The Best Albums of 2019, #4

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4. Tool, Fear Inoculum (Tool Dissectional)

Back in 2006, a veritable lifetime ago, I reviewed Tool’s sixth album. I wasn’t overly fond of, if I can recall. Coming five years after the triumphant Lateralus, 10,000 Days had its great moments but I found it far too drawn out, too meandering to warrant a full recommendation, comparing it to Led Zeppelin’s Presence, another flawed progressive rock album that suffered from exceedingly high expectations. I actually wrote, “[It’s] too strong a work to call a disappointment, but the constant need to fill out a CD to 75-80 minutes is threatening to become the band’s undoing. We just hope that 2011 won’t bring us Tool’s In Through the Out Door.”

Oh, how naive I was, dear reader, to think that it would be another five years until a new Tool record came out. Looking back at the torturous ordeal it’s been for any new Tool music, a five year wait seems quaint in retrospect. The rollout in anticipation of Fear Inoculum was flat-out brilliant: Tool ended their streaming media holdout by appearing on all major platforms, which, being the music listening choice of millions – like it or not – sent Tool’s consumption statistics skyrocketing. Then came the first single, which became the first 10-minute track to crack the rock singles top ten, then the pre-order announcement, which sold out in a flash. When all was said and done, Fear Inoculum debuted at number one, knocking Taylor Swift’s Lover off the top. Teenage Spotify listeners don’t stand a chance against 40-something nerds who won’t hesitate to drop $70 for a friggin’ CD.

Consider me one of those nerds. Fear Inoculum was my most listened-to album of 2019, partially because it is so epic in scope that it requires several immersive listens just to get a grasp of the thing. Not that it’s super-complicated kitchen-sink prog metal like we’ve gotten used to (and bored by) these past 15 years. No, this is an anti-prog metal record in that it requires the listener to settle back and take in the slow, deliberate jams the band has in store. On paper it sounds tedious as hell, and yet I am still shocked by how riveting this album is: Maynard James Kennan’s lyrics feel a lot less hokey and more profound as he waxes philosophic about his life, his band’s legacy, and humanity in general. Meanwhile, Adam Jones lords over Fear Inoculum with his guitar work, which ever-so-slowly builds to majestic crescendos. Justin Chancellor’s bass tone is flat-out beautiful, all warm, full, and comfy. Danny Carey, meanwhile, reasserts why he is arguably the best rock drummer since Neil Peart, adding so much fluidity and expression throughout the 80-minute album, including a brilliant little drum solo track. It’s hard to single out tracks because they so dutifully follow similar formulae, but “Pneuma” and “Invincible” are probably the strongest, and if I only have time for one or two Tool tracks – in other words, half an hour – those are the two I return to.

Accentuated by some of the coolest album packaging I have ever seen (the video screen is just too nifty) Fear Inoculum was indeed worth the 4,868 day wait. I just hope I’m not in my 60s when the next album comes out, because that could very well be a possibility.