Album Review | Tool | Fear Inoculum

It took some time to write this review. As is common with most Tool albums it usually also takes some time to get into them. I harken back to my initial exposure to the band; I generally found the songs too long and struggled to find anything catchy in the music that brought me back for repeated listens, until one day. I am not sure how it happened but all of a sudden, in 2002, four minutes into  “The Grudge” it clicked. I loved this riff. I listened to the song over and over waiting for that climactic moment. It never grew old. My infatuation spilt over to the album in general and so my love of Tool began. Fast forward to 2019. The new Tool album is hotly anticipated and I have already begun to grow tired of the hype before the album is even close to release. I was not a huge fan of 10,000 Days. It was a good album but nothing that blew me away and I found it slightly pretentious at the time (shock horror, imagine thinking this about Tool). So it was safe to say I was not extremely excited for the new release.  Though my interest was not completely un-piqued.

When the single came out, the album’s title track, I was disappointed. The song didn’t seem to speak to me. It felt like recycled parts from older albums. I grew even less excited for Fear Inoculum so when it came out and I finally listened to it from start to finish I was confused to discover that I adored it. Even the single that I had initially felt unfavourably about had unwittingly grown on me. I began to question whether the song was the same. “Had the mixing been improved? Had they added additional parts?” I asked myself. Where Tool albums usually take time to grow on me this one immediately spoke to me from the get go. I was slightly nervous it would wear off, so I gave it some time, a few weeks, and I still loved it.

This may be a controversial opinion as I see a lot of people who really did not enjoy it. Even the internet’s busiest music nerd (Anthony Fantano) described the album as boring, but I have to respectfully disagree with all of you.

This new album struck me as surprisingly mature for Tool. As much as they have always been musically ahead of the curve in many respects they have always been an angsty and self-important band and their fanbase seems to take on their worst traits with glee. The riffs, although not that flashy, all felt very listenable and catchy. Maynard’s generally nasally tone has smoothed out and his vocal delivery is silky and confident. He does not quite reach the highs and the screams that he once did, but I can’t help but think this is out of choice more than inability. The drumming as always is on another level. Danny Carey might be the highlight of this album for me but that’s not to say the rest of the album is anything but fantastic. The guitar work on this album, although not wholly original in style, is decidedly more melodic than Adam Jones’ playing on previous albums. His leads have evolved a fair amount too. Though we still get the single droning notes, drowned in effects, his playing has become more lyrical. Justin Chancellor’s consistent use of bass delay is both unconventional and thoroughly pleasing on the ears and his playing is percussive and driving. I feel all the musicians on this record have developed musically and are attempting new ways of playing that although are not objectively better, show a great deal of maturity. The performance seems to focus its attention on the whole rather than a need for flashy individual performances. Fear Inoculum has a distinctly different feel to their previous records and for that, I respect it greatly.

As per usual with Tool, I find the more I listen to the album the smaller gratifying moments I discover. The album has a very ambient nature and it does not assume to always hold your attention. It has the essence (although not sound) of acts like The Grateful Dead and follows in the footsteps of many of those jammy, acid-infused bands of the 60’s and 70’s.  After a few listens I tend to skip the in-between tracks. Not that I find anything wrong with them but with the album being ambient as it is, I find myself wanting to get to its meat. This is common practice for me with most Tool albums, particularly Aenima and Lateralus so I would not say this is a new development in my interaction with the band’s music. Though the in-between tracks are filler for the most part, a special mention goes to “Chocolate Chip Trip”, which gets me every time.

As stated many moments of this album reminds me of 60’s/70’s progressive rock but oddly enough some parts even remind me of late 2000’s Iron Maiden (which was also fairly progressive). A weird association I know but I can’t help my weird brain. There are some distinctly heavy metal style riffs that pop in from time to time that wouldn’t go amiss on a classic rock or heavy metal album. The band seems to have grown considerably. They seem less interested in “pushing the envelope” and more concerned with creating a musical journey. After multiple listens I can’t say I prefer any track over the other. They all have their unique personalities and quirks. Also, as an “album person” I would not want to break up this experience with single recommendations. Go listen to the whole god-damn thing you lazy bastard.

Now to get to my main praise of the album: the mixing. This might be the new gold standard for modern rock mixing. Tool have excelled with the production of this album. Where Tool usually has a bright and almost harsh production sound, this album really brings out the bass. All of the tones on the album are so inviting and warm that I just want to pump it on an outdoor festival rig, take five dried grams (the heroic dose) of shrooms and lie in the centre. The album far excels any of their previous album mixes and I get pure enjoyment just from the physical feeling of the sound hitting my ears. Fear Inoculum also seems to lack extreme quantisation as some of the introductions featuring percussion have a natural flow to their rhythm, sometimes not sounding “perfect” but feeling all the more real for it. I am enraptured how natural the sound is. I also feel the album has not been overly compressed as there is quite a disparity in volume between the softer and louder parts of the album, and again, I feel this contributes to the warmth and natural sound Fear Inoculum invokes.

The final thing I want to discuss is the lyrics. Maynard’s lyrics are usually veiled in irony and cryptic metaphors, but I feel he is being particularly candid on this record. I generally think that I can understand a Tool song’s meaning on a single listen (though I may be wrong here). And in the same way the music has matured, the lyrical writing has stepped up to the plate too. Maynard’s lyrics feel topical but not condescending. Philosophical but not undermining.

Now this is by no means a disparaging statement but I also feel this album has a dad-ish quality to it, and I love it. It is not in your face but calculated and non-pervasive. Although it is ambient and sits in the background, when you choose to listen there is so much to decipher. Although at first glance this album may feel either uninspired, boring or more of the same from Tool but I find the complete opposite. To me, this album is mature and powerful and it shows a great step forward for the band. It even makes me look forward to possible future releases (though I shouldn’t get my hopes up). Maybe it’s not the Tool album everyone thought they wanted, but it most definitely the Tool album we deserve. Thanks for not ruining my childhood, guys.

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You can stream Fear Inoculum on every major streaming platform, such as Spotify, Apple Music, etc. It’s everywhere.

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