Review: Tool – Fear Inoculum

There’s something about Tool that sets them apart. Maybe it’s creativity. Maybe it’s mystery. Maybe it’s aloofness, or production, or sheer musical proficiency.

Tool is what happens when an almost pathological draw to the obtuse is expressed through minds that can’t resist the charms of conventionally brilliant hooks.

To me, a relative newcomer if not an outsider, that’s the essence of what I’ve come to love about this band.

There’s something structural happening, too. Most progressive metal seeks to take the listener on a voyage through space, a chin-stroking odyssey intent on approval as much as any kind of visceral response.

Tool force your eyes open with matchsticks and make you watch them building the spaceship and then blow it up immediately after reaching their destination.

The best songs on Fear Inoculum begin with no defined form, gradually coagulating into something that can be grasped, something almost impossibly satisfying – heavy, riffy and instinctive, and somehow still smart and unique.

This album consists of six long songs and four shorter instrumentals, of which only ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’ appears on a physical release that’s typically creative and prohibitively expensive.

The four instrumental pieces are not throwaway or non-essential. They blend mood with virtuosity and the ease with which they sit among the longer tracks does make one wonder whether the aforementioned physical disc might be poorer for their absence.

Nevertheless they pale by comparison with the sextet of fully fledged Fear Inoculum compositions.

The first – the title track – is spectacular. Tool’s grasp of dynamics, layering, growth, atmosphere and melody is on full display. Its ten minutes are always impressive and clever, never oppressive or boring.

‘Pneuma’ was the song that was easiest to grasp upon release. It has footholds galore in the form of catchy riffs and luscious vocal hooks.

Tool have a reputation for being difficult to absorb. The heavy six-note centrepiece riff of ‘Pneuma’, even on first listen, is impossible to repel.

The third song proper, ‘Invincible’, is a slow burner with an explosive payload. The sequence that begins at the eight-minute mark and bursts the record at the seams 95 seconds later with a simple, heavy, chugging riff is perfection itself.

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‘Descending’ begins as a patient affair before, halfway through, Adam Jones’ distorted guitar tears through the ether and signals a spell of lead guitar work that adds a layer and then ushers in a chunkier, more urgent final few minutes.

The opening half of ‘Culling Voices’ transplants another beautiful guitar tone onto an otherwise minimalist work. It gets even quieter, even slower. Then it builds, builds, builds – and erupts. It’s undoubtedly the album’s grower.

The last of the six songs is ‘7empest’, by now referred to often as the finest moment on Fear Inoculum. It’s somewhat more reflective than the rest of the album of some of Tool’s earlier work thanks to its pulsating groove and a vocal style not found anywhere else.

Fear Inoculum is another Tool masterpiece. Maynard James Keenan is somehow off-centre in the sound and songs, his voice treated more as instrument than words even as he steps artfully through syllables like a snake winding through the long grass.

The band, of course, sound stunning. Jones has guitar tones and riffs to die for and the famed rhythm section – drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor – are on fire. The drumming on Fear Inoculum is extraordinary.

There may be hardcore Tool fans out there who’ve spent the last 13 years waiting who now listen to this new record and find that it doesn’t stand up to this or that or whatever impossible standard they’ve set before they’re willing to like something.

To them, I say only this. If you’re underwhelmed by an album of this standard by a band you love, you’re never going to be happy.

Fear Inoculum is out now on Tool Dissectional.

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Chris Nee