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Tool – Fear Inoculum Album Review

The wait is finally over. After thirteen years, legendary prog-alt-metal band Tool has finally released their fifth album Fear Inoculum, and, let me tell you, it’s good to hear them with all new material. As their longest album yet (namely the digital version, which will be the one being reviewed for today), Tool still tries to push the boundaries with most of the songs lasting over ten minutes thus allowing the band to showcase their new, mature sound. Maturity, however, comes at a cost, and Tool gives listeners a fulfilling record, albeit one that may be too polished.

The title track starts off the album. From the start, the listener can hear the Middle-Eastern influence through its drum patterns, use of its droning cello, and eastern scales. Once Justin Chancellor’s bass comes into the mix, the song has a great groove that morphs through several time signatures until a powerful crescendo at the end. A song about liberation and empowerment, the lyrics describe an object or a person that seems to be negatively affecting the speaker: “Immunity, long overdue / Contagion, I exhale you” and “Forfeit all control / You poison, you spectacle.” A great song overall, the only trait that may make listeners shudder is Maynard James Keenan’s vocals which seem too clean due to overproduction.

“Pneuma” the second track of the album is one of my personal favorite cuts. Adam Jones’ guitar work and Danny Carey hypnotic beats take the song to a higher plane. Dynamic (as with all of Tool’s songs), the song takes its time with its musical passages and seamlessly transitions into the next creating a beautiful, lush synth metal landscape. Keenan’s vocal performance also adds to the lyrics’ discussions about humanism (“We are born of one breath, one word”) and emancipation (“We are spirit bound to this flesh… / But bound to reach out and beyond this flesh / Become Pneuma”). Again, this one cut you shouldn’t miss.

The next song, however, “Litanie contre la Peur” (translated in English as “Litany Against Fear”) is the first interlude within the album and is a half-baked piece of synth work that’s not even worth two seconds, let alone two minutes of a listener’s time. A four-year-old could have done better. Ambiance is key for the song, and I understand the band’s intentions, but for the love that is all good in Tool’s discography, please avoid this cut at all cost.

Following the previous mess, is “Invincible” another clean, overproduced cut. The guitar work here seems to be hampered by the production and giving it a muddy sound. As usual, Chancellor and Carey bring everything to the song. The problem, however, are the poor lyrics; the song’s about a typical aging warrior in which the “warrior struggl[es] to remain relevant.” (In other words, think of the lyrics as a mixture between Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and The Beatles’ “Help”) Stereotypical and, of course, cringe-worthy use of vocal effects make the cut a pretty mediocre track. 

“Legion Inoculant” is the next song. Another instrumental interlude, this is far superior to “Litanie contre la Peur” with its sweeping, vast synth effects and its choir-like vocals. Short, eerie, space-y, and beautiful. Brian Eno would be proud.

After the second interlude, “Descending” starts with the sound of crashing waves followed by Jones’ arpeggios and Keenan’s vocals, which finally uses effects that contribute to the overall song, shine through in the song. He gives a passionate delivery throughout especially by the bridge (“Sound the dread alarm” / “Through the primal body”) and the lyrics are a great call to arms against destruction (“Drifting through this boundlessness…/ Call us to arms and order”). Important to note also, “Descending is another great dynamic song leading to a satisfying ending, and Jones’ performance on the song is one of the best on the album.

The next cut “Culling Voices” is Tool most beautiful work on the album. In my opinion, the cut is their version of a kind of ballad, the lyrics talk about the speaker’s descent into madness and isolation: “Psychopathy / Don’t you dare point that at me / Heated altercations we’ve never had.”  The repeating guitar drone for half of the cut is a great juxtaposition to the lyrics and Keenan’s vocals her are the best on the entire album. There are no other ways to describe this song: it’s a must listen.

Another sweet instrumental on the album, “Chocolate Chip Trip,” tops them all. A mix between John Cage, Throbbing Gristle, and avant-jazz, this cut is strange yet fascinating because of one thing: Carey’s drum. This is a song that highlights his talents and cements his legacy with one of the great drummers of all time with Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker.  

After the Carey’s spectacular drum work, the next cut “7empest” gives listeners the raw, abrasive sound that we’ve come to know and love. With a beautiful introduction composed of bells and guitar overdubs, the song really takes command as soon as the guitar starts playing. Everyone on the song gives it their all: Keenan’s masterful performance, Chancellor’s steady bass, Jones’ intricate guitar playing, and Carey’s hypnotic drumming. The song’s lyrics are also the strongest throughout the entire album talking about resistance (“Look it dead in the eye, you are darkness / Trying to lull us in, before the havoc begins”) and also losing control (“So try as you may, feeble, you attempt to atone / your words to erase all the damage cannot”). In summary, this is the Tool song on the album. Perhaps, if the band had taken the same ideas on the song (especially its rawness), the band could have developed some of the songs into something more. 

Unfortunately, however, the album ends on a low-note with another disappointing ambient track titled “Mockingbeat.” Another throwaway experiment. And guess what? They use mockingbird samples, if you couldn’t tell. 

Now that I think about it, Fear Inoculum is like a fine-aged wine: one that’s been in the cellar for thirteen years. After buying the album and getting a taste of its nectar, you wonder if it’s worth the price and the wait because there are other better alternatives from the same band (particularly Undertow and Lateralus) that have that kick of pure ecstasy. At the end of the day, however, you realize that Fear Inoculum is still a good album; it retains everything you love about Tool. Like the aged wine, the album may be perfect for a lot of people—a little too perfect perhaps—but, hey, at least it’s a new Tool album.

Album Rating: 7 fear-filled inoculations out of 10

Recommended Tracks: “Fear Inoculum,” “Pnuema,” “Legion Inoculant,” “Descending,” “Culling Voices,” “Chocolate Chip Trip,” “7empest”

Review By: William Pagdatoon