There is no common opinion on what is the best Tool album. Some will say they got better with each release, while some others think their first two releases, Opiate and Undertow, are better and more musical. Without getting into this debate, I’ll kindly suggest, if you’ve never heard Tool before, start right here, with their first full-length release, Undertow (their debut Opiate is an EP).
The songs on Undertow are all significantly more simple and direct than their work on Aenima and Lateralus; it could be argued that the band hadn’t matured fully while they were writing these songs yet, but still, for a 1993 release, Undertow is one of the most innovative discs ever, given how the scene was littered with a million grunge bands at the time. This is not to say Tool has no alternative elements in their music though. The second track of the album actually sees vocalist Maynard Keenan opting for a slightly grunge-styled delivery with great results. However, aside from that, “Prison Sex” is an ultimately adventurous piece and easily transcends the boundaries of grunge. Pairing a gritty bass motif with immensely powerful drum fills, the song also contains a dynamic guitar theme that soars above this combination, climaxing at the final second, suggesting there is not a single overplayed note on it.
Actually, Undertow, as every other Tool album, immediately impacts the listener with its solid rhythmic angle, the amazing Danny Carey on drums and Paul D’Amour on bass (now replaced by Justin Chancellor). Carey’s drumming style is absolutely mind-blowing and his tone is to die for, while D’Amour on bass really defines the character of the album, be it with his fat bass lines on “Intolerance” (with killer guitar effects at the end) or his meticulous grooves on “Bottom”, a song with a phenomenal atmospheric undercurrent that emphasizes tranquil passages filled with whispered spoken words, sporadic bass throbs, and glistening cymbal work. Guitarist Adam Jones is equally important to this album. His minimalistic yet effective guitar expressions are in a league all their own. You won’t hear a million flying solos on this album (or any other for that matter). If that’s what you’re looking for in music, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Tool simply rocks in a different kind of way. Sure, their music is riff-based, marked by plenty of visceral rock nuances, and amidst all these complex passages, it is Jones himself who chooses when and where to insert those riffs, each one having a point and purpose. The guitar work of Tool is simply one of a kind. Adam Jones’ guitar lines bleed atmosphere through and through, in a very unique way. “Sober”, my personal favourite off of this album, is not only a relentless attack on religious hypocrisy, but it also displays what an amazing lyricist and singer Maynard Keenan is. Just listening to this song, I can already hear how all those new bands, such as Dead Soul Tribe, have been influenced by the genius of Tool’s songwriting. The chorus of “Sober” is so well-written and infectious that it won’t let go days after you stop listening to it. And I really, really love Keenan’s haunting lyrics. He conveys his thoughts with zero pretense, which, in my opinion, is a big plus.
I wish I could describe each track in great detail, but it would be impossible to do so without missing vital moments. Though, at face value, Undertow may seem rather simplistic and concise, repeat listens expose great details. You may be as surprised as me when you start enjoying the numbing guitar drills on the bleak “Crawl Away” or effect-laden guitars paired with oppressive instrumental interludes on “Swamp Song”. The title track, besides going back to the band’s grunge-infused themes, is also one of the vocal-based cuts, where you hear so many changing chord progressions your head spins; while the Eastern influence on “4 Degrees” (complete with terrific percussion) make you believe they further explored this on their following releases.
“Flood” is arguably the most brooding number on Undertow. Its slowly-picked bass guitar, Keenan’s vocals echoing distantly in the background, and dense atmospherics build on through its eventless yet languid first half before venturing into a hard-hitting rock number with philosophy-infused lyrics. The last song “Disgustapated”, starting at track 10 and ending at track 69, is a trippy piece of over 15 minutes, littered with odd sound effects, tribal percussion work, spoken lyrics about abuse and intolerance, and a static hammer sound that goes on and on. I’m not even going to go into the pictures in the booklet, which are equally ‘different’ and ‘unusual’, for lack of a better term.
It was incredibly difficult for me to crack Tool’s music. However, once I did, I never looked back. It may take months or even years, but if you’re a music fan with an open mind and enjoy innovation and musical depth as much as I do, give Tool a listen. If you heard them before and thought they were obtuse, maybe you should go back and give their album(s) a new spin. You may be grateful you did.