It’s been a long time coming. Over ten years in the making, TOOL have finally returned with a brand new studio album. The immediate curiosity is whether the wait has been worth it, and that largely depends on how much you get from the band’s brand of progressive metal. There’s no doubting the quality of the musicianship, likewise the mixing, production and engineering. Fear Inoculum is impressive. It’s also quite boring.
According to Maynard James Keenan, Fear Inoculum was ‘fantastic eight years ago’. Perhaps there is a degree of truth in that. However, I think it’s more likely that the extended wait for new TOOL music has made listeners more willing to indulge in such straggling metal. The band are extremely good at building up a song with patience and restraint, but the payoffs are often belated and underwhelming. TOOL have always been highly divisive, and I imagine that segregation will only develop with the release of their latest record.
The months and years that proceed Fear Inoculum will be revealing, and there’s a small chance that it may grow on me. The performances speak for themselves: everything from Adam Jones’ satisfying shredding to Danny Carey’s proficient percussion sounds largely excellent. It’s carefully constructed, though perhaps to the point of feeling slightly over-engineered. It tries to reward patience — which is commendable enough — but rarely attains that moment of ecstasy. It’s also far, far too fucking long.
Most of my grievances are not exclusive to Fear Inoculum, instead found throughout the discography of TOOL. They are far more frequent here though, and further magnified as a result. For all the soaring solos, flowing basslines and delicious drumming, the outcome is almost always the same. Without any meaningful hooks or considerable climaxes, you’re left wondering what and who this is for, outside of rabid TOOL fans. It sounds like a grand statement that somehow lost sight of what it was trying to convey. Like metal being played by an ambient aficionado.6 10
Favourite tracks // Chocolate Chip Trip
If a bunch of nobodies released Fear Inoculum I don’t think it would make so much as a ripple. Whatever strengths the album has are numbed beyond feeling by its length and astonishing lack of urgency. Long, broody, instrumental-heavy albums have their place — I’ve gushed over enough of them to know — but instead of poking into the frontier this gets mired in a kind of no-man’s land. This sounds like rock in slow motion.
TOOL took 13 years to make this album, and Maynard Keenan has said it was good enough eight years ago. If the band really did get bogged down by self doubt and second guessing every step, it shows. They’re a tight unit, and pleasant enough to listen to for, say, ten minutes, but there’s no spark and when the album is 90 minutes long that becomes a big, boring problem. How can you spend so much time getting nowhere?
Highlights, such as they are, come in the form of shorter tracks like “Legion Inoculant” and “Chocolate Chip Trip”. A little intensity goes a long way. The album actually picks up for a while about 40 minutes in, but that’s not a great sentence to write is it? Who wants to read a book that picks up 500 pages in? Devoted fans of the author, perhaps, but few else.5 10
Favourite tracks // Legion Inoculant
Chocolate Chip Trip
I’m always suspicious of albums that extend to this length. Often a sign of indecision, it usually makes for a mediocre album that could’ve been tightened to be a far superior album. For Fear Inoculum, however, I’m less sure this is the case.
Technically, the band is tight, solos make for some virtuosic moments and, for me, Danny Carey is the hero of the album with impressive, genuinely enjoyable passages of drum solos and flourishes across the album. Unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends.
Throughout its playtime this album throws out track after track of suspense and build. With each full-length track running over the 10-minute mark, that makes for minutes of rolling guitars and occasional vocals. When this does come to some sort of climax or finality, it’s rarely exciting or even worth the time spent building to it. “7empest” has a roaring, intriguing, pacy five minutes, but by the midway point of the 15-minute track, I could just as well be listening to an idling car for all the patience I have left or the payoff it brings. While other tracks aren’t quite this egregious, there’s little more to note aside from long expanses of chugging riff for minute upon minute.
To its credit, “Culling Voices” makes for an interesting uptick in the album, leaving the chug for a more varied, cleaner selection of timbres and instruments that do eventually build to something of interest, while “Invincible” has two pretty well-defined sections, which makes for a more engaging listen, picking up the pace until reaching a rushing finale.
The ambient interludes are largely inconsequential. While normally the parts of the tracklist I’d gravitate towards, here they don’t manage to create oddball non-sequiturs or epic soundscapes or anything besides a pause in the main event. Instead, they whirr and buzz and disappear. “Chocolate Chip Trip” is an exception thanks to the addition of Carey’s intense and impressive drumline, and on the other hand I actively dislike the sampling on “Mockingbeat”.
Fear Inoculum‘s length issue feels more self-indulgent than indecisive. While I can appreciate a slow build, a rolling riff, and an expansive soundscape, I don’t feel like that’s what I’m getting here. For the most part, I find boredom and frustration during the 90-minute playtime. It feels unnecessary. Although there are upticks and impressive moments (again, I feel as though Carey carries a lot of this album), I’m left feeling as though there are better examples of all the genres the band span across. I certainly won’t be returning after this week.4 10
Favourite tracks // Chocolate Chip Trip