Monday, September 2, 2019

album review: 'fear inoculum' by tool

So last year I made a fateful hot take tweet that Tool would never make another album - or even if they did, it would never live up to the expectations of fans. As of now, it seems like both statements are untrue, as there's a new Tool album and the fans seem overjoyed - hell, it might even be true for me... but that's more because I never had any expectations for Tool to begin with.

Yeah, let's get this out of the way now, I've danced around it for years and it should be on the record: I'm not much of a Tool fan. Of the "big four" in progressive metal, I've typically ranked Tool as my least favourite among Queensryche, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning, and revisiting their entire back catalog for this review has only cemented that opinion. And there's no easy way to approach this opinion in a way that won't piss off the legion of Tool fans - which if I had less tact, boy would I have words for that crowd - and let me stress that I get Tool's appeal and influence; it's just that most of appeal and influence doesn't work for me whatsoever. And I don't even think that should be surprising - you all know how much of a fan I am of melody and tight song construction, two things that Tool seems to treat with disinterest at best as they lock into extended polyrhythms amidst a load of dated alternative metal downtuning which is technically complex and impressive, but emotionally unengaging. And this would be where the band would point to the songwriting... which is the definition of two-dimensional, soaking in try-hard nihilism and abstraction - a shame because there can be a real emotional core and idea to some of these songs bowled over by hamfisted lyrical bluntness - and quasi-spiritual pseudoscience that either is more impressed with its cleverness than its depth or only bothers to make sense after several bowls and a handful of caps! And yet it's absolutely no surprise to me that Tool became by far the "biggest" of the big four coming out of the 90s - they certainly sound most 'of the time', and to their credit they're absolutely a band with a lot of talent that took risks, even if its not my thing I can appreciate what they were trying on a project like Lateralus, especially when they actually embraced some convincing heaviness - but it also put to mind a common observation: a lot of progressive metal fans are also Tool fans, but not nearly as often the other way around. 

And normally this wouldn't be an issue - I prefer the more tuneful side of prog metal and there's normally a ton of that, I can leave Tool's bloated song structures and edgelord deflection and sloppy vocal mixing for the fans - except that Tool has been influential, and while it's inaccurate to blame the spread of utterly tedious focus on polyrhythmic groove patterns and djent over melody through progressive metal on them, on a compositional and structural level they share some DNA. And then factor in the structural disinterest in hooks and concepts that don't hold up to much intellectual rigor, especially when channeled through increasingly blunt poetry... look, I wasn't cheering when Tool went on indefinite hiatus, but I wasn't exactly cheering for their return either. So with all of that context established and all the dislikes firmly given, what did we get out of Fear Inoculum?

...look, it's a Tool album - ergo, it's not for me, and this project didn't change matters. And believe me, like with every Tool album before this, I tried to give it a fair chance - multiple listens on multiple systems, a deep dive through the lyrics... and yet when I went through the latter, I started to understand why to a couple diehard Tool fans this is getting mixed reviews. Or to put it another way, this is a Tool comeback that'll certainly please the majority of audiences... but this could have been released ten years ago and I reckon if it had been, the hype would be significantly diminished.

So let's start with the fact that the Tool 'formula' has not changed, and while it does not work for me - at some point if you're going to make songs this long an understanding of melodic evolution or proper transitions would be wonderful - I see the appeal. The drum and bass work is impressive as always, Maynard James Keenan is an expressive singer with variety even if I'm never quite sold on his intensity across this project, and when the guitar lines are able to open up for some significant crunch, like on passages of 'Invincible' and '7empest', they're potent. Hell, while I'm praising Tool, I think there are moments of melodic growth and crescendo on 'Pneuma' and even 'Culling Voices' - probably the most melodically interesting track to me here - that have potential. Granted, the second you take a step back you'll realize that Tool is much more interested in textured hand percussion and their weirdly spongy basslines than focusing in a melodic direction, but I'll recognize promise when I hear it. And I'll say this, when they are able to vary the guitar tones and build smolder - '7empest' is being hailed as the standout because it's by far the best example of this - there's enough swaggering crunch backed by the groove to kick a little ass, even if on a compositional level Tool doesn't seem to want to lean into this.

