Tool - Fear Inoculum review: an enigma inside Pandora’s box

Tool press shot
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)
Tool - Fear Inoculum tracklisting

1. Fear Inoculum
2. Pneuma
3. Litanie contre la Peur
4. Invincible
5. Legion Inoculant
6. Descending
7. Culling Voices
8. Chocolate Chip Trip
9. 7empest
10. Mockingbeat

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Thirteen years. Thirteen years of speculation, rumour and conjecture. Finally, Tool's new album Fear Inoculum – the most mysterious album since Guns N’ RosesChinese Democracy – is here. It boils down to nine tracks – six songs and three interludes – and you have to wonder; having made so many people wait for so long, can Tool create something that matches the expectation?

Tool certainly know how to build the drama; pressing play and hearing Adam Jones’ guitar gently teasing the opening to the title track, morphing from a cello-imitating creak into something more recognisable as Tool, as the rest of the band threaten to lock in with him two or three times before it finally all gels, is a breathtaking start. The rest of the song sets the album’s stall out. A lengthy, ever-evolving masterpiece, it uses restraint expertly. Barely staying in the same time signature for more than one riff, it feels like an entire album’s worth of ideas all on its own. 

Second track Pneuma follows in a similar fashion, with a beautifully clean-sounding Jones riff opening before Maynard James Keenan comes in with a stabbing, rhythmic vocal pattern. Again, it weaves in all manner of directions, less like preordained musical passages and more like random breathing patterns or flowing water – a living organism rather than a song. Then Justin Chancellor’s bass smashes you in the chest, a chugging riff comes in and Tool spend a few bars just being a great metal band.

Keenan is on sumptuous form, and although used sparingly, he gives an album of such outrageous density and grandiosity some genuine emotional heft. ‘We are all born of one breath’ he sings on Pneuma, and there is a sense throughout that Fear Inoculum is tackling man’s need for nature in an increasingly digital world, and the two fighting for space. It’s there in the melancholic croon of Descending, where Keenan sings of ‘Drifting through this boundless noise’. The song is prefaced by the Blade Runner-style synth of Legion Inoculant and juxtaposes industrial noise with the sound of water at the start. 

The Schism-esque lament of Invincible is probably the closest thing we get to a single here, and the frankly bonkers Chocolate Chip Trip, which sees Tool go electro and drummer Danny Carey go full Buddy Rich, then leads into 7empest. At points reminiscent of Cold And Ugly from their debut Opiate EP, it’s the highpoint of the record, comfortably the heaviest moment and with Keenan sounding genuinely embittered… with a touch of Thin Lizzy-style twin-guitar lead for good measure. 

As is true of everything on Fear Inoculum, it could only be Tool. Each member brings something unique; Jones’ slow-hand chameleon guitar, Carey’s remarkable off-kilter African rhythms and Indian tabla and Chancellor’s lucid, liquid bass thump all take over as lead at one point during each movement. Although Keenan’s presence isn’t as pronounced as before, his biting-to-soaring vocal dexterity remains otherworldly.

Fear Inoculum is so layered, and with such depth, that reviewing it here and now feels premature. But what cannot be denied is that this enigma inside a Pandora’s Box feels like a justification of why the world never grew tired of the idea of new music from Tool. And it’s why we’ll wait with bated breath again when 2032 rolls around for another dose.

Fear Inoculum will be released on August 30 via Music For Nations/Sony Music. The album is available for pre-order now.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.