Album: Fear Inoculum
Genre: Progressive Metal / Experimental Rock
Review by: Karl O’Shea
Thirteen years is a lifetime in the music industry. It’s longer than the lifespans of most bands that have ever existed, let alone a gap between studio albums. Yet here we are in 2019 with a brand-spankin’ new TOOL album. No one could argue their influence on progressive and alternative music - especially the Australian scenes - yet so many trends have come and gone and new ground has been broken multiple times. Do they still make an impact in 2019?
Well, yes and no. We’re all aware of the record-breaking week on the Billboard Rock charts recently which proves that TOOL fans are some of the most obsessed fans out there and crucially, there is still an appreciation for the ‘old-fashioned’ album format. Musically though? There’s nothing on this album that countless bands and music fans haven’t already mined from Ænima, Lateralus and 10,000 Days.
Word of warning: do not approach this album expecting a progression because there is nothing here that Maynard and co. haven’t done before. The main difference would be the subdued vibe that courses throughout most of the album which doesn’t always work in its favour. Although this could be expected considering how much time has passed, the relative lack of dynamics can make for a very samey listen. The several noise/drone interludes do assist in breaking up the D-minor jam fest (seriously guys, try another key for a change) but don’t provide any additional substance. Your enjoyment of a 5min drum solo entitled "Chocolate Chip Trip" all depends on how much you love percussion and/or weed.
Talking about percussion: Danny Carey is easily the MVP on Fear Inoculum. Not only do the drums sound amazing, the technicality on display is something else entirely. You cannot fault the instrumentation. Every note is superbly produced and crystal clear. There’s the classic contrapuntal interplay between bass and guitar. Maynard’s still an amazing vocalist despite the lack of haunting, cathartic bellows of records past which is going to happen with age, regardless of skill. And since this is a prog record, there is no lack of odd time signatures and exploratory song structures to get lost in.
Yet it does feel like something is missing. There is a distinct lack of hooks or instantly iconic riffs (think Schism, Stinkfist, Sober) and Adam Jones’ power chords don’t quite pack the same punch. And honestly, a lot of these tracks could’ve been edited down a few minutes (I’m looking at you "7empest"). The jam band nature of the song-writing can produce some hypnotic moments (most noticeably in 'Pneuma') but you could easily cut at least 10 mins from this record. Past releases have rewarded obsessive and attentive listening but I would argue that slight detachment actually improves the experience, letting the music wash over you as if you were listening to an ambient or drone album.
Despite these criticisms, Fear Inoculum is still an enjoyable listen for the most part, if maybe inessential when compared to the previous heights in their discography. Some editing and some fresh ideas would’ve been welcome but ultimately it is quite amazing that we have new material at all. TOOL at their worst is still better than a lot of bands at their best.
Fear Inoculum is out now via Tool Dissectional, Volcano Entertainment, and RCA Records.