Overall Score: 9/10 Instrumentation: 10/10 Songwriting: 8/10 Performances: 9/10 Pros: ITS A NEW TOOL ALBUM | It is as close to perfect as is possible at this stage in their career | The band play with emotional dexterity and express a range of feeling with ease | Everything is borderline magical Cons: Nothing
When Marcel Duchamp unveiled his now seminal post modern piece, The Fountain, it was met with equal parts praise and derision. Divisive from its inception and continuing to cause debate amongst scholars, it is one of the great pieces of post modern art that remains prescient and misunderstood to this day. The same can be said of some forms of music, and one band met with a balance of deification and hostility are the unarguably omnipresent Tool. For thirteen long years the world has waited with bated breath for new music from the Californian quartet, and the voracious hunger for more has only grown in their absence from the studio. And so, finally, after years of speculation, digging through internet archives, picking apart interviews with a fine tooth comb for any hint of a new release, Fear Inoculum is upon us.
Maynard James Keenan, Tool’s frontman, once said he wanted Tool to be ‘a drug. Take Tool and kick back into your own little world, or get aggressive, or get all sweet and nice…’ and with their long awaited fifth studio album, the band have achieved once again what they set out to be. There are moments of gentle reflexivity and introspection, particularly in the seemingly self analysing Invincible, which flows from a soft spoken and performed elegy to the self, before growing into a far more grandiose and powerful piece. The likes of 7empest and the latter part of Invincible hark back to the more full throttle Tool that we find in the Opiate EP and on the likes of Ticks and Leeches from the now fabled for its brilliance, Lateralus. The aggression of these two moments of musicality are just a small part of the canvas, angry brush strokes part of a much larger and emotionally dextrous piece. There is a sweetness to Fear Inoculum as well as rage and self critique, as can be found in the melancholic title track. Though it delights in its depressing aura, the song itself if actually rather dainty, growing like a delicate flower into something of unnatural power as it expands across horizons of the band’s musicianship.
Danny Carey and Justin Chancellor might just be the best working rhythm section on the planet. Holding down such complexity in a coherent manner is laudable enough, but to do it with a groove and emotional resonance is a far more tricky task. Even on the curiously titled, Chocolate Chip Trip, which is essentially a drum solo accompanied by electronic swabs, Carey communicates with his audience, finding a way to express an esoteric emotion in a way that even a passive listener should be able to grasp. Chancellor meanwhile provides bass hooks across this album, flourishing flurries of fingered notes into an expressive art form, weaving a web that snares the listener and allows an entry point to the density of Tool’s music. If you have trouble “getting” Tool, listen out for Chancellor and you will find a niche in which to settle whilst letting the rest wash over you. In this case, the wash is courtesy of Adam Jones, a guitarist extraordinaire, who much like his colleagues is able to express great sentiment through his humble six string. On Descending, the dynamism of his playing, going from softly plucked notation to heavily strummed chords, is at perhaps its most impressive on the album. He crafts a tapestry of feeling with his deceptively simple playing, espousing sorrow, celebration and anger with deft precision. This band are an intricate machine in terms of their technical ability, but this machine has a heart. All of this is not to mention the legendary vocalist and Tool’s ace in the hole, Maynard James Keenan. Every credit afforded to the players of the band can be applied tenfold to his luscious vocal style, moving from careful whispers to screams of anguish with flair and aplomb. His mastery of his craft is highlighted multiple times across the album, despite the sparsity of his appearance, with Culling Voices in particular showing off his incredible range of ability.
With this album, Tool have fully embraced post-rock. They have always been an unclassifiable band, starting out under the broad banner of ‘alternative’, moving into the progressive deeper and deeper with each album, and Fear Inoculum is the realisation of the ambitions attempted on the stunningly underrated 10,000 Days. The songs are longer than they have been before generally by a few minutes, and move through sections and repeated motifs with much more subtlety than on their predecessors. There is an argument to be made that this subtlety takes away from something that people fell in love with Tool for; their wry smile and blunt delivery of mystical and kaleidoscopic lyricism and instrumentation, often delivered through a distorted lens of the world around the men. However, the musicality, delivery and craftsmanship on display here still outdoes ninety nine percent of working artists, and leads to an incredible journey that you are taken on. The album is dynamic and organic, growing naturally as it does through the use of Carey and Chancellors driving undercurrent, allowing for the lead players to expand the soundscapes into something glorious that necessitates every plaudits afforded to it. Despite this the album is not a masterpiece. It is a great album. It is a truly great album. However, compared as it painfully must be to the likes of Ænima and Lateralus, it is just shy of the mark. The album spends a long time developing its ideas and this will deter many listeners from multiple listens, which the album deserves and must be given. Anyone expecting to unlock the secrets of Tool’s majesty with one or two plays through is on a hiding to nothing. Ænima and Lateralus are both masterpieces, while Fear Inoculum is outstanding. It just falls short of Tool’s own heaven high bar of quality, but even still it is one of the best releases of the year. For new listeners, this will be the drug that Keenan wants it to be; a gateway into a world of some of the most complex, emotionally deep and rich music ever created, and for long term fans it will satiate that long wait. This is the best album Tool could have created, and needs to be judged as a great work of art. It will be misunderstood by many, and written off as pretentious tosh, but for those who see what they are aiming for, you will find something incredible that will take years to unpack.
Tool’s new album, Fear Inoculum, is released tomorrow (August 30th).