Fear Inoculum Review

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Fear Inoculum Review

Ethan Greene, Staff Writer

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     It’s been thirteen years since Tool’s last album, “Ten Thousand Days.” In the time since, we’ve had three presidents, three national election cycles, and plenty of anticipation for what the prog-metal icons would deliver next. While the long wait caused significant doubt that a fifth record would ever be released, here we are with the first Tool album in over a decade. And trust me, “Fear Inoculum” does not disappoint. So let’s sit back, relax, and absorb the music we’ve waited so long to hear. 

     The record starts with the title track “Fear Inoculum,” a ten-minute flurry of synth exploration and swelling guitar tones which fuel distorted choruses. However, the track is best marked, however, by the strikingly calm voice of Maynard James Keenan, who solemnly yearns over immunity and contagion in a controlled, yet convincing falsetto. It’s a calmer song than we would expect from Tool, but it contains the precision and instrumental accuracy that has made the prog gods famous. 

     “Pneuma,” continues the title track’s original sentiment, but expands it to a more metaphysical fashion. Named after the Egyptian term for breath/spirit, the lyrics of the song express how all life stems from, “one breath, one word.” The main guitar riff, (which sounds like a 7/4 mix of “Sober” and “Schism”) meanders up and down the D-Minor scale, while drummer Danny Carey takes virtuosic spills at his kit in support of the bassline. Overall, “Pneuma,” is a stronger track than “Fear Inoculum,” particularly to those seeking Tool’s signature intensity and a more orthodox metal sound.

     For, “Litanie Contre la Peur,” the album’s first interlude, the band’s usual instruments take a temporary absence. Instead, a high-voltage beam-sound of sonic intensity whizzes across minor octaves for two minutes and fifteen seconds, until it gradually fades into the next song. This track was strange, and isn’t the kind of song you’d listen to alone. However, “Litanie Contre la Peur’s” allusion to the more electronic sound of the “Fear Inoculum’s” title track helped to link the nomadic waltz of “Pneuma” with the exploratory strumming of “Invincible,” thus referencing the record’s original impression. So while this interlude wasn’t memorable on its own, it was important as a bridge between two differing tracks. 

     “Invincible,” shows Tool at their most comfortable; lurching through Drop D by way of several unusual meters. The lyrics address the struggle many artists face- to remain relevant in a society that has sucked them dry. “But here I am,” Keenan proclaims in defiance to this cultural tendency. “Bellow aloud, bold and proud of where I’ve been.” Clearly, mainstream appeal is not something Tool is losing sleep over. (Afterall, “Fear Inoculum is currently #1 on the Billboard Top 100) Overall, this track has everything that Tool fans have been salivating over: unorthodox song structure, Drop D guitar tuning, and contemplative lyrics ready for interpretation. Still, “Invincible” was not the highlight of the album. 

     As if to contrast the serious tone of the first half of the album, “Legion Inoculant,” serves as a strange, otherworldly interlude which takes the record in a slightly new direction. Reminiscent of an alien encounter, (possibly even the one that occurred in “Rosetta Stoned”) the track is filled with ambient beam-like noises and indiscernible whispers, all oscillating irregularly. It’s an odd interlude, but it does provide the album with the sense of strangeness and experimentation that has characterized Tool albums in years past. 

     My favorite song of this album, “Descending,” has been in the works for several years. Tool released demos and visuals for the song as early as 2016, and had been adding gradual changes during live shows and on their official website. To finally hear this song in its studio-recorded entirety was breathtaking. The waves at the beginning of the track, the tone of Adam Jones’s guitar, and the sound of Maynard James Keenan’s voice collided into a work of that was honey to the ears. “Descending,” is more than just the centerpiece of “Fear Inoculum.” It’s the kind of song that made waiting thirteen years for this album completely worth it.

      After such a triumphant moment in Tool’s new album, the art-rockers maintain their magic with a different, yet equally majestic powerhouse song. “Culling Voices,” a ten minute reflection on what are assumably Maynard James Keenan’s interpersonal/family issues, (“Heated altercations we’ve never had, so I’m told…”)  is a piece both beautiful and haunting, laden with a mastodonic build which provides a well-articulated auditory experience. The careful use of guitar layering, Justin Chancellor’s rich bass tone, and the purity of Maynard James Keenan’s voice melt into a psychedelic euphoria. “Culling Voices” is second only to “Descending” when ranked on the album. 

     And now for the track that everyone’s been waiting for… The legendary drum feature that has been cited in every rock, metal and drum magazine since “Fear Inoculumwas released: “Chocolate Chip Trip.” Make no mistake, this track isn’t an actual song; it’s a five minute opportunity for Danny Carey to show us why he is the best drummer to walk the Earth. While this isn’t the kind of banger that you blare through your car stereo with the windows down, it is a feat of modern drumming that should be regarded with the utmost respect. The solo begins with ominous chime-like sounds, then includes the addition of oddball synth effects. Finally, Carey enters the scene with a flourish of fast and intricate fills. In it’s strange, yet impressive entirety, “Chocolate Chip Trip” proves that even at 58, Danny Carey is still one of the best drummers alive. 

    “7emptest” is easily the most over-hyped song on this record, and probably of Tool’s entire catalogue. The praise for this average, “Ten-Thousand Days reject-sounding song is overpaid. While there’s nothing particularly offensive or uncoordinated about this track, it does not present any memorable musical moments worth the hype it receives. Yes, “7emptest” isn’t a bad song. No, it does not live up to the glory of prior Tool hits such as “Vicarious,” “Ænima,” and “Sober.” Yet in countless fan polls, this mediocre song is somehow elevated to the top ten of Tool’s catalogue, taking the place of more impactful songs such as “Right In Two,” or “Pneuma.” That being said, while it is one of the more heavy and energetic cuts of “Fear Inoculum”, “7emptest” should not be mistaken for anything more than an average Tool song, unworthy of being the centerpiece of this album.

    The last track of “Fear Inoculum”, “Mockingbeat,” can largely be summarized by the following three letters: W. T. F. The track begins with ominous dark tones that gradually crescendo into what the listener would expect to be an ordinary song. Then, the interlude cascades into a strange cacophony of bird sounds, mechanical screeches, and backing tribal drums. This continues for about two minutes, and concludes the entire album. My only hypothesis is that Tool made this as a joke to contrast the high anticipation awaiting this album. (Which would not be unusual for them, given their prior April Fools stunts.) This interlude feels out of place, given that it is the last track on the record. However, it most likely served as a musical method of comic relief, especially given the more serious and thought-provoking nature of “Fear Inoculum.” While its placement on the album may seem questionable, the ultimate goal of the track was achieved. (It’s funny in a music-geek sort of way.)

     Fans waited for thirteen years, and Tool delivered an album worth every second of their anticipation. With focus placed on ambient synthesizer effects, light motifs, and otherworldly drum solos, “Fear Inoculum” is a one-of-a-kind metal album. It may not be as aggressive as “Undertowor as radio-refined as “Ænima,” but this record’s raw beauty, precision, and attention to instrumental detail will carve its mark in the history of modern music. “Fear Inoculum” may have had a few strange moments, (*cough cough* “Mockingbeat”) but the finished product is an absolute marvel. I strongly suggest that anyone who thinks that rock is dead should give this album a listen.