TOOL, Fear Inoculum (RCA, 2019)
PERSONNEL: Justin Chancellor (bass); Danny Carey (drums, percussion); Maynard James Keenan (vocals); Adam Jones (Guitar)
- Fear Inoculum
- Culling Voices
- Chocolate Chip Trip
Tool fanatics have been waiting 13 years for their favorite band to come completely out of hibernation and release a new album. That’s a long wait. For a little perspective, The Beatles needed less than two-thirds that amount of time to release their entire catalog! Go figure.
It seems only natural that a gestation period of this length would warrant a tremendous amount of anticipation, consternation, anxiety, expectation, elation, frustration, hyper criticism, cynicism, exuberance, and just plain apathy from fans and non-fans alike.
And that is precisely what Fear Inoculum has done, for better or worse. Tool’s first album since 2006’s 10,000 Days has fans, detractors, and critics running the emotional musical gamut. And with good reason. Everyone has something to say about this album, it seems. And in many ways, everyone is right.
“It sounds like Tool. There’s nothing new here.” For the most part, I would agree. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Tool has a signature sound. I enjoy that sound. I’m happy to get more of it! I, for one, didn’t necessarily believe the band was going to re-invent its musical wheel. By not changing their sound, some wonder why it took so long to produce this album. But had they changed their sound, some of the same people would condemn the band for not being true to themselves. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s a tough place to be in. I don’t envy the band in this regard.
Had this album been released ten years ago (leaving a mere three-year gap between albums), more people probably would have seen it as a stepping stone to The Next Thing, whatever that may have been or will be. Singer Maynard James Keenan’s work with A Perfect Circle and Pusifer manifests itself in Fear Inoculum‘s sound, as his voice has become even more melodic, less effects-laden, and devoid of screaming (the latter fact actually being a sore spot for some). Adam Jones (guitar), Justin Chancellor (bass), and Danny Carey (drums) have taken the best aspects of previous albums AEnema (1996) and Lateralus (2001), added a few new sounds, and plowed forward with what they do best. Jones makes the simple sound complex and the complex sound relatively simple. Chancellor plays monstrous bass lines, sometimes with the guitar, sometimes with the drums, and sometimes on his own. And Carey’s use of polyrhythms and deft footwork cements him as one of my two favorite drummers of the past 20 years (along with Gavin Harrison). It all works for me.
“The songs are so long! They go on forever! Couldn’t they come up with more than seven songs over 79 minutes?” I suppose they could have. But that, it would seem, is not the Tool way. Some of the music comes off as a series of extended jams with esoteric lyrics added in after the fact. If you have a short attention span, this is not a good place to be. If you enjoy Tool’s grooves and never want them to end, you’ve come to the right place. (Note: the downloadable version of this album comes with an additional ten minutes worth of material. For the purpose of this review, I’m sticking solely with what’s on the physical CD.)
“It feels both overworked and undercooked,” according to Pitchfork. Eh … I don’t know about that. Sometimes a groove is just a groove. If anyone is overthinking things, it’s probably the critics. Tool likes to dig in and play, letting the jam go where it will. There’s something to be said for that kind of commitment and consistency. And there is so much going on within those grooves, it’s impossible to get bored. One thing is certain: if you dig the grooves, you won’t notice how long they go on, and will actually be a little surprised when they stop. Throwing the kitchen sink into the mix merely for the sake of doing so doesn’t seem right. I’m glad Tool didn’t do that.
“Was the over-the-top packaging really necessary? There’s no way I’m paying 45 bucks for an album!” Yeah … I can’t say I blame you on this one. The hardcore fans were no doubt dying to fork over nearly $50 for a CD that also comes with a 36-page booklet and a battery-driven video screen in the middle of the package. Come to think of it, they’re still dying to do so, as the band’s scant run of this edition has all but sold out. Used copies are going for upwards of $200, as of this writing. WHY did Tool see fit to do this? And WHY did they make so few copies? I really don’t know. I suppose they wanted this to be a true Collector’s Edition. Well, mission accomplished.
As a fan, I found myself over a bit of a personal musical barrel. I don’t like simple downloads (they’re too impersonal), and there was no indication that a basic release was forthcoming. So I took the plunge. I don’t regret it, but I would’ve been fine with a more “standard” $20-type release. Rumors of a vinyl release sometime around the Holidays are being confirmed by my record store sources. And something tells me a more basic CD release will be close behind. I find it hard to believe RCA (the band’s label) would be so callous as to leave so many fans who want a simple CD out in the cold. Or will the label prove the “physical media is dead” conspiracy theorists correct? I can only wonder.
“You need more than a few listens to really get this album.” Now that is true! There is a lot of information on Fear Inoculum, and rendering judgement after a single play isn’t being truly objective or honest. I’m at around seven plays, and I still don’t have it all even close to completely nailed down. Part of me wants to keep playing it until I know every note, preferably with a de-tuned Les Paul in my hands. And part of me wants to keep the record a bit distant, so I can still be surprised by what happens, and still be a little baffled by the time shifts and the changes. I’ll make that choice later. One thing is certain: the more I play the album, the better it gets.
So what is my own personal conclusion about the album? Well, it goes something like this:
Fear Inoculum is a rock-solid album, bringing forth the best of what Tool has to offer, and is consistent with their pedigree. The band has no doubt matured in the past decade-plus, making it less necessary for them to shock listeners, and instead focus on doing what they do best: play heavyweight Drop-D (or lower) riffs over highly polyrhythmic drums and wicked bass grooves. It’s great to actually be able to understand what Keenan is saying, as he is mostly devoid of screams, distortion, and effects. I look forward to exploring the meaning behind many of those lyrics.
The album takes the best of what made AEnema and Lateralus great and builds on it, though admittedly not very much. But that’s fine: Tool has a sound all their own, and they’re playing it! There’s no need for additional layering. If the band releases another album in relatively short order, they may feel the need to make more overt changes. But for now, there’s no need to go there. (And I’m not holding my breath for anything else, where another album is concerned.)
Despite its length, the album is well-paced. Tool knows how to make a song smolder before setting it completely ablaze. Carey has added some nice exotic percussion sounds to his arsenal, and it is really cool to hear what he can do when he’s up front in the mix, like on “Chocolate Chip Trip.” The band has also added some nice new synthesizer-based layers to its tone palate. They were able to add these colors without using them to overwhelm their established sound, for which I give credit. Jones also plays more very nice, clean guitar lines, giving himself room to work his way toward the “heavy.”
Tool also shows its maturity by the quality of their instrumental interplay. The lengthy songs show a level of focus most groups would be incapable of in this day and age. It would be highly enjoyable to hear these grooves played live (which I could have, if not for my deep dislike of the venue they played while in town recently). That they played themselves right off the radio is pretty much irrelevant, since they probably weren’t going to get all that much airplay for this record anyway.
Of the seven songs, the title track and “7empest” are my current favorites, but I’ve found something to like in every tune. I seriously doubt I will ever have a runaway favorite. I’m looking forward to becoming more familiar with this album, particularly within context of the rest of the band’s catalog. It should make for a very interesting time with the old “shuffle” button on my CD player.
Bottom line: if you are a Tool fan, you will love Fear Inoculum. The band does everything that made you enjoy them to begin with. If you never were a fan, this record will do nothing to change your mind. Tool are who they are, and unapologetically so. If that’s a problem, perhaps you should seek your entertainment elsewhere.
Tool is back! And I couldn’t be happier.
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