Tool | Fear Inoculum album review: 7emptestuous and awe-inspiring, but 13 years for 6 new songs is way too long
Tool's Fear Inoculum released worldwide and on most streaming platforms last Friday — a whole 4,873 days since the band's previous LP 10,000 Days
Fear Inoculum is Tool's fifth studio album after Undertow (1993), Aenima (1996), Lateralus (2001) and 10,000 Days (2006)
The quartet from Los Angeles California comprises singer Maynard James Keenan, drummer Danny Carey, bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones
Eight tracks (or a total of just under 70 minutes) into Fear Inoculum — the first album released by LA prog-metal band Tool in over 13 years, came a strange sense that something was missing. A feeling that's comparable to the sudden realisation that dawns a few bites into a meal that there's a distinct absence of salt. That isn't to say, of course, that the meal isn't perfectly edible and delicious even in the absence of said condiment, but there remains the unshakeable feeling that you're missing out on something.
Where, the question arose sharply, were the barnstormers, the gut-punchers, the hellraisers? The likes of Vicarious and Jambi (off 10,000 Days ), Parabola and Ticks and Leeches (off Lateralus), Ænema, Stinkfist and Hooker with a Penis (off Ænima) or Prison Sex (off Undertow) seemed to be conspicuous by their absence.
With those thoughts momentarily shunted off to the back of the mind, the ninth track — 7empest — stirs to life to the sounds of Adam Jones' scene-setting guitar noodlings and Danny Carey's chimes. But, there's strangeness afoot. Jones and Carey are no strangers to drifting between different time signatures, but there's something almost mischievous about the way the duo switches back and forth this time around. The sort of mischief that precedes the spectacular.
Less than a minute-and-a-half into said noodlings, and the 'spectacular' does indeed arrive in the form of a monster of a serrated guitar riff — which could have come straight out of the Laterus recordings. Carey soon rejoins the party with machine gun-like bass drums that lay down a firm rhythmic foundation. And all the while, Maynard James Keenan whispers urgently, seemingly exhorting his bandmates to stay tranquil:
Keep, keep, keep it calm
Keep, keep calm
Keep, keep it, keep it calm
Keep, keep calm
Keep, keep, keep calm"
It's at that point that it (probably) occurs to Keenan that two minutes into what is likely the finest piece of music written by the band so far, staying calm is not an option: "Fuck, here we go again".
Fear Inoculum released worldwide and on most streaming platforms last Friday — a whole 4,873 days since the band's previous LP, 10,000 Days — and completed the trinity (in my opinion anyway) of big album releases in 2019, with Rammstein and Slipknot rounding off the trio. For one reason or another and in the years preceding 2019, there have been all sorts of conjecture about how one or more of these albums, particularly Tool's, would not see the light of day.
In fact, even as I watched the band put on a tight, pitch perfect performance on the main stage of the Download Festival at the UK's Donington Park in June this year, the then-untitled new album still seemed like a long way away. At the time, it didn't even have a name. On that night, the band performed one new track — Invincible, but beyond the hauntingly memorable chorus about a warrior struggling to remain relevant/consequential in its chorus, not a lot else stuck in my mind.
A few weeks went by and the band announced the name of the new album on social media, setting a number of people across the globe off scurrying to Google to find out just what the hell an 'inoculum' actually was. A few days later, the title track, as also the entire Tool back catalogue, emerged for the first time on streaming platforms. Having staunchly resisted the format for years, the quartet appeared to be softening its position. Would the album also reflect this willingness to play ball and no longer be recalcitrant?
Returning to 7empest and it feels almost as though the lion's share of the past 13 years went into imagining, writing, rewriting, lining up, realigning, performing and recording this piece of music. It would be paying Keenan, Carey, Chancellor and Jones a huge disservice to call 7empest a 'song', because quite frankly, it isn't a song. It's at least five songs painstakingly brought together in perfect harmony to form a seamless piece of music. Running 15 minutes and 44 seconds, this is, by some distance, the longest track on any Tool album.
