Tool: Fear Inoculum (Volcano Entertainment/RCA Records)
Finally! After exactly Thirteen years, three months and 28 days, we finally have a new Tool album! Although, as long as we’ve been patient, there’s always been that sting of anxiety present. All chances considered, any new album which did eventually emerge from Keenan and co. could have been incredibly disappointing. Let’s not forget - from the furious tones of Undertow, the weird and beguiling experimentation of AEnima, the pure scope of ambition of Lateralus and the heartfelt nature of 10,000 Days - if you asked four different Tool fans to name and describe their favourite album by them, you could get four different answers, and none of them would be necessarily wrong. So, to the question on everybody’s lips. Can Fear Inoculum live up to or even surpass expectations? The answer to that question has to be a resounding and unequivocal ‘No’. I realize that might provoke some rage, yet let me clarify my last statement. Considering all the hype, anticipation and memes which surrounded the promised return, of course expectations are not met. How could they be? So perhaps we should be asking a different question? Can Fear Inoculum stand on its own as a great record? Absolutely, yes! Of course, everything here sounds like Tool, yet the album differentiates itself through the hypnotic, cerebral and entrancing elements which don’t so much as present you with a glorious painting to marvel over as they do give you a puzzle to take time with and piece together. Do not expect to be enraptured on first or even second listen. Here’s a piece which rewards for your patience and attention. Upon further listening you notice more and more subtlety and pour over the multi-layered details of an album which feels taunting, for forcing you to delay longer to appreciate everything the experience has to divulge.
We open on Fear Inoculum which uncoils and unfurls in graceful yet haunting style. A light tapping of resonant drums sets a curiously archaic tone before evocative acoustics and precise, trembling bass tones set us on that anticipatory, brooding note which fortifies so much of Tool’s music and proves a particularly poignant facet of album no. 5. ‘Exhale, expel, recast my tale, weave my allegorical elegy’ Maynard sings to the sound of striking rhythm sections and swelling guitars, all providing the soundtrack to an emancipatory anthem, about shedding ones skin and beginning a new life. Intriguingly, we are warned of the ‘deceiver’ in a way which opens the music to layers of interpretation. Pneuma continues on this theme, as Carney's percussive flourishes and Chancellor’s throbbing bass textures excellently create tension and release cycles, while Jones’ guitars lend the piece the ethereal, spiritual vibe alluded to by the lyricism. And here is where I elicit comparison to Third Eye, for, in Greek Stoic philosophy, the word Pneuma means breath of life, signifying waking up, freeing ourselves from the inoculate of fear we are trapped in. Realizing. ‘we are born of one breath, one word, we are all one spark, sun becoming’.
Invincible ends up being one of the pieces I’m most conflicted over – unique on the album, the song boasts an impressive twelve-minute arrangement which makes for a ominous, anticipatory opening, painting an image of a warrior returning to battle, despite ‘the Armor-wearing thin’. From there, we transcend into a hallucinogenic, trancelike section, allowing for a cathartic instrumental piece, and stints of electronic experimentation – Not an element of progressive music we’ve seen them dabble in terribly often, and one they certainly execute to lasting effect. That said, the piece can get monotonous at times, especially when we get stints of nothing other than a palm-muted guitar playing one rhythm to the point of absolute tedium. Indeed, while the former proves a stimulating moment of involved and immersive bliss, of the two long burners Tool have debuted live, I am fonder of Descending overall. Although the first few moments are repetitive on first glance, the rising and falling arpeggios allow for very subtle changes on each rotation – changes which allow the anthem to blossom from humble beginnings into a glorious and mottled opus. ‘Stir us from our, wanton slumber, mitigate our ruin, call us all to arms and order’ our frontman sings out here, once more warning of humanity’s plunge towards self-induced catastrophe.
There’s not much I can say about Culling Voices to be perfectly honest. Except that, through minimalism, subtle synth and instrumental flourishes and Keenan’s repeated snarls of ‘Psychopathy, Don’t you dare point that at me’, the piece one more proves these musicians ability to harness and manipulate the listeners' anticipation. Eventually, the song explodes into life yet I’m not sure that the tension being broken matters more than the expectation and endurance which lead us to that point of outpouring. Chocolate Chip Trip is perhaps the finest interlude Tool has ever written and brings to the forefront, a few of the elements lending Fear Inoculum so much charm – the excellent drumming of Carey, the exceptional bass playing of Chancellor and the strange yet fascinating production quirks, like having the drums and synths pan from one speaker to the next, and the incorporation of strange, alien textures into the mix. 7empest closes the album with a distinctive moment of fury and anger – an element which despite not overly present throughout the album, doesn’t particularly need to be. By placing a visceral moment as the closer, we are compelled to relive the entire experience, if only to observe in context, everything that has mounted to the final few moments. Every member is allowed to excel here as the anthem seethes with the ferocity and vehemence of an animal rotting in a cage, snarling to be let out after thirteen years of entrapment. Through a wild and commanding progression, the piece still utilises those values of tenseness, anxiety and nervousness alluded to throughout yet brings them to an epic, dynamic and forceful crescendo.
Overall, I’m tempted to say that those thirteen years were worth the delay. I strongly doubt Tool will ever make another album, and I don’t really care if they don’t. Fear Inoculum has already become a contested and debated album in the world of progressive rock. To Tool fans that can only be a respectable sign – when you make an album where opinions range from ‘absolute classic’ to ‘overhyped crap’, you know you’re doing something right. I lie far closer to the former perspective than I do to the latter, though I wouldn’t say that either precisely describes my position. In fact, I would probably label my position evolutionary. I drowned myself in Fear Inoculum to make sure I could write the most accurate analysis possible. Even as I write these words, I am still not sure how my opinion will look in four, six or twelve months. I ask that you take my score with a grain of salt and realise that my opinion may change, multiple times. 8/10
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