Fear Inoculum (RCA)
As critics, we know that any album by a band with a strong legacy has to be taken on face value. It doesn’t matter how good an artist’s back catalog is, we can’t allow preexisting opinions to affect our thinking regarding a brand new piece of work. But sometimes, as fans, it’s difficult.
For example, following Let’s Dance in 1983, David Bowie’s next four albums were Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Tin Machine and Tin Machine II. Not, maybe, as diabolical as some might claim, but were that a new artist releasing those records, they probably wouldn’t have fared even as well as they did. We allow artists to build up a buffer zone.
With Tool, it’s particularly complicated. Because even with their great albums — 1993’s Undertow debut and the followup masterpiece Ænima — the band required a level of patience, not uncommon with prog and prog-metal bands. Tool’s music has been described as an onion — layers peel away revealing more intricacies the more time you spend with them.
So when Tool dropped their new album Fear Inoculum this week, their first in 13 years since 2006’s 10,000 Days, and then we read on the press release that it clocks in at over 86 minutes, we knew right away that to review a Tool album properly, really properly, we were going to have to listen to it multiple times. And really listen to it, not just put it on and do other work while it plays in the background. That just doesn’t wash with Tool.
The reviews have been coming in thick and fast, and they’ve generally been positive which is quite affirming in 2019. In many ways, Tool is the antithesis of the current music industry. Not that they’re technophobes in any way — quite the opposite. But rather in this era of instant gratification, when people are more interested in individual tracks, streamed quick and easy, than full albums by bands that wait over a decade to put them out, and then the songs are long and awkward, it would be easy to envisage Tool falling away.
But that underestimates Tool’s fanbase, a rabid bunch that have sat waiting for this new material while frontman Maynard James Keenan was off doing other things (A Perfect Circle, etc). They stuck with the band, even when Keenan called those same fans “insufferable people” (in some reports he even referred to them using the “r” word. Quite astonishing that he would say that, but anyway…)
The long and short of all this is that Fear Inoculum really is a great album, and it really did require multiple listens. It’s so dense with, the melodies hidden, never mind disguised, that it requires all of the patience that took fans here after 13 years. But as is the case with all Tool albums, the rewards are plentiful.
The title track, a 10-minute-and-20 second epic right off the bat, is hypnotic and lush, then caustic and haunting. Middle Eastern-inspired psychedelia battles with contemporary prog-metal, and there are no losers.
Be warned — there are no tunes here as radio-friendly as “Sober” or “Stinkfist” (neither considered radio-friendly when they were released), but this is an album that takes you on a beautiful journey. Just make sure you take it more than once.