TOOL — Fear Inoculum (review)

TOOL — Fear Inoculum album cover Album · 2019 · Progressive Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Tool’s fifth studio album is one of those projects that I don’t think most people had much faith in. Over a decade was spent waiting for it, getting to the point where several memes online mocked the band for their inability to stay on the same page and get the record done. I get the feeling many of us thought it would go the way of Half-Life 3 and become the musical version of vaporware, and the constant rumor mill from the band and media wasn’t convincing people otherwise. And yet… somehow, we actually made it. Fear Inoculum is out, and critics are already stumbling over each other giving the album (mostly) rapturous praise. Most of the public seems onboard for it too, giving kudos to the band for not missing a beat and swinging back stronger than ever. For the most part, I can agree with this.

Fear Inoculum is not the easiest experience to dive into; it runs at 80 minutes (86 if you’re talking about the digital version) across only 7 tracks, which means almost every song is over 10 minutes. That’s a lot to digest, and many of these songs run at very slow, almost doomlike paces. But, as usual for a latter-day Tool album, there’s plenty of dense progressive metal to sink your teeth into. You’ll find all the typical Lateralus-era stuff here; tribal rhythms, post-metal buildups and payoffs, subtle polyrhythms, and frequent dynamic ebbs and flows all make their way on this record. However, it’s important to note that the buildups are much more lengthy and detailed this time around. In fact, I’m a little shocked that the title track was able to become a charting single, given the fact that the song doesn’t really get off the ground until about halfway into its 10-minute runtime. I suppose that’s the power of hype and expectations after such a long wait from the band’s devoted fanbase! Anyway, these long runtimes work better for some songs than others; “Pneuma” and “Invincible” are fantastic examples of balancing their buildups and payoffs perfectly for emotional effect, especially in the way the latter combines triumph and resignation to flesh out the story of an “aging warrior” (see also: Maynard Keenan himself). The former presents itself in a darker and almost ritualistic manner, with Maynard repeating several lines over and over while the stuttering rhythms are constantly throwing you off in the process. Every time the heavy Drop-D riff comes in, it’s a welcome release from the tension.

The band members themselves have clearly grown over the years, and they sound even more comfortable than ever when flexing their virtuoso muscles. However, one thing that I’ve always loved about Tool over the years is that they never really beat you over the head with their instrumental prowess, instead preferring to showcase their skills in more subtle ways; Fear Inoculum definitely sticks to this. Instead of doing a giant shred solo, Adam Jones might lay down some simple guitar chords that are played in a slightly off-kilter or wonky manner, such as he often does in album highlight “7empest.” The entire song is like a giant experiment where the band members all try and see how many cool things they can do the metallic framework they’re given, and the outcome is just phenomenal. As far as vocals go, Maynard is more reserved and introspective this time around; but given the structures and dynamics of the songs here, that’s the perfect route to go. Plus, given his age, he still sounds excellent. Still, I don’t think many people are going to doubt that this is absolutely a rhythm section-centric record. Justin Chancellor and Danny Carey absolutely tear up this album, providing both an incredible backbone and an infinite stream of ways that Adam Jones could work his guitar magic over them. “Chocolate Chip Trip” might be the most inconsequential and skippable song on the album in the grand scheme of things, but I still don’t advise missing out on that sweet drum solo that Carey lays down on it. It’s one of the great highlights of his recorded output.

So what’s wrong exactly? Well, just one thing… and it’s a pretty important thing. Let me start this off with a movie analogy: have you watched an actor that you can only see as that actor and not a character they’re playing? A big example in my case is Tom Cruise. Every time I see him in a role, I just see Tom Cruise; I don’t see a character, because Cruise just kinda overtakes the role itself. It’s a really frustrating situation, because it constantly sucks me out of the immersion of a film when I can constantly see the “man behind the curtain.” And unfortunately, Tool fall right into this trap. One of the things that made Lateralus and even 10,000 Days so great is that there was always that additional instrumentation that fleshed out the atmosphere of those records. There were always Jones’ guitar pedals and a bunch of warbling industrial effects lending to the dark, eerie vibe Tool succeeded so well at crafting. Sadly, on Fear Inoculum I just hear 4 guys jamming out in the studio. The atmosphere is so empty and sparse on this album, and it doesn’t help that there usually aren’t many extra synthesizers or pedals to spice things up. That’s not to say the entire record is like this; “Pneuma” has an excellent middle section with a buzzing electronic effect alongside some beautiful clean guitar melodies from Jones, and of course the tribal drumming in the majority of the title track is always welcome. But considering this is Tool’s longest and most dense album, it would have been nicer to hear some more little touches to provide extra detail and texture to the experience.

Still, I’m really glad Fear Inoculum is finally here. I’m glad that we’re finally able to let all the old memes and jokes about Tool’s constant delays finally die. And unlike Duke Nukem Forever, we have a delayed product that’s actually incredibly solid and worth the time it took to make it. If you enjoyed Tool’s prog era, you’ll most likely love what they did here. Fear Inoculum is the logical outcome of the band’s constant flirtation with complexities and intricacies over the years, as well as how much they’d grown personally and creatively to get to this point in their lives. I can’t say that this is a better album than Lateralus - which I still consider to be the band’s gold standard - but it’s definitely my second favorite of theirs so far. There’s just too much ambition and quality songcraft here to pass up or ignore. So was Fear Inoculum worth the wait? I wholeheartedly say: yes.
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2 months ago
Man I forgot about Duke Nukem Forever...that really was a let down.
Fant0mas wrote:
2 months ago
To each his own. I'm not into Opiate and Undertow very much. If I want to listen to something very heavy, I'll go with other bands. I just don't find Opiate and Undertow very interesting TBH. I love metal and prog but it's the proggier side of Tool that hits the most without a doubt. Oh, and I also think Tool is one of the best live band I've seen. They create a visual and musical experience that isn't equaled by any current band of any musical style. I'll be travelling from Quebec to Toronto to see them for the 6th time in November with my girlfriend and there is no way I was going to miss that.

Tool's musical evolution can be compared to Opeth's IMO. It doesn't please every fan that followed them from the start but I'm thrilled that those bands chose to do what they wanted instead of pleasing people. That's what artists should be about.. Except that I find all Opeth's albums before Heritage much more interesting than Tool's Opiate and Undertow, but that's just me ;)

UMUR wrote:
2 months ago
Yeah and I miss "Hooker with a Penis" LOL ;-)
Tupan wrote:
2 months ago
This seems to be the most atmospheric Tool album, and I love it! But I understand you, Jonas, it seems that this band will never make another angry song like Hooker With a Penis anymore
UMUR wrote:
2 months ago
...and sorry for being a cranky old man LOL :-)
UMUR wrote:
2 months ago
I can almost already say I don´t have the patience to sit through another Tool album. The first two were great (especially the debut), but from then on it´s been long boring repeitive songs and albums I´ve had a really hard time getting through in one sit. They´ve generally left me completely cold. After seing them live on the Copenhell 2019 festival this summer, I can attest that they are just as boring live.They were so great in the mid-90s...I mourn this musical direction they have taken....
Tupan wrote:
2 months ago
Excellent review, man. I like the analogy with the movies!
Fant0mas wrote:
2 months ago
Very interesting review, and I agree with pretty much everything you mentioned. I spun it probably 20 times so far and it still grows on me. 10,000 Days had a much more immediate effect and I grew tired pretty quickly. Lateralus is their masterpiece, without a doubt but this one is very, very good and I cannot wait to see them play this live in November!

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