A new TOOL record cannot exist in a vacuum. The context surrounding it can't help but alter how it is received and perceived. Like it or not, they're a band that inspire fervent idolatry from their legion of die-hard fans, and abject, sneering ridicule from their detractors. Taken too seriously by the former, and not seriously at all by the latter, TOOL are the textbook definition of "divisive," hailed as mold-breaking geniuses by one camp, and tediously pretentious by the other. Factor in the 13 year wait since 10,000 Days due to legal troubles, other creative commitments (Maynard James Keenan has released four albums with his side projects, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, since 2006 and runs a winery/restaurant), unsubstantiated but still reputation-damaging allegations of sexual assault, and descriptions of the arduous writing and recording process from within the band's own camp, and it's fair to say that, with the advent of Fear Inoculum, cynical critics and self-appointed gatekeepers of “cool” are rubbing their hands with a gleeful sense of schadenfreude. Meanwhile, even dyed-in-the-wool Toolheads are feeling nervous about the band's legacy.

That legacy is one whereby, across the four full lengths that make up the band's discography, they haven't released a single dud, whilst always managing to progress their sound or, at least, shift their focus. 1992's Opiate EP feels more like the testing ground for a neanderthalic (emphasis on phallic) iteration of the band that thankfully never came to pass, so it’s being ignored in this equation. Their 1993 debut, Undertow, was an uncompromisingly bleak slice of swampy-yet-melodic alt-metal that, despite its undeniable quality, didn't even hint at the heady heights the band would hit with their sophomore album.

1996's Ænima grows in stature with every passing year; a seminal classic of mid-90s alternative metal that exhibited the band's scabrous humour and ability to craft MTV2-friendly anthems as well as engagingly epic tracks, loaded with as many hooks as proggy elements.

Legal disputes delayed a follow-up until 2001 when TOOL re-emerged as a very different band, doubling down on the psychedelic, quasi-spiritual progginess and self-seriousness. Lateralus was lauded in many circles as the band's definitive masterpiece, but was also, infamously, the victim of a 1.9 Pitchforking that still stands as the bellwether for mockery of the band's fanbase.

Another five-year gestation led to 10,000 Days, arguably the weakest TOOL release until now. It suffers from occasionally jarring shifts in tone, a relative lack of sharpness in the songwriting, some recycling of ideas, and a truckload of decidedly on-the-nose and cringe-inducing social commentary. And yet, in its study of grief and mourning, it stands, in part, as the band's most nakedly emotional, vulnerable and empathetic album.

And now, after a wait that many thought would never have an end, we have a new full-length to factor in to that legacy. So how does Fear Inoculum measure up? The answer is as frustrating as it is unsensational, because on a scale between 'mind-blowing, triumphant return' and 'unmitigated disaster', the new TOOL album sits, quite inoffensively, somewhere in the middle.

It’s unmistakably a TOOL record. The band’s style and sound is so distinctive that the only thing they could ever be confused for, and then only in their quieter moments, is A Perfect Circle. And yet, Fear Inoculum feels like quite a different album in terms of the band’s approach to songwriting and pacing. Where previous albums achieved a balance between shorter, immediate rockers, quieter segues and longer cuts that built to devastating climaxes, every non-instrumental track on Fear Inoculum extends beyond the 10-minute mark, and all but one of them begin quietly and progress through various stages of rising intensity, often teasing an explosion that only comes to pass late in the track, if at all.

This wouldn’t be a problem, in and of itself, if the compositions earned their runtimes, but for all the virtuosic drumming, fluid basslines, chugging riffs, tricky time signatures and searing solos that the band chuck into this record, the songs suffer from excessive repetition, and are, for the most part, lacking in discernible hooks or even the sonic variety required to hold one’s undivided attention. Yes, TOOL are employing synths more than ever before, but seemingly just to fill dead space in the songs’ periods of respite. They even pull out the exact same Blade Runner-esque synth line from ‘Reflection’ off Lateralus on ‘Descending.’ When they introduce new sounds, such as in the atmospheric, scene-setting Middle Eastern-accented opening to the album, it recalls the soundtrack for a run-of-the-mill spy thriller set on the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, you could play a drinking game around TOOL’s most overused stylistic tics (staccato riffing, rising feedback buzz before a drop, teases and false endings, those fucking tablas) and be blind drunk after thirty minutes. Most damningly, the crescendos rarely justify the protracted anticipation.

