The Chinese Democracy of metal has finally dropped. Fear Inoculum is the latest release from alternative metal band Tool, their first full-length album since 2006’s 10,000 Days. Many reasons were given for the delay, from lawsuits to family issues to solo pursuits in the meantime, but the overarching point is it’s finally here, in a nearly hour-and-a-half long stretch of purported glory. The comeback attempts of numerous artists throughout history have shown that it can be incredibly difficult if not futile to try to return to full form after such a long time out of the saddle, but some exceptions have proved this not entirely true. Can Tool be one of those fortunate few with this release? That verdict, much like the drop date for this record for so many years is yet to be determined- and let’s not waste any more time in our quest to do so.
Normally, one wouldn’t imagine that placing a 10-minute track as the opener to your album would be a sensical idea. However, this is Tool we’re talking about and “Fear Inoculum” isn’t even the longest song on the tracklist, believe it or not. Starting with panning guitar swells and rocketing synths and winding its way through bongos and bass up to a standard-issue prog track with a cringey spoken-word interlude, the namesake song of the album describes a struggle to pull away from a “deceiver” and “contagion”; perhaps fear, perhaps alcohol, perhaps whatever it could be. As is customary, it breaks into a polyrhythmic time signature before changing keys and descending into a machine-gun assault resemblant of the end of “Lateralus.”
“Pneuma” out-lengths Track 1 by a minute and a half, and once the intro passes sounds like “Schism” 2.0- only with far less energetic production. The general flatness in comparison to previous records is an unfortunate flaw of the album thus far, making it sound more like a Logic ProX jam than a serious LP. Not only that, this track winds on a hell of a lot longer than it should. 6 or 7 minutes would have been acceptable, but 12 minutes of half-baked meandering would drive even the staunchest stoic inspired by this song’s lyrics to get up and leave.
Finally, a shorter song comes along. Thing is, it’s an interlude. “Litanie contra la Peur” clocks in at 2 minutes and 16 seconds and amounts to Adam Jones emulating Roger Troutman singing an Islamic nasheed through a phasered talkbox with the treble turned way down. Probably not that far off considering that the concept, translating to “Litany Against Fear” in English, is based off of a mantra recited by the elite in Frank Herbert’s Dune to achieve stoic grounding. When we return to the meat of things, “Invincible” is incredibly even longer than the first two tracks and really doesn’t sound all that different.
Lyrically, the themes of ancient warrior culture and spirituality flow well with the overall concept of the album, with phrases like “Warrior, struggling to remain relevant” certainly making allegories to Maynard and co. coping with the rapid change in the industry and trying to maintain their place within it. However, it’s hard to see how letting dustballs collect for over 10 years was going to help the cause towards longevity in a business where new music and content is coming out constantly. Let not any lowly, common-man opinions affect them, however, as the revisited lyric “bless this immunity” on “Legion Inoculant” implies to wisely numb ones’ self from the judgements of the crowd. A simple, but effective phrase that stands out, even in what sounds like an audio time warp from one monolith song to another.
“Descending” continues on the typical Tool trademarks of complex time signatures and self-impressed pseudo-intellectual divings, this time touching upon the demise of the human species, the environmental crisis, apathy in society or all those together and more: “Stir us from our wanton slumber/Mitigate our ruin/Call us all to arms and order.” Once again, it very much resembles “Lateralus”, minus a lot of the punch the track from 2001 packed. “Culling Voices” tells of an individual’s struggle with his ego, being lead to believe that his behaviour in this battle with his artificial self is a symptom of psychopathy instead of looking at how deep one has sunk into their individual reality. Certainly a relevant theme given our mainly egotistical divisions today, and linked in with the Hellenistic ideas expressed thus far.
In contrast to the Greek conceptualizing of “Culling Voices”, the instrumental “Chocolate Chip Trip” is, besides being one of the worst-named songs in recent history, one of the weirdest ones too as well- almost, almost seeming out of place on this record if not for the fact that it’s Tool we’re talking about. It’s one in a long line of short Tool album intervals that are utterly obscure, and one that begs the question with overly technical, conceptual acts as to whether skit and song titles like this really mean anything or are complete nonsense meant to sound smart. Then again, you might wonder if the entire catalogue of such a band is like that too.
At last, we come to the closing piece of Tool’s return to the airwaves, starting with “7empest” at a whopping 15 minutes and 45 seconds long. While Danny Carey and Adam Jones navigate their way through extensive 21/4 signature passages, Maynard James Keenan focuses his concentrated rage on various media manipulators and buck-passers, perhaps a certain Commander-In-Chief, perhaps not- Nevertheless it is a fitting way to end the record, taking aim at those that try to cover up the devastation that is plainly around the corner- emphasized by the distorted jungle sounds of “Mockingbeat” that emulate the extinction of animal life and nature on the part of humankind. Not much longer can humans hide from the madness they have brought upon themselves, it is argued here; and now neither can we about the truth of whether bothering with a record after this long was a sound idea.
Tying back into the initial question of whether Tool would be one of the bands that could pull off a solid comeback after so long or no, the answer is a certain no. There are some plus points that one can identify in Fear Inoculum, for sure, but overall this is a record that shouldn’t have happened. It is the sound of a band attempting the same formula that they have always stuck with; while it has brought them success before it now sounds sterile, tired and old.
After a long time away, one would expect that some evolution in regards to sound would have occurred in the vacation period; not just between albums and between songs. It’s unattractive to put 10 songs together on an album in this manner, with 6 of them exceeding 10 minutes long and the other 4 being instrumentals. It is furthermore unattractive to have production this flat on such a high-flying return. This confirms sadly that Tool has played out their welcome and is well past their prime. There is apparently another album on the way from them but it’s hard to imagine that it would be much different. If a longtime fan still wants to appreciate Tool for their past contributions, they have kindly opened their entire catalogue to the digital public not that long ago. However, if they’re looking for something new, fresh and exciting, this ain’t gonna cut it.