism. They are, by design, works of art that both demand and command your attention. No single listen is enough to take in the full scope of their work. So ahead of the curve are they that it often takes years to fully appreciate the majesty of their composition.

Compounding this is the fact that Fear Inoculum is the band’s first release in 13 years. It’s been 27 years since the band released their first EP, Opiate, and 23 since they released their monumental breakout, Ænima. We’ve had the time to digest their work in the absence of new music. For most of Tool’s rabid fanbase, those records have become ingrained their consciousness. We know them well. They are a part of us.

The temptation to hold their new work against their past work is strong, but unfair. How can we compare a song we’ve just heard to a song we’ve heard hundreds or thousands of times? It’s hard work to digest against work that has been so internalized. All we can really do is have faith that, eventually, the latest crop of songs will be just as internalized as songs like “Stinkfist” or “Lateralus.”

And there can be no doubt that they will be. Fear Inoculum is a masterful work that is irresistibly listenable, even as songs creep past the 10, 12, and 15 minute marks. Like all Tool albums, the songs beg for consideration both individually and as a part of a greater whole and, like all Tool albums, we will still be listening to Fear Inoculum for years to come.

As a band, Tool have never been tighter. The trio of Danny Carey on drums, Adam Jones on guitar, and Justin Chancellor on bass have crafted six of the finest songs of their career (10, including the four ambient interlude tracks spread throughout Fear Inoculum) which of which sends the listener down a spiral of metal psychedelica that delights and maddens in equal turns. These three have always been a powerful combination, but they’re at the top of their respective games here and have never sounded better.

Take “Invincible,” Fear Inoculum’s fourth track. Beginning with a fairly subdued jam that culls from Tool’s mid-90’s post-grunge roots, it subtly moves into a Pink Floydian groove as Chancellor’s bass kicks in. From there, the band builds to a thundering post-metal, tribalistic crescendo that ranks among Tool’s best compositional moments.

As much as Tool has always been a band that’s all about the build, Fear Inoculum embraces the prog philosophy as hard as they ever have. Songs unfold like symphonic movements that bloom with increasingly complexity and intensity before resolving into moments of sublime beauty. On sheer musicality, Fear Inoculum might be Tool’s best work of their career.

Vocally, Maynard James Keenan seems to have learned much from his time in A Perfect Circle. For the most part Angry Maynard is gone, and Keenan focuses far more on singing than he does screaming or growling. This isn’t to suggest that his intensity has waned. Far from it. His vocal control beautifully matches the complex rhythms and composition of his band mates’ stunning work and adds to the depth of the album’s sound.

His lyrics are as opaque as ever, leaving meaning open to interpretation and, no doubt, will inspire near endless debate from Tool fans in the coming months and years. As ever, he veers towards the mystic. “We are born of one breath, one word, we are all one spark,” he sings on Pneuma. If there’s a unifying theme to his work here, it’s the idea explored in that lyric. Keenan seeks a kind of unity amidst the white noise of modern society, imploring listeners to seek out connection and experience beyond the realm of the silicon subreality we exist in today. To go fearlessly into the world and live.

All told, Fear Inoculum is stunning in scope and magnificence. While 13 years is a long time to wait, the gap melts away between the sounds of this 86-minute masterpiece. Difficult though it might be to fully process, it eases right into the Tool oeuvre and cements its place among their small but towering pantheon of prog-metal art.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi James,
    What a great article you wrote about Tool and their new work of art Fear Inoculum. It is beautiful, powerful, and too much to digest in one listen. It is a masterpiece that we will will talking about years from now. Thank you. RM

  2. Great review that hits the nail on the head. I’ve only listened to the album about 4, 5 times yet. But it seems like this could become my favourite tool album. I may have liked single songs on other Tool albums more but as one quite homogenic sonic experience, Fear Inoculum is astonishing.

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