Tool’s first full-length album, Undertow, is a monster. Featuring lengthy, complex arrangements, Undertow argues that metal needn’t be chiefly the domain of hulking he-men bellowing about Satan. Powered by frontman Maynard James Keenan’s soulful, raging vocals, Undertow strikes a perfect balance of accessible mainstream hooks, provocative subject matter and dense musicianship, creating an aural landscape that’s both forbidding and seductive.
Poetic Expressions of Pain
The 1990s have shown no shortage of angry young men rocking out about their agony, but what sets Tool apart is the band’s choice to address anguish in more opaque terms. Keenan’s lyrics tend to have a more epic, poetic feel to them, rarely nailing down specifics and instead speaking about general states of confusion and disintegration. On songs like “Swamp Song” and “Flood,” the imagery of quicksand and rising tides sets the stage for tunes that address drowning as a metaphor for spiritual loss. Keenan weaves such strong spells because his songs offer only snippets of narrative, forcing the listener to fill in the blanks of what’s going on. Often singing his words with calm dispassion before switching to a fiery wail, Keenan provides an effective one-two punch – at first, his calm is almost unnerving in its lack of feeling, but then he hits you with a volcanic blast of feeling.
Plenty of Pleasure Beneath the Gloom
On its surface, Undertow is an uninviting album, filled with jagged guitars and spooky bass lines. But once you get oriented to its dark menace, Undertow provides plenty of pleasure. The most obvious delights come from guitarist Adam Jones, who dominates Undertow with his coiled riffs and expressive solos. In many of their songs, Tool utilize a similar trick – starting slowly and ominously before unleashing an explosive musical assault – and Jones reveals both restraint and feverish abandon in his guitar work. Plus, Tool boast a more powerful and articulate rhythm section than most of their peers. Bassist Paul d’Amour and drummer Danny Carey don’t just flail on their instruments – they supply added layers of drama and mystery to songs like “Bottom” and “Prison Sex.” Because of the complexity of their arrangements, Tool possess a bit of a prog-rock element to them, but thankfully the band members don’t just noodle around – the complicated textures of their songs always build to emotionally forceful crescendos.
Radio Hits With a Dash of Menace
When Tool settle into more traditional song structures on Undertow, they make the most of it. “Sober” has an engaging opening riff and a great chorus hook – it’s such a catchy piece of hard rock that many listeners might not even realize the song deals with a disillusioned narrator who wants to drown his sorrows in enough alcohol that he can forget his miserable life completely. Another mixture of ear-friendly hard rock and disturbing subject matter is “Prison Sex,” a nasty, riveting song about sexual abuse that rides a tense, spare riff and Keenan’s seething invective. Even when writing radio-worthy rockers, Tool seem committed to pushing their audience to dive into the darkness with them. On Undertow, that darkness is disturbing, but the band’s superb musicianship make it triumphant as well.
Release date – April 6, 1993