By Elliot Nguyen
Thirteen years after Tool’s last record, the progressive metal phenomenon released its long-awaited fifth album, “Fear Inoculum,” on Aug. 30. The move came shortly after the group added its music to Spotify and before it uploaded music videos for several existing songs.
The album contains a regimented structure with relatively short songs that serve as fillers between several 10-minute heavy hitters, such as the title track and opener, along with “Pneuma,” “Invincible,” “Descending,” “Culling Voices” and the album’s 15-minute pseudo-finale, “7empest.”
The album opens with the eponymous title track. The song is long, clocking in at 10 minutes and 20 seconds. However, it is likely the worst on the album. The lyrics in “Fear Inoculum,” which are typically one of Tool’s strengths, lack substance. The words are complicated and vague without the band’s usual direct, obvious message. The instrumentation and techniques used are as impressive as on any Tool track, but the instruments and sounds are over-compressed, detracting from the atmospheric background that the band attempts to create with the song.
The riffs and melodies throughout the song are largely bland and uninspired, as they sound more like part of an attempt to pay tribute to the band than part of a Tool song itself. The band poorly manages the song’s tension and climax, leading to an overall unexciting track that has little to look forward to.
However, the song is not without its redeeming qualities. Maynard James Keenan, Tool’s vocalist, displays tremendous talent, singing in a style he has not done before. Additionally, this is an album that is clearly meant for fans to listen to all the way through, and when taken in the context of the entire record, “Fear Inoculum” is less of a feature song and more of an intro.
Unfortunately, while the track’s vocal experimentation helps lift it up and serves as an intro to the album, it is not enough to make the song any more than mildly enjoyable.
The next song, “Pneuma,” retains some of its precursor’s flaws, like overproduction, pacing issues and lyrics. However, the song’s instruments are much more interesting than they are in the title track.
The following song, “Litanie Contre la Peur,” is merely a filler song and offers little more than ambient electronic sounds to set an ominous tone to lead into the strongest song on the album, “Invincible.” At 12 minutes and 44 seconds, “Invincible” is the third longest song on the album.
“Invincible” opens with an ominous arpeggio-style guitar riff that continues through the first verse while other instruments and ambient sound effects gradually chime in to induce a slow build of tension. Keenan’s voice especially shines in this song, and for the first time on the record, the lyrics match the vocal talent he displays. “Invincible” demonstrates a mastery of expectation, subversion and pacing, which the title track lacked.
Throughout the song, tension builds, only for the tempo to drop back down and build stronger each time. The song finally comes together for the climax with the instrumental mastery of each band member on full display.
The rest of the album mostly maintains the same level of writing. “Descending” and “Culling Voices” are both strong tracks. “Chocolate Chip Trip,” the five-minute lead-in before “7empest,” features a long solo from Danny Carey, the band’s world-renowned drummer.
The second-to-last track, “7empest,” is intended to be the magnum opus of the record, and mostly achieves that goal. The track features a vocal style Keenan is much more familiar with. Lyrically, “7empest” is one of the strongest songs on the album and references the band’s earlier days.
The instruments are all played very well. However, the band poorly manages the climax and ending to the song, leaving listeners somewhat underwhelmed. After “7empest,” the album effectively ends with “Mockingbeat,” a two-minute song that offers little substance.
While “Fear Inoculum” suffers from occasional pacing issues, overproduction and a weak opening track, the album as a whole earns its place atop the Billboard charts with a strong middle that will keep listeners hooked.
Keenan’s refreshing new vocal style is a bonus, and the album is quite enjoyable when listened to all at once. Tool fans have waited for 13 years, and they will not be let down in the slightest.