The Lowdown: Thirteen years in the making, and Tool have finally returned with their long-awaited fifth album, Fear Inoculum. The wait tested the patience of the band’s notoriously dedicated following, and every year the question was raised: “Is the Tool album coming out?” Any inkling of a new song or even a tidbit of information was dissected and glorified to the point where the band’s privacy was compromised. Singer Maynard James Keenan even received death threats because of the album’s delay.
The band felt the weight of these pressures and expectations, and considering their own perfectionist approach to composition, the album’s creation took longer than usual. As band members recently revealed, they worked by guitarist Adam Jones’ mantra of, “It’s not good when it’s done, it’s done when it’s good.” Entire, finished compositions were scrapped and reworked in a continuous search for a “good” album — or at least a record worthy of the exaggerated anticipation proliferated by the years of delay and subterfuge from the Tool camp.
Never one for indulging hype or media sensationalism, Keenan soldiered on, making albums with Puscifer and A Perfect Circle; meanwhile, the other members of Tool retreated into the writing process. The premiere of a new song at a live show would peak fans’ hopes for news of the new album, but until the August 30th release date was officially unveiled earlier this year, Fear Inoculum remained an anomaly, creating a fever-pitch of hype in a music industry where few artists can maintain such a sense of mysterious ambiguity.
The Good: Fear Inoculum is a vast work of highly conceptualized progressive rock, fitting snuggly in Tool’s canon of similarly exploratory works. The overall tones and sonic palette immediately recall 10,000 Days, each song being a journey unto itself, which results in extremely long track lengths and multi-movement pieces where passages linger and breathe for minutes at time.
At its best, the album rewards patience with cinematic payoffs. The highlight “Pneuma” exemplifies this adroit pacing, opening with lush chords and melodies that twist and gnarl into a crushing doom-laden chorus. Justin Chancellor’s bass line on this track will go down as one of his finest ever, guiding the song through these loud-soft dynamics. “Descending” also follows a similar pattern of growth from ponderous ambience to heavy breakdowns and some of Jones’ most memorable guitar work on the album during the song’s post-metal second half.
Keenan maintains a reserved, minimal presence throughout the album, appearing deliberately in each song to offer oblique sermons on the metaphysical and pleas for spirituality, the printed lyrics being stylized poetically: “We are Spirit bound to this flesh/ (We) go round one foot nailed down/ (But) Bound to reach out and beyond this flesh, become Pneuma.” His vocal performances and words have emphasis due to their brevity and selectiveness.
Inversely, drummer Danny Carey takes the direct spotlight on Fear Inoculum. It’s arguably the most percussion-heavy set of the songs in the Tool catalog, with Carey rarely taking a rest as he tirelessly paces the band. Even when the music drops out, he takes to the bongos for polyrhythmic backdrops (“Fear Inoculum”, “Invincible”). In a rare instance for such compositionally dense material, the drums take the lead as the centerpiece in the ensemble — though that’s not to say Jones and Chancellor don’t get their share of creative freedom. One could essentially listen to Fear Inoculum and focus on one particular instrument and be rewarded by the subtleties of each.
The Bad: At 86 minutes, Fear Inoculum looms as a daunting and time-consuming undertaking that doesn’t compromise its core artistic concept for immediate accessibility. In that way, it’s like most Tool albums, particularly Lateralus and 10,000 Days. The tracks are less discernible as songs in the traditional sense, instead falling into a sort of impressionistic sonic experience that doesn’t offer instant gratification. For Tool, that has always been their modus operandi. Fear Inoculum might be their most difficult album to approach for those looking for a quick fix, and it isn’t likely to convert anyone previously indisposed to the band’s lengthy sonic explorations. If it doesn’t necessarily require work on the part of the listener, it at least commands their time.
That said, the album would have benefitted from a few minor edits to that 86-minute runtime, particularly the three segues in the digital release (the CD version omits these and flows just fine) and the inessential “Chocolate Chip Trip”, which disrupts the album’s generally cohesive atmosphere with a noodling free noise jam.
The Verdict: Fear Inoculum lives up to its daunting expectations with songs that showcase Tool in peak performance as musicians and compositional arrangers. For the diehard fan, there’s a lot to consume here. Likewise, the album offers little respite for the uninitiated; its accessibility comes in the form of its vastness and eerie psychedelia, not through hooks or common pop structures. This is deep prog-rock as only Tool can create it, holding steadfast to the concept of the recorded album as a seamless listening experience. Fear Inoculum is best heard with full, unbridled attention, and 86 minutes to spare, which in an age of instant gratification makes it both difficult for the passing newbie and endlessly endearing for its target audience.
Essential Tracks: “Pneuma”, “Descending”, “7empest”