Any review of the new Tool album will inevitably include two thoughts: it's been 13 years since the band's last release; it's 86 minutes long. Yes, for one album, on both counts, that is a long-ass time. It also fails to put into context that prior to the 13-year wait, 2006's 10,000 Days clocked in at 76 minutes, and the five years that record took to follow up Lateralus felt like an unbearable eternity for fans. Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get to what Fear Inoculum is.
First and foremost, evident almost immediately, it's Tool. If you didn't like the band before, you can most likely go ahead and save yourself those 86 minutes. However, if the artsy prog-metal outfit is your bag, you'll probably dig their fifth album. Just be warned that on Fear Inoculum, three is the magic number. As in, three spins to wrap your head around it. Once to get over the fact that despite being 13 years in the making, no, it's not the greatest thing since sliced bread. Twice to knock the notion loose that it's not Lateralus. Finally on the third listen you can actually grasp it for itself: a welcome addition to a unique catalog that is undoubtedly the band you were expecting, but with enough nuance to appreciate that it's not simply a retread of their previous work.
Fear Inoculum somehow feels both refined and bloated. The hallmark elements of what makes them one of the most idiosyncratic bands of the last 23 years—the atypical time signatures, the polyrhythmic drumming, the crunchy chugging riffs, the occasional dash of tabla—have been boiled down into an efficient palette, yet more than once those same elements are stretched beyond their limits as you're left waiting for a climax that never seems to fully materialize.
As the gradual mutation of the group's sound continues, most notable is the (relatively speaking) near-total restraint on vocals by Maynard James Keenan. Rarely does his voice reach the passioned raw primal urgency of his previous work. But while Keenan is the best-known member of the quartet, Tool has always been Tool because of drummer Danny Carey, guitarist Adam Jones, and bassist Justin Chancellor, each owning a signature sound. And Tool is at its best when those instruments intersect, overlap, and interchange; the rhythm becomes the melody and the melody becomes the rhythm. Here that exists in spades.
Maybe there's no reason to overthink it. Maybe Maynard's self-reflection offers answers over the course of the album's two best songs. On "Invincible" he muses, "Warrior struggling to remain relevant," perhaps acknowledging the 13 years passed. On "7empest" he replies, "It's not unlike you. We know your nature." Yep. This is Tool. And this is Fear Inoculum.
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