The era of the compact disc is over. Over the years I’ve watched the CD section of my favorite “record stores” dwindle. The Newbury Comics in the middle of Boston once boasted row after row after row of the things. Three good-sized rooms filled with mostly CDs are now gone. All that’s left is a small section of mostly hits and a shelf for new releases which is lightly stocked. In its place is an endless supply of Funko Pops. Sure, I suppose it’s not all bad. I used to remark as a child how a store like Newbury Comics was pretty light on comics. That has changed too, and while I’d hesitate to call it a dedicated comic shop the section is certainly a lot larger than it was when I was a kid as comic franchises have taken over the world of cinema and thus have enjoyed a resurgence in print as well.
For the era of physical music media though, things look bleak. Vinyl has made a comeback, but it seems like that has peaked as the vinyl section is gradually shrinking as well. It’s much larger than the CD section (as well as the DVD and Blu Ray section, for that matter), but is unlikely to expand further. Big box retailers are basically getting out of music as well, and this has been an ongoing thing basically ever since MP3 became affordable and convenient. And now streaming services make it even easier than ever as precious hard drive space need not be reserved for music anymore.
When Guns N’ Roses released Chinese Democracy over ten years ago I thought we might see a fun, temporary, rise in the popularity of the physical album. My wishes were dashed as the public didn’t seem all that interested in the album over ten years in the making. Turns out, the real boost would come in 2019 thanks to prog-rockers Tool and their album Fear Inoculum.
It almost didn’t matter how Fear Inoculum turned out as just seeing the excitement over the release was entertaining enough. Record stores near me all pre-sold out in days, but still expected to have copies for the floor on release day, August 30. And those copies would disappear fast as well as midnight openings were held in celebration for this medium we all thought was dead. A quick trip to my local Target in the late morning hours revealed an empty space on the shelves where Tool’s latest once sat. People are excited to buy a CD again, something I thought would never be seen again.
We have Tool to thank for this momentary jolt of digital enthusiasm. Tool had not released a new album since 2006’s 10,000 Days. Fans had probably started to think the album was prophetic and that 10,000 days would have to pass before a new album would arrive. Lucky for them, it ended up only being 4,868 – not even half as many! No joke, it’s been a long wait and it’s good to finally have some new Tool to listen to in over a decade.
My introduction to Tool came via radio back in the 90s. The songs “Sober” and “Prison Sex” from the album Undertow were quite popular, but I didn’t really become a true fan until 1996’s Ænima. That was the first Tool album I owned and the first I fell in love with. It also is probably the first album I owned with a parental advisory sticker on the label. It was an exciting record to own in part due to the profanity and the somewhat obscene disc cover image of a man apparently pleasuring himself with his mouth. I got a lot of mileage out of that album and it’s one I still listen to today.
Following Ænima came Lateralus in 2001. A lot had changed for me in five years, but I was still a Tool fan. That album presented a band that was more introspective than before. Less aggressive, the album contained portions where Tool almost sounded like a jam band. Some of that had been hinted by the release of Salival in 2000, which was basically a mix of live cuts and b-sides meant to drive interest in the new album to follow. This was a Tool I still liked, but I never fell in love with Lateralus like I did Ænima. When 10,000 Days came in 2006, I was even less enamored with the band. I listened to that one infrequently, and actually preferred Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s work with A Perfect Circle to what was being done with Tool.
Tool has somewhat been off my radar ever since, partly due to my underwhelming reaction to 10,000 Days and also due to the band just not doing much since. There have been some tours, but news of a new album was often just a tease. Because of that, I stopped caring, and similar to how I feel about a new George R.R. Martin novel in 2019, I’m only going to pay attention when there’s an actual release date.
When that release date came, I came back. I was always going to be curious about whatever Tool did next. I know artists in general make very little off of streaming, so any album I have a true interest in I purchase. Tool was able to remind me almost right away that their releases are often different. Tool has always placed emphasis on the packaging for its releases, and Fear Inoculum is no exception. Check out this description for the debut version of the record:
A deluxe edition of the album will come with a full 4-inch HD screen (featuring an additional song called “Recusant Ad Infinitum”), a 2-watt speaker and a 36 page insert book.
What the fuck?! An HD screen in a CD release?! This thing sounded insane and I just had to see it for myself. No pre-release images of the packaging, aside from the cover, were released and I liked it that way. I wanted to be surprised when this thing showed up on my doorstep on August 30th.
The design of the album was done by Alex Grey, who has handled past Tool releases as well. The cover image looks fairly benign from a distance and even looks like something that would have come on a Windows 95 machine as one of the stock backgrounds to use. Once examined closer one notices the “scales” on this coiled image are actually eyeballs and what looked like a snake on webpages is actually a swirling vortex of eyes. It seems to be an obvious callback to Ænima and there will be visual nods in the album that are callbacks to other albums as well.
The actual packaging is a bit unremarkable at first glance. It arrived shrink-wrapped with a description on the shrink-wrap of the album. It’s basically an oversized digi-pack that’s taller than it is wide. It’s noticeably thicker, and when you open it up the screen is staring you in the face. The screen is around 2×3 and the video starts playing immediately. There are buttons below the screen beneath the cardboard and there are little visual “badges” to denote what they are. They turn the volume up and down and pause the video. On either side is artwork of this new creature that’s featured in the video who kind of looks like a combination between a scorpion and the pope. Inside the box is where the actual video player is stored and there’s an included mini USB cable in there to recharge it. The booklet is stored in the left panel and the CD on the right in its own dedicated slipcase which should help protect the CD.
