Do I really need to do a cutesy intro for the most anticipated album of the decade? Let’s jump right in!
Tool aren’t known for keeping things short and simple, and they’ve made no exception on their first album in 13 years. The four interlude tracks aside, the songs on Fear Inoculum all clock in past the 10 minute mark. This gives the band ample time to weave a tapestry of odd time signatures, hypnotic riffs, enchanting vocals, and shamanic drum work.
This is definitely the least heavy Tool album, which isn’t a bad thing, but that may turn off more casual fans. The band’s King Crimson influence most apparent here, seen on things like the intros of “Invincible” and “7empest”. The latter track is also the heaviest on the album, and yet somehow the most accessible despite being over 15 minutes. While some songs may have their heavier moments, no other track really goes as hard as this one. Besides King Crimson, the album is most similar to previous Tool songs like the “Wings For Marie” duo, “The Patient”, and “Reflection”. Hell, there’s even a percussion break on the title track that sounds like a callback to “Reflection”.
All four members of Tool lay down grade-A performances, but Danny Carey is the star of the show. His fills are immaculate, and the way he weaves in and out if polyrhythms is mind-blowing. All of his stylistic choices are tasteful, even the simple things like the eighth note splash cymbal ride at 10:34 of “7empest”. Adam Jones really steps it up too, as he gets into the kind of extended soloing we’ve only really seen from him previously on “Jambi”. His most impressive moment is the ridiculous, spider-crawling fretwork on “7empest” that comes in at 7:43 and gets reprised at 10:52. The guitar tone on this record is some of Jones’ best as well.
As with any Tool record, there is a lot of great interplay between Jones’ guitar and Justin Chancellor’s bass. Take the dueling volume swells on the title track for example, or the staggered layers on “Pneuma”. By layering and intertwining their parts, these guys create the illusion that more than two stringed instruments are present. And as usual, Chancellor stands strong as the focal point of the riffs. The less heavy, more expansive approach to the instrumentation allows him to shine through with melodic basslines.
This approach also gives way to more vulnerable and intimate vocals from Maynard, best shown on “Culling Voices”. I think the only thing this song could have used vocally is some additional aggressive vocals at the song’s instrumental climax, but this is his best performance on the album otherwise. He only really gets aggressive on “7empest”, as if he had been powering up for this finale through the course of the album. He does dial things up from time to time elsewhere, but there is plenty of depth to his softer vocals too. Some of my other favorite Maynard moments on this album are the “Exhale, expel” refrain of the title track “Fear Inoculum” and the part man, part machine vocals at 8:27 of “Invincible”, which are juxtaposed wonderfully by Chancellor’s chorused bass.
You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned “7empest” an excessive amount of times. This song is where each member’s strengths come together best. It’s a great example of Tool worldbuilding over the course of an extended track length. Other great examples of this include the title track and “Invincible”. On both of these songs, Tool have mastered the art of the slow build, and by the end of them you hardly even realize how much time has passed. On “Pneuma” the band does this as well, but knocks things down again only to masterfully build to a grand final chorus that sounds primed for a stadium full of cheering fans.
Although they have been the bane of past Tool albums (looking at you Ænima), the interlude tracks actually work pretty well on this album. They set the mood nicely, with the exception of the annoying high pitched note that’s panned to the right throughout “Chocolate Chip Trip”. Granted they’re nothing special, but I don’t immediately reach for the skip button when these come on, so that’s a plus.
I think the main issue with this album is that some of the tracks didn’t need to be as long as they are. The last third or so of “Descending” feels like a glorified jam session. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and some of the transitions aren’t that smooth (see 9:38 of the track). “Culling Voices” is great, but this song could also have been a minute or two shorter. Mind you, I’m not calling for any 4 minute songs here, and the extended lengths work for some of the tracks, just not all of them. The band has always been at their best when they keep things in the 6-9 minute range, and I think these extended jam session moments will largely get a pass from fans and critics as being deep or serving some greater purpose.
The production is pretty solid for the most part, but there are some moments where the drums sound like they are clipping. For example, this can be heard on the sections starting around 5:40 of “7empest” and 9:40 of “Pneuma”. There is also some clipping during the whammied bass solo in “Invincible”. Combined with the fact that this is Justin Chancellor’s least interesting recorded bass solo, this is a little disappointing.
It’s worth noting that very few albums can live up to the expectations built up under 13 years of suspense, but this is still an excellent effort from Tool. As with any Tool album, Fear Inoculum is a body of work that takes many listens to fully grasp. Anyone heralding this as “Album of the Year” after one listen is a fool, as is anyone immediately writing it off as boring, pretentious wankery. And even after all of my listens, I’m sure there are a bunch of cool Easter eggs on hear that I haven’t figured out (so far all I’ve got is that the track length of “Descending” spells out “LEET”, and that the album title is an anagram for “ALIEN CUM FOR U”). I don’t know if we’ll get another Tool album after this one, but Fear Inoculum is a solid addition to Tool’s nearly flawless catalog.
Best Tracks: 7empest, Invincible, Pneuma
Weakest Tracks: Descending, Mockingbeat
Overall Score: B+