Some listeners will reason this away by citing the band’s admirable sense of restraint. After all, these guys aren’t in their 20s anymore. They’re making more “mature” (a rock critic synonym for boring and slow) music. We shouldn’t expect them to be as aggressive or propulsive as they once were, though I should concede that closer ‘7empest’ is, despite its proggy length, the most straightforward riff monster TOOL have recorded since the Opiate/Undertow era. Admittedly, the lyrics do back up this theory, with the central pairing of ‘Invincible’ and ‘Descending’ both addressing themes of aging, mortality and the passing of time. ‘Invincible’ in particular seems to articulate the existential question at the heart of TOOL’s return: “Lurch into the fray/ Weapon out and belly in/ Warrior struggling to remain consequential.”

Truth is, TOOL are proving that they do matter in today’s musical landscape. Their embrace of the digital age, by releasing their discography to streaming services, was met with considerable fanfare (as of today, they have nearly 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify), their album rollout has been greeted with enthusiasm, and early reviews of Fear Inoculum have positively glowed in the dark. They’re a major label hard rock act who can release an album that does not concede an inch to compromise its vision, and can inspire redditors to go to extraordinary, comical lengths to leak the album for internet points. So, why is the band’s latest offering so underwhelming? Why does it, for all its density and intricacy and peerless musicianship, feel so, well, inconsequential?

I posit that it has something to do with the fundamental disconnect between Maynard James Keenan and the rest of the band. In interviews over the years, Keenan has often complained about the difficulty of the writing and recording process. He has characterised the individual members of the band, himself included, as “pig-headed.” Stubbornness and a mutual inability to compromise reportedly delayed progress to such an extent that Keenan removed himself from the process, choosing to wait until the music was completely written before contributing vocals.

Unfortunately, if that really is the case, it shows. Never has Keenan sounded so withdrawn, restrained and uninspired. Where strong vocal melodies were once TOOL’s unique selling point, now Keenan’s vocals can sound like first-pass scratch vocals, often guilty of rote replication of the guitar or bass melody, or of being delivered either in a new-agey warble resembling whalesong, or in a soulless, robotic staccato. On opener, ‘Fear Inoculum’, Keenan sucks the energy out of the song on several occasions by not developing the intensity of his delivery. More than ever before, Keenan’s vocals sound like they’ve been clumsily thrown atop the instrumentals. It rarely feels as if the music and vocals have been in dialogue with each other during composition. Where he used to appear to take songs by the scruff of the neck and will the climaxes into being with a lung-shredding roar, on Fear Inoculum Keenan appears to be buried in the mix, whispering feebly into the tornado that his bandmates are whipping up around him.

After a 13 year gap, Keenan finds himself in the curious position of being more or less superfluous to requirements in his own band. There are long stretches of this album where he is entirely absent, and worse, when his return is dreaded. And when he is there, his vocals are mostly delivered in the slightly higher register he used to reserve for his work with A Perfect Circle, or are masked with studio effects (including, at one point, a vocoder) to no discernible end. It smacks of a dearth of engaging ideas that no amount of sonic trickery can conceal.

