Tool – Fear Inoculum, review – ‘are we there yet?’

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Half-baked, meandering tracks that don’t seem to go anywhere.

⭐⭐

After a lengthy hiatus, Tool’s mythical fifth studio album is here. The band, who started as a relatively standard alternative metal outfit in the early ’90s, soon grew to spearhead the progressive metal scene from the mid-’90s to mid-’00s. Now, 13 years after the release of 2006’s 10,000 Days, Fear Inoculum has arrived at the acclaim of most fans and mainstream critics. Not everyone, though, has been quite so impressed.

Tool’s fanbase has been quick to defend this record, suggesting that its detractors are not looking deep enough, haven’t given the album enough listens, or simply lack the requisite grey matter to appreciate Maynard James Keenan and co’s uncompromising vision. I’ve given this record several shakes, and over the 10+ hours I’ve spent in the company of Fear Inoculum, no greater depth has revealed itself, nor have I noticed myself sprouting a third eye. Much like most of the songs on the album itself, the wait for Fear Inoculum has proven to be overly long with little payoff.

The opener has a promisingly weird start, with distorted strings and hand drums accompanied by an ethereal synth scape. However, it isn’t long before the cracks begin to show. Maynard’s vocals sound polished to the point of sterility, as the lead singer of a commercialised 2010s metalcore band, and by the end, the instrumental has congealed into a muddy mess thanks to mediocre mixing. Tool isn’t known for holding immediacy as a virtue, but like roadworks on the average UK street, Pneuma is in a constant state of construction without ever really concluding. Lead guitars chug along, with blasts of bass and drums sporadically interrupting Maynard’s monotone chanting to give the illusion of progression.

Litanie contre la Peur is easily the worst thing on the entire album, amounting to Danny Carey aimlessly messing with what sounds like a theremin. Whereas, Invincible is another boring and over-produced marsh of plodding guitars and sterile vocals to wade through until an unmemorable guitar solo around 7 minutes in. Legion Inoculant is a non-song in the truest sense. A poor attempt at an ambient drone piece that sounds like what would happen if you dropped a Tim Hecker B-side into a vat of reverb. With yet another indulgent intro that far out-stays its welcome, and guitar riffs recycled from the previous single The Pot, Descending also fails to impress. So too does the repetitive, patience-testing, if surprisingly well-written, Culling Voices. 7empest constitutes a remarkably fun and energetic outro despite its 15 runtime, especially because Maynard sounds more awake here than he does on the entire rest of the record. But, even this is sandwiched between the shrill modulated bird calls of Mockingbeat and Chocolate Chip Trip, a track whose ugly synths remind me of Paul McCartney’s Temporary Secretary more than any song ought to.

Overall, Fear Inoculum reeks of missed potential and playing it safe. Others who have found themselves disappointed with this release can perhaps find comfort in one of this year’s quality black metal albums from the likes of Mgła and Batushka, or Daughters’ aforementioned industrial project from last year. Even if your heart is set firmly on progressive metal, you’d be better off delving into Tool’s newly available back catalogue on your preferred streaming service or exploring the other artists that defined the scene back in its heyday. A lot of the elements of a better Tool album are present, but the band lacks the conviction to commit to any grand memorable moments, instead preferring to meander through a series of intros, buildups and outros. Few electrifying vocal highlights, anthemic choruses or awe-inspiring instrumental crescendos are to be found here. In a musical landscape that gave us Daughters’ You Won’t Get What You Want less than a year ago, Tool’s inability to marry traditional metal instrumentation with synth elements looks especially embarrassing.

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