TOOL’s first studio album Undertow released on April 6, 1993 took rock/metal to a deep, dark, industrial pit. Tool came from the Undertow to release a bombastic, aggressive, pervasive sound, that paved the way