As for the video itself, it’s basically Tool. It’s all CG and features the formation of this character as it goes through this setting of eyeballs in space, or something. It’s worth a watch, and I recommend watching it with a kid to hear their thoughts as that was pretty entertaining for me. It’s not particularly exciting though. The “song” attached to it is more of an atmospheric track. If it were on the album itself people would think of it as filler. The packaging ends up being more of a novelty than anything. It’s certainly unique, and I doubt we’ll see another album do the same, though some fans might be disappointed if they paid over 40 dollars for this thing. And since it sold out, some people are listing the album online for much more.
The physical version of the album comes with a free download, something that should be included with all physical albums these days (especially vinyl). For Tool, this also serves a dual purpose. The digital version and the CD version are actually different with the digital version boasting more tracks. That’s because a CD couldn’t hold all of the songs. When this happens, most bands release a double-album, but record labels hate that because it adds an additional cost to the physical version. Now considering Tool had enough pull to release a physical version of the album with an HD screen I’m sure the band could have added another CD, but then it would have required different packaging which was likely the main reason why the band decided to distribute it in this fashion.
At any rate, if you only had the physical CD you wouldn’t be missing much. The additional tracks are all filler tracks, a common trait for Tool albums. I’m the type of person that likes to listen to an album in the manner an artist presents it, but even I’m not particularly frustrated by the missing filler when I spin just the CD. Streaming versions of the album include the extra tracks, so that’s how most people will likely hear and experience the album. A vinyl version is rumored to be coming out in November and my assumption is it will mirror the CD version. Considering this is Tool though, it will likely require a unique packaging on its own so who knows? The vinyl version will likely necessitate a double vinyl anyway, so there might be enough space to add in some or all of the filler.
That’s a lot of words on the packaging and presentation of the album and not many on the actual contents of the record, so just how good is this thing? Basically, if you like Tool post-Ænima then you’ll probably enjoy Fear Inoculum. It’s definitely an album that’s firmly in the realm of prog-rock as opposed to alternative or metal. Tool loves the concept of crescendo so expect a lot of songs to start quiet and gradually build to a climax. There’s a lot of use of quiet parts and ambiance, and perhaps more so than ever, Danny Carey’s drums are the backbone of the album. All of the other instruments, including the vocals, tend to surround the drums and serve as complementary instruments. I think a good litmus test for this record is if your favorite song off of Lateralus is “Reflection” then you’ll dig this record. If it was “Ticks & Leeches” well then you may be let down.
The title track was released earlier in August as the lead single for the album. I didn’t listen to it then as I prefer to hear a song in the context of the album. It’s like an extended intro for the record making it a bit of a bold choice as a single. A lot of the songs on the album are quite long with the shortest non instrumental track coming in at over ten minutes. Tool has always had success with longer compositions and is one of the few bands I can think of that had repeated success on radio with 6 minute singles. Even for Tool though, these songs are long, but rarely do they feel directionless. There is a jam band quality to some of them, but it’s always focused. There’s no noodling or anything like that and no one goes off on an extended solo trek.
Interestingly, the title track might be my least favorite. The album picks up from there and if not for the instrumental bits and the track “Culling Voices” then this entire album would almost function like a really long Tool song as it just keeps building and building. The most aggressive track is by far the CD closing number “7empest” (should it be pronounced as Tempest? Seven-empest? Your guess is as good as mine) which puts Maynard’s vocals upfront in the early portion of the song before giving way to the other instruments.
All of the performances on the record are above average and quite professional, a hallmark for the band. Maynard’s voice has remained strong over the years, though it often will be buried in effects. Justin Chancellor’s bass is as good as ever and he works in time with Carey’s drumming quite effectively. Adam Jones brings his restrained guitar work to the album with his trademarked low-toned riffs. There’s a few monsters on this record, but also some very familiar sounding riffs as well. It gives Fear Inoculum an almost encore-like feeling for the band. Considering how long it took to produce, it seems likely that this will be the band’s final album, though nothing is impossible. That celebratory effect makes it a fitting closer on an exceptional career.
Working against the album is definitely that long gestation period. There will be some who listen to this one and say “That’s it?” expecting something more. And if you never liked Tool this album won’t change your mind. Remove expectations from the equation though and I think most will find a very capable and enjoyable Tool release. I don’t know if it will be anyone’s favorite Tool album, aside from those who just played the other albums relentlessly and are excited for something new, but it would surprise me if it’s anyone’s least favorite as well. I need to revisit 10,000 Days to see where I rank this one amongst Tool’s catalog. My tastes have changed over the years and I might appreciate that record more now than I did in 2006. Ultimately, Tool delivered a good album here which makes it worth the wait as far as I’m concerned.
Tracklist (CD Version)
- Fear Inoculum
- Culling Voices
- Chocolate Chip Trip
- Fear Inoculum
- Litanie contre la peur
- Legion Inoculate
- Culling Voices
- Chocolate Chip Trip