It isn't just the composition of this hydra of a track — marrying as it does a set of moods, tempos and range of styles — that makes it such a unique and awe-inspiring entity. Rather, it's how well Jones is able to navigate through the journey that is 7empest and showcase (almost) the full spectrum of the things he can do with a guitar, including but not limited to hammering out chunky riffs, strumming solid rhythm parts, running through innovative leads and pulling off intricate arpeggios. While Carey and Keenan are no slouches on the track and it would sound very different were it not for Chancellor's propulsion of the song with his basslines, this is undoubtedly Jones' magnum opus. It was my contention three years ago that Ænema is the most complete Tool track. 7empest, which I'd go as far as to call a TL;DL version of Tool's entire musical journey so far, puts that claim firmly to the test.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned Invincible — which sounds nothing like the song I heard in the muddy fields of Donington Park three months ago — easily finds itself among the highlights of the album. The synergy of guitars, drums, bass and contemplative lyrics — that prima facie appear to be about the concept of ageing and ingloriously falling by the wayside, although with Tool, who knows? — delivered as only Keenan can make for an intriguing slow-burner that grows into its skin, builds intensity and explodes in its final quarter. The metamorphosis from start to the walls of sound crashing on your eardrums at the end (very much a throwback to the Ænima era) is truly a thing of beauty and you'll want to give this track a number of listens to truly appreciate its intricacies.
But then, that is something that can be said of most Tool songs, certainly the ones that inhabit Fear Inoculum. Pneuma, with its intro that's in some ways reminiscent of the intros to the song Lateralus and Metallica's One, is another one of those tracks that starts off all slow and gentle before steadily working up a head of steam and releasing it all over the song's denouement. Carey's work on the drums and tablas is particularly of note here, as is the extra flourish Jones seems to have brought to his guitaring game that gives the track that little bit more oomph.
Descending is an impressive tapestry of sonic textures and deploys a similar and equally pleasing gradual progression of tempo and heaviness as a Pneuma and Invincible. The title track is the longest album opener on any Tool album and the mellowest. It goes some way in setting the stage for the album filled as it is with very long and slow-burning songs that are not designed to be listened to on a quick drive to the supermarket, nor in the background at a bar or restaurant.
Despite showcasing one of Keenan's most emotional vocal performances and a surprisingly subdued aesthetic, Culling Voices remains the track that has yet to grow on me as much as the others. When it comes to filler/ambient noises/Tool-tooling-around tracks, Fear Inoculum contains four. And for the most part, they are forgettable or wear thin like that joke that gets less and less funny every time you hear it. Legion Inoculant is mildly interesting as the soundtrack to an alien abduction, while Chocolate Chip Trip sounds like someone got hold of some unused material by The Algorithm and had Carey play some drums over it.
Overall, it's safe to say Fear Inoculum is Carey and Jones' post-doctoral thesis, with each track (real ones, not fillers mind you) serving as a lavishly detailed and lovingly constructed chapter. If the lyrical content and absence of bloodcurdling screams is anything to go by, the Tool of 2019 is a far more introspective and less outwardly furious entity than its previous avatars. There's still anger, but it's expressed in more subtle ways.
When it comes to the negatives, a minor quibble is the lack of variety in terms of song types. Shorter and longer tracks bring out different songwriting skill sets and it would have been nice to see a couple of five- or six-minute blasts amid the sea of 10-plus-minute epics. A much bigger quibble is the fact that it took Tool 13 years to put together six proper songs. Art takes time, but that still feels like too damn much.
Nevertheless, this long-awaited LP is a triumphant return to form by one of metal's most divisive bands — either lauded as visionaries or dismissed as pretentious prats — and is almost worth the 13 years that fans have awaited it.
Fuck, here we go again indeed!
This is a review of the ten-track edition of the album streaming on Amazon music.