Album Review: TOOL – Fear Inoculum

By Jackson Stein, Contributor
[RCA; 2019]
Rating: 4.5/10

Key tracks: “7empest”, “Culling Voices”

For many fans, the prospect of a new TOOL album faded into mythology after the years of silence since the release of their 2006 album, 10,000 Days. Frontman Maynard James Keenan seemed more interested in his side projects, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, and the band’s continued absence from music streaming platforms further hindered the fantasy of another studio release. However, after 13 years, TOOL has finally embraced the information age and unleashed their 87-minute monster, Fear Inoculum. Unfortunately, this album is, without question, TOOL’s worst project to date.

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Many of the album’s most glaring problems were forecast by the album’s title track, which was released weeks beforehand. Despite tight performances, the track lacks flavor and oozes a lazy sense of familiarity. It’s TOOL by the numbers, but the hypnotic grooves and dark sound fall well below the epic proportions set by albums like Lateralus and Ænima. The song quickly shifts into the next track, “Pneuma”, which is plagued with all of the flat and skeletal moments that define “Fear Inoculum”, increased tenfold.

After two lengthy songs, the band presents “Litanie Contre La Peur”, the first of four interludes. TOOL sprinkles these ambient moments between tracks that stand at heights between 10 to 16 minutes, but all of the interludes serve as pointless breathers to tracks that are far less epic than the audience is led to believe. These instrumental breaks fail to cleverly transition in and out of other songs and after multiple listens become awful filler. Although many of the lengthy tracks of the album reach frustrating levels of tedium, they’re captivating enough to avoid pressing the skip button; the interludes fare less well.

After “Litanie contre la Peur”, the band offers the most ineffectually flashy song of the album, “Invincible”. The beginning of the track is genuinely enthralling with mesmerizing arpeggiated guitars and TOOL’s trademark odd time signatures. However, it does not take long for this song to devolve into mindlessness. The stale drum solo and horrendous synth leads shove the track into the established pile of disappointment. These features also apply to the next song, “Descending”. While the song’s initial instrumentation is not as compelling as “Invincible”, “Descending” is fortunately saved by Maynard’s impassioned lead vocals – until another 10 minutes are added to its runtime. The song is spoiled by the inclusion of terrible slide guitars as well as the worst synths of the album, which quickly wash away everything that made the track pleasing.

Thankfully, the album takes a turn for the better with “Culling Voices”. Despite its similar form to lesser tunes, the song is legitimately meditative and satisfyingly builds to a stunning conclusion. Although the next main track, “7empest”, is the lengthiest of the album, it’s also the most explosive and invigorating. It possesses the energetic choruses and haunting lyrics that made TOOL so unique to the realm of alternative metal. The perfect collision of drums and chugging guitars serve as a reminder why TOOL has outlived its tacky, less-substantive contemporaries.

Sadly, Fear Inoculum isn’t nearly as vibrant and catchy as the rest of TOOL’s fantastic discography. The group still has an inspirational amount of chemistry, and the performances are solid, even when the songwriting suffers. Many of the band’s fiercest critics unfairly labeled older albums boring and pretentious. On this album, however, they just might be right.

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