Rock Album Review: Tool’s “Fear Inoculum” — No Surprises

By Scott McLennan

Fear Inoculum is not a bad album. It’s not a great album either, and Tool has made some great albums.

The most surprising thing about the new Tool album is how unsurprising it is. It’s been 13 years since Tool released its last album, and there is no way it took that long to come up with the material heard on its new recording Fear Inoculum.

The 80-plus minute Fear Inoculum is not a bad album. It’s not a great album either, and Tool has made some great albums.

Part of Tool’s appeal comes from its willingness to make breathtaking leaps from album to album. The blunt force of 1993’s Undertow was followed by the existential howl of 1996’s Aenima. Tool next unfurled the psychedelic sprawl of 2001’s Lateralus. The band then crafted the devilish dichotomy at the heart of 2006’s 10,000 Days.  That run of albums shook up the possibilities for both heavy metal and prog rock.

Fear Inoculum echoes bits and pieces from all of those records, sounding distinctly Tool, but a Tool that has not really added to its repertoire or expanded its outlook.

Tool pretty much sat out the Obama years and then some, as front man Maynard James Keenan worked with his other bands A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, became an Arizona winemaker, and wrote a book.

There was always chatter that Tool — a superstar draw that protected its artistic edge and freedom — was getting close to finishing its fifth full-length album during this undeclared hiatus.

Tool finally re-emerged this summer with a flurry of well-orchestrated press, including legitimate news that the band would finally join the digital-streaming world after stubbornly resisting releasing its music on services such as iTunes and Spotify. That decision acknowledged just how much the music-consuming landscape has changed since Tool last had something to say — and to sell.

Rock radio is dead in terms of providing a common meeting ground for fans. Nobody really worries too much anymore about a music video being an important way to reach listeners.

Tool adjusted to the new reality by writing and recording six really long songs and packing four longer-than-usual sonic interludes around the tunes. On paper, this sounds great; few modern rock acts have displayed such an intuitive feel for crafting music with this kind of cinematic sweep.

But much of Fear Inoculum ends up simply sounding repetitive. Drummer Danny Carey is locked in fairly confined parameters; likewise, bass play Justin Chancellor spends (too) much of his time executing a steady chopping beat. The sonic palette is familiar, but there’s very little of the tension-and release dynamic that Tool used so well in the past. Instead, there’s a lot of waiting for something to happen, and rarely anything all that special does.

Tool is back, but the band has decided to embrace the familiar. Photo: Travis Shinn.

Guitar player Adam Jones unleashes a few good solos, particularly on “Descending,” but again, much of this record is monochrome, so even the good details are easily washed out.

Some of that monotonous feel is likely on purpose. Fear Inoculum is full of songs about moving hesitantly through dark times. Contributing to the flatness is Keenan’s extremely restrained performance. And his lyrics, likewise, often seem skeletal rather than poetic or impressionistic. The barren spots are all the more obvious when they are contrasted with the more strongly constructed lyrics found on “Descending.” And it’s not as if he needs to become overly literal either; “Culling Voices” provides a nice example of meshing illustrative words and evocative music. The problem is that just does not happen consistently on this album.

Tool is at its best here on the epic “7empest,” summoning cataclysmic imagery reminiscent of the older song “Aenima.” But here the fury is given a provocative spin by Keenan. Plus, Jones’s fine guitar work ignites into something wild, ominous, and domineering.

There are pleasing Toolisms throughout Fear Inoculum, but the familiarity can be dangerous. And Tool seemingly knows it. “Warrior struggling to remain consequential” Keenan sings repeatedly on a track Tool optimistically titled “Invincible.”

Tool brings the fight to TD Garden in Boston on Nov. 14 and Mohegan Sun Casino Arena in Uncasville, CT, on Nov. 21.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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