The TOOL version of Keenan we know and love only really pops up for any extended period of time during the opening section of ‘7empest,’ where he appears to be channeling his younger, more venomous, mohawk-cum-rattail-sporting self. Lyrically, Keenan recycles some familiar themes (fighting through illusions, deconstructing fears, universal interconnectedness, and cosmic spirituality), whilst also pondering questions of mortality, the end-times madness that we have all found ourselves in, and, on 'Culling Voices', what, intentionally or not, sounds like a rant against social media mob justice (“Judge, Condemn, and banish any and everyone/ Without evidence”). Inviting the listener to join the dots to last year's vehemently denied allegations of sexual assault in this way is, well, a bold choice. The song could of course be quite innocently interpreted as representing the internal conflict with the voices inside one’s own head, but the ambiguity is disquieting.

Despite all of this, Keenan is still in possession of one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in modern rock, and I concede that, though few and far between, he does deliver some thrilling moments, particularly during the title track’s memorable chorus, the climax on ‘Invincible,’ his hair-raising delivery of “one drive/ to stay alive!” on ‘Descending’, and the energetic opening salvo of ‘7empest’.

But Fear Inoculum undoubtedly belongs to the rest of the band, particularly guitarist Adam Jones, who has obviously spent the last 13 years diligently practising his instrument. Always the least technically impressive musician in the band (which is hardly a cause for shame given Danny Carey’s beast-level drumming and Justin Chancellor’s dextrous melodicism), Jones has undeniably been guilty of recycling riffs, relying almost exclusively on drop-D tuning and the pentatonic scale, and playing more or less the same solo (on the rare occasion when he did so) for the entirety of the band’s career. On Fear Inoculum, however, it’s refreshing to hear him tease new sounds and textures out of his instrument, even if a lot of what’s going on during the song’s builds is fairly par-for-the-course for post-metal. However, if it’s guitar solos you’re after, this album has got your number: each song gives Jones several moments in the spotlight, and ‘7empest’ is essentially half a dozen extended solos stitched together with riff glue. Your patience for these will likely proportionally correlate with the volume of illicit drugs you’ve consumed prior to listening. Why must we still be sober, indeed.

Since Lateralus, Danny Carey’s drums, percussion and complex rhythmic interplay with Chancellor’s bass have been a primary focus for TOOL. Fear Inoculum is no exception. Carey’s drums are far more prominent in the mix than Keenan’s vocals, and they sound undeniably crisp and powerful. He even gets his own showcase track, the incongruously goofily-named ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’, a synth-and-bells experiment/troll move, which serves as an excuse for Carey to demonstrate his seemingly multi-tentacled, brutalising yet technically precise chops. It feels like a moment transplanted from the live concert context to the album. It’s an impressive display of showmanship, for sure, but its purpose within the broader context of the LP is unclear.

That sense of purposelessness permeates the album. All of Carey’s sound, fury, and percussive flourishes, end up signifying very little. I’m impressed, but decidedly unmoved. Without an in-form Keenan serving as its heart and soul, Fear Inoculum is a curiously emotionless experience, defined by the technical proficiency of its musicianship, by its airtight, crystal clear, and unnaturally smooth production, and by the for-the-sake-of-it complexity and calculatedness of its compositions. In place of a beating human heart, it has the gold-plated cogs and wheels of an intricate timepiece.

Its best moments, such as the groove the band locks into on ‘Invincible’, which I’d be happy to have on loop for hours, are memorable primarily for how cool they sound. It’s not an album of memorable songs, and the blame for that lies to some degree with Keenan, but also with the band’s insistence on stretching these songs into double figure runtimes. The majority of Fear Inoculum’s songs are more or less interchangeable, achieving the same overall effect in slightly different ways. And like the interminable wait for the album itself (and this review of it), virtually every song takes too damn long to get to where it’s going.

Toolheads will find much to enjoy here, I am sure of it. In fact, Fear Inoculum is likely to be held up as a masterpiece by many. TOOL albums generally take some time to fully reveal themselves, and I am open to the possibility that my opinion on the record may change positively as my familiarity with it grows and the importance of the context surrounding it diminishes. For now, it is incumbent upon me to state that whilst Fear Inoculum is not the legacy-tarnishing debacle some had feared, it does stand as TOOL’s least essential release yet.