Fear Inoculum may be the most hotly anticipated rock album of the year (or more), but you probably won’t form a clear impression until you sit with it again… and again… and again. For better or worse, Tool’s compensation to fans for putting them through an interminable wait is a longform listening experience that might take years to digest. It’s the kind of work that has you squinting to see revelations that may not actually be there.
Things don’t start off on a very promising note. Never in Tool’s career have the band been so guilty of rehashing old ideas and sounded so utterly uninspired and one-trick as they do on the title track, which also serves as the lead single and album opener. You can turn it into a drinking game of “name the old Tool song the band just ripped off for each section.”
For most of the song’s ten-minute-plus duration, the band labors through the prog-influenced math-metal they once dazzled with, even as recently as their last album, 2006’s 10,000 Days. Drummer Danny Carey’s tabla patterns, so fresh and groundbreaking in 1996, fall flat like a tired, predictable schtick that no longer adds color to the music, instead giving it a tentative, non-committal feel. Likewise, it’s hard to distinguish Maynard Keenan’s vocal melodies on the song from any pale imitation we’ve heard over the last three decades.
For the most part, Keenan approaches his vocals on Fear Inoculum as if his bandmates no longer push him to be creative with his phrasing, which was once so unique it shattered the mold and defined an era. Now, Keenan sounds encased within the amber of his own technique. By contrast, his monosyllabic grunts at the beginning of “7empest” immediately inject the music with new life. You have to wonder what it would have taken for him to feel inspired enough to approach the rest of the new material from a similarly new perspective. When Keenan sings “Long in tooth and soul / Longing for another win / Lurch into a fray / Weapon out and belly in / Warrior / Struggling / To remain / Consequential” on “Invincible,” you can’t help but think that he’s talking about the band itself.
Still, if the first ten minutes of Fear Inoculum follow a predictable course, the album opens up substantially from that point forward. Yes, guitarist Adam Jones recycles a 26-year-old riff (from the 1993 song “Flood”) during parts of “7empest.” And yes, Jones and Carey’s anal-retentive nitpicking sounds like it’s coming from inexperienced young musicians obsessed with Dream Theater, not from a group of seasoned veterans who came out of the gate with the ability to harness their technical ability into potent songs. That said, Fear Inoculum doesn’t consist of songs so much as extended excursions into the unknown.
If there’s one knock on the remaining 77 minutes of this album, it’s that Tool often sound aimless and adrift, lacking in the direction and resolute thrust that defines its back catalog. Gone is the catharsis of the old records, replaced instead by a stillness that holds its simmer but never quite boils over. That doesn’t necessarily dilute the power of the experience though, because getting lost is a huge part of the appeal here, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding sonic environment in which to do so. For entire swaths of this album, it’s abundantly clear that Carey, Jones, Keenan and bassist Justin Chancellor still have the ability to summon the sublime.
The 27-minute one-two punch of “Pneuma” and “Invincible,” for example, contains so many peaks and valleys that the music induces a response not unlike staring out at the expanse of the Grand Canyon—your mind can only take in so much before it just submits to the sheer scale of what you’re looking at. Even the bizarre inclusion of a drum solo in the middle of the record doesn’t disrupt its flow. Apparently Jones, Carey, and Chancellor haven’t lost their sense of ambition. Fear Inoculum is a massive, sprawling opus of record that transports the listener to realms previously unimagined—exactly what you’d want in a Tool album, especially after waiting this long.
But the record also seems to lack the band’s once built-in hunger to innovate. Jones peppers the songs with high-pitched Moog-like keyboard lines that add a splash of newness but don’t obscure the fact that too many of the guitar, drum, and bass parts mimic older songs. Sure, they’re arranged together into an intricate tapestry that feels unfamiliar, but that’s largely due to sleight of hand, and Fear Inoculum all too often sounds like the product of a momentum that’s still going well after the engine has been turned off. Thirteen years will do that.
When Tool’s first full-length Undertow was released in 1993, followed by a Lollapalooza appearance that same year, you got the sense that we were witnessing the beginning of a historic career that would scrape the upper stratosphere of artistic achievement on-par with the likes of Zeppelin and Sabbath. And in so many ways, Tool’s career has been monumental. Though if we’re being fair, we also have to admit that the band has underachieved, strange as that might be to say. Given the initial promise that Carey, Jones, Keenan, Chancellor, and original bassist Paul D’Amour showed in terms of their collective musical ability alone, you have to wonder how much more this group might have accomplished had they committed to spending more time creating together when they were still dripping with inspiration.
That they’ve managed to even attempt an epic work (and a surprisingly effortless listen) like Fear Inoculum is both a testament to how much talent they still have in the tank and an unfortunate reminder of what could have been.
Then again, give Fear Inoculum another few years to sink in. Not exactly short on grandeur, whether or not the album ends up delivering on the mystery its many inscrutable passages suggest, every labyrinthine twist and turn holds your attention enough to keep you listening for what comes next. And before you know it, 87 minutes have gone by and you’re not quite sure what to make of it all, but you’re ready to listen again. For that, Tool are to be commended. If nothing else, the band have given us an album that could very well keep us occupied until its next one arrives sometime around the year 2032.