Tool – Fear Inoculum
Fear Inoculum is a complex record. “No shit!” I hear you cry, this is a Tool album after all, a band renowned for being technical and meticulous in their craft. While Fear Inoculum certainly has all that going for it, it’s also complex in that it is an album of stark contradictions. Right from the off it is obvious that this is a Tool album through and through. The expansive darkness, the deep-rooted mysticism, the cryptic lyrics, the high wire act between aggression and attention to detail: it’s all there, clear as day. At the same time however, it feels like an entirely different beast to all their previous output. This is not an album of snarling riffs and guttural vocals, rather one of uneasy slow-burning tension. Not an edge of your seat thriller to get your heart pounding, but a psychological thriller to make your skin crawl.
Each track (save the few brief interludes) is a sprawling 10+ minute epic that explores the band’s more expansive and atmospheric side. Vocals are sparse and subdued by Tool standards, and while heavy riffs are still present they are as a pay-off to several minutes of build-up rather than the initial hook to pull you in. It bears little in common with the hits that made them, this is a hulking behemoth of a record that is made to be listened to in it’s entirety. While that sounds like a recipe for their most dense and impenetrable release, somehow it feels like it works as an ideal entry point for new listeners. The production is immaculate, head and shoulders above anything else I’ve heard in a long time, which makes delving into the record’s many nuances even more of a joy. While the handful of unnecessary interludes fill the apparently requisite quota of filler that comes with being a Tool album, it still remains the band’s most consistent body of work to date, making it an engaging listen from start to finish.
All that being said, it’s no Lateralus. It doesn’t reach the heights of their greatest work, in fact I’d likely rank it slap-bang in the middle of their discography. While there’s no one fatal flaw, there are a lot of little cracks that start to add up when considered together. That same consistency that was so deserving of praise is also partly responsible for the tracks bleeding together and lacking enough distinction from each other. With the exception of ‘Pneuma’ and ‘7empest’ most of the run time doesn’t grab you until a fair few listens down the line.
There are also some repetitive instrumental sections that carry on ticking over for just a tad too long, and do more to diffuse tension than build it. Thankfully these sections are the exception to the norm, where the sparse vocals leave room for masterful musicianship. While each member is integral to creating the band’s sound, this is very much Danny Carey’s opus. He’s always been an exceptional drummer but he reaches another level on Fear Inoculum. Either he’s a hyper-intelligent octopus masquerading as a human, or the 13 year break between records was the time it took him to evolve extra arms, because his playing here is nothing short of extraordinary.
All considered this album doesn’t live up to the hype, but then it was never going to. Thirteen years of anticipation from one of the most rabid fanbases in music; only perfection would do. While it’s not perfect, it’s a valuable addition to Tool’s body of work, and is one of the defining releases of 2019.