And we might as well address the elephant in the room now: even on the songs I like there are compositional missteps that just manage to kill my interest nearly every time. Part of this is the production - the mixes feel more spare and barren of atmospheric effects outside of the interludes, where even the technically impressive drumwork can sound flattened - but it becomes a factor when you can clearly tell disparate pieces of songs were mashed together and they lack any sort of glue, the most glaring example being the shift into the final section of 'Invincible'; imagine how much better that'd sound if that overlong oily patter had actually built into it like on 'Pneuma'! More to the point, it feels like the heavier passages nearly always get short-changed in the face of long, percussion-heavy attempts at being meditative over off-kilter time signatures that easily contribute most to the egregious runtime of the album - I get the thematic reason why Tool was this indulgent, especially on the earlier songs, but it doesn't sustain active interest when the songs are eclipsing the ten minute mark, which can be a problem when a few of them might actually demand it! And that's not to ignore the synth tones, which run towards oily, atonal, sloppily blended, lacking any sort of melodic development especially in the interludes, or just sounding dated and ugly. Granted, this is a long-running Tool issue, in how the interludes rarely operate as good transitions and more just opportunities for the band to mess around, but that doesn't excuse how the tune behind the insane drumwork of 'Chocolate Chip Trip' is generally mediocre, or how the warped gargle of 'Litanie contre la Peur' is unpleasant, or how the album ends with a weedy, squeaking tropical passage on 'Mockingbeat' that feels like a troll at precisely the worst moment; by far one of the worst ways they could have ended this album!

And then we get to the content... and I'm of a few minds on this, because in comparison with earlier, more thematically cohesive projects like Aenima and Lateralus, it's hard not to look at this album as a grabbag of concepts Tool has traced before, only this time trying to match their meditative numbness with calls to action, which is as jarring as you'd expect. Seriously, both the title track, 'Pneuma', and 'Culling Voices' are playing in the same 'let go of negative emotions and expand your mind beyond the flesh' we've gotten from Tool for years, and then when you drop 'Invincible', which feels like the old veteran taking a victory lap to stave off irrelevance... again, it feels indulgent, and not really reflective of reality. Tool is not a band that should have ever cared about 'relevance', especially given their public legacy... but it's the same drive to be more immediate that also brings out 'Descending' and '7empest', the first discussing apocalyptic warnings and a discipline that will need to be attained to defeat it, the latter calling out those who'll try and lull people into tranquility while the unfeeling tempest will destroy all in its path regardless. But if you're going to push these messages, am I the only one who feels there should be some form of immediacy, instead of overlong, repetitive grooves that only serve to intensify the emotional detachment and nihilism that has run rampant through Tool's discography? More to the point... look, I disparaged Tool for leaning hard on the quasi-spiritual pseudoscience and edgelord detail, but stripping that out to leave the lyrics feeling increasingly plain sucks away some of Tool's uniqueness - sure, I didn't like it before and it does reflect a more "mature" band now, but losing that puzzle-box facet as well as any real emotional connection leaves this material just less interesting.

So as a whole... for as many listens as I gave Fear Inoculum, this was a surprisingly easy review to assemble, the sort of comeback that feels more here to satiate the cult... even as the true diehards start questioning the pieces that are missing. It's not surprising, not just because the formula hasn't changed but because this is a similar track a lot of bands have followed making their big comeback. And going further, I don't see this aging all that well - because what makes this album unique or a standout in comparison to what Tool has done before, which for a band so highly touted as creative might be a more damning indictment in the long run. Now for me, it's a solid 5/10, but it should be obvious everyone should take that with a grain of salt, given how they're not really my thing. If they're your thing, go have a blast... but if this album starts fading faster than you'd expect, don't say I didn't warn you.

2 comments:

  1. Finally someone else that thinks Tool are massively overrated, never got what the big deal about them was, always thought they were overly pretentious and up their own ass.

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  2. ""big four" in progressive metal, I've typically ranked Tool as my least favourite among Queensryche, Dream Theater, and Fates Warning"

    What on EARTH is this "big four" list? Queensryche can barely be considered progressive and dream theater hasn't made a good album since before 2000.

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