TOOL releases long-awaited “Fear Inoculum” to mixed reviews

By Jack Ging, Saba Ali, Editor-In-Chief, and Lia Riechmann, Editor-In-Chief

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Legendary alternative metal band TOOL has finally returned with their infamously belated fifth album. In the thirteen years of studio silence between this record and their last, much about the music industry has changed. Most notably, music has become predominantly distributed via monthly subscription services rather than physical releases.

TOOL was one of the few major rock bands who refused to adapt to this change, never putting their music on Spotify, Apple Music, or other music platforms. That was, until mere weeks before the release of this new album, where the band’s music became miraculously available everywhere. Whether the band’s hiatus or refusal to have their music streamed was intentional or not, this wound up being an effective marketing strategy, as the band has managed to maintain their commercial relevance (reaching #1 on Billboard’s 200 album chart).

Marketing aside, the band’s mainstream success has been somewhat of an enigma from the beginning. Their debut album “Undertow”, while containing much of the down-tuned, simple riffs that date most popular ’90s metal, the band proved themselves to be a cut above their contemporaries, dabbling with more absurdist lyrics and time signatures not usually heard in popular metal.

The band would double down on what made them unique in their 1996 classic “Ænema”, and their 2001 masterpiece “Lateralus”. Both of these albums managed to be some of the most mind-bending, long-winded, and impressive albums in the entire metal genre, without alienating a commercial audience in an era where simplistic, watered-down fusions of electronic, hip-hop and metal (commonly referred to as “Nu Metal”) dominated much of the genre in the mainstream.

After their also acclaimed 2006 album “10,000 Days”, the band mysteriously went on hiatus, with studio silence from virtually every member, with the exception of 2018’s “Eat the Elephant” by A Perfect Circle, another band lead by TOOL frontman Maynard James Keenan.

“[It was] quite possibly one of worst comebacks of any band,” said Fareed Khan, senior.

Despite not releasing new music, the band continued to tour together and constantly affirmed that a new album was “on the way”. Given this, and the band’s near-perfect track record, this new album was constantly rumored and anticipated by fans of metal for over a decade. With these huge, practically impossible shoes to fill, does “Fear Inoculum” live up to the hype? Well, let’s take a look.

This album certainly stays true to what the band is known for: long-winded, mind-bending odysseys with unconventional, shifting rhythms and esoteric lyrics. In fact, this album is likely the most “TOOL” album the band has ever released. Despite only having seven songs and three interludes, this is the longest album they’ve dropped so far, clocking in at nearly 90 minutes. While TOOL is no stranger to extending their tracks passed the ten-minute mark, this album doesn’t do that sparingly.

“It took them a little while [to make the album] but I’m loving it,” said Jason Hayes, P.E. teacher.

The length of these tracks may intimidate new listeners, but many are justified in their length. The meta, self-reflective “Invincible” is a good example of this, maintaining one of the most hypnotic grooves on the album, while perfectly balancing vocal and instrumental passages.

Courtesy of metalinjection.net
TOOL frontman Maynard James Keenan performing new songs from “Fear Inoculum”

Justin Chancellor’s bass work and Danny Carey’s off-kilter, yet perfectly planned drumming are just as on point as ever, doing most of this song, and really the rest of the album’s heavy lifting. For as many well-paced and well-rounded tracks as there are, moments like the extended synthesizer jamming on “Pneuma” or the understated crescendo at the end of “Culling Voices”, make this album’s overall run time feel forced in order to accommodate fans’ expectations of a long album.

“[The album] didn’t live up to the hype, but also it’s hard to judge something when it’s so far removed from original success,” said Colin Ratcliff, senior.

While TOOL maintains their usual formula, they dabble in a few new sounds to help distinguish this album from the rest of their discography. This is apparent right from the opening title track, as an eerie synth shift from the left and right channel, playing off of the rhythm seamlessly. This electronic sound is laced throughout the record. The atmospheric sounds near the end of “Descending” or the aforementioned “Pneuma” are good examples of this, but it is most prominent on the ambient interludes.

As much as I’d like to appreciate the band doing something different, these experiments don’t always work out.

When TOOL used interludes on albums like “Ænema” and “Lateralus” they fit in the context of the tracks they surround themselves with. The same can’t be said from their most recent album,“Fear Inoculum”, as songs like “Litanie Contre la Puer” and “Legion Inoculant” feel like incoherent detours that don’t connect back to anything and only serve to pad out the album to exceed 80 minutes. That being said, the intelligent dance music influenced “Chocolate Chip Trip” is a cool change of pace that comes completely out of left field.

The album is at its most impressive when TOOL are doing their best to sound like their old selves. A good example would be the almost 16-minute “7empist”, which is the album’s most enjoyable track by far. It’s a visceral, enraged take on blissful ignorance, with Maynard giving one of his most engaging vocal performances on the album. Given its speedier, heavier tone, it sounds like a song that could’ve been released in the band’s early years.

Overall, while not quite fulfilling the gigantic wave of hype built up for the past thirteen years, TOOL makes a return to form that will likely please fans but alienate new audiences. Despite the added bells and whistles and the length, this album lacks much of its own identity in the TOOL catalog, coming off more as the band rehashing what they’re known for without making too many interesting changes.

This story was originally published on Devils’ Advocate on September 23, 2019.