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Album Review: Tool’s Fear Inocolum – Was it Worth the 13-Year Wait?

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I had low expectations going in. I wanted to steel myself against the inevitable disappointment following a 13-year wait of a band likely past their prime. There are dozens of incredible, young bands in the metal world currently making their mark; why get too hung up on whether Fear Inoculum delivers or not?

Indeed, first impressions left me wanting. A private listening session in a recording studio was an assault on the senses, and while it was an incredible experience, it’s overwhelming to attempt to try and form an opinion on something as complex as Tool music based on just one listen. Then came the first single and it was… OK… but still, I felt incomplete. Even initial listens to the full album weren’t fruitful; it sounded like Tool — so many Tool-isms all over! — but where’s the expansion, the artistic movement forward, and most of all, where are the SONGS?

But then it happened: some time around full album spin number four, it clicked. I should’ve known to be patient, and in some ways I did — shit, Maynard even warned us — but I got impatient. The knee-jerk album reviews that several websites posted the day after the album leak in an effort to capitalize on Tool hype traffic certainly didn’t help.

Here’s the thing: if you’re looking for Lateralus Part III (10,000 Days was Lateralus Part II, let’s be honest), you’re going to be disappointed. Lateralus was a wizard-level masterwork that will be in “best albums ever made” conversations for decades to come, and any attempts to recreate it would have necessarily fallen short (heyo 10,000 Days, again). And if you’re looking for a return to the band’s shorter, song-based fare on Undertow and Ænima, BOY oh boy, are you going to be disappointed.

But that is a good thing. You should be disappointed if that’s what you want. Because great bands do not repeat themselves. And on Fear Inoculum, Tool are certainly not retreading the same old ground, which I reckon is why so much of the band’s fanbase is upset. Lazy music fans enjoy the comfort of familiarity, and there’s not a whole lot of that here.

Fear Inoculum is a full album affair that requires undivided attention and repeat spins. If you’re listening passively while frittering away the hours in front of your work email box or on your subway commute while you scroll through the latest headlines, it’s just not going to sink in.

But when you finally give it the mind it deserves, there is a whole lot to grab onto. Oh, sure, there’s the requisite time signature counting that Tool fans love to incessantly ramble on about. And that stuff’s fun for us music nerds, but it’s less of a focal point and more the backbone the band uses to convey the expansive, dynamic, cinematic pieces of music on this album. It’s up, it’s down, it’s in and out, it’s all over the place, but it’s chaos reigned, entropy with purpose, like a seasoned baseball pitcher who knows how to work counts and use the whole zone rather than blowing batters away with high heat. It’s got a plan going into the at-bat, and if you’re willing to focus, you’ll appreciate the artfulness of that plan and the beauty of its execution. Tool know full well they’re in the crafty old veteran stage of their career rather than the young flamethrower phase, and they’re working with what they’ve got.

Don’t worry, for there are plenty of moments on Fear Inoculum that’ll strike any old-school Tool fan immediately. The heavy riff the kicks in around 3:15 in “Pneuma,” for example, or the first four minutes of “7empest,” which is as close to a single as this album has. And truthfully, I’m glad those moments exist, comfort food amidst a sampling of new flavors.

To be clear, the sonic palette on this album isn’t new — you know well what each musician in this band sounds like, and that hasn’t changed — but the approach to composition is, and that’s what makes Fear Inoculum worth the deep dive.

That said, let’s not get carried away. Tool haven’t reinvented the wheel here, and indeed, there are dozens of new, young bands in the metal world that are probably worth more of your brain-space going forward. But Fear Inoculum represents the best of what Tool are capable of doing in 2019, the very tip-top version of themselves. They didn’t phone it in. It’s focused, it’s grand, and it was worth the wait.

Three final shoutouts: Danny Carey’s performance on this album is exquisite, I would like to make love to Adam Jones’s guitar tone, and on the whole, this album sounds INCREDIBLE, so hats off to Joe Barresi for that.

In closing, don’t give up on Fear Inoculum if it didn’t grab you at first. Stick with it. It’s rewarding, I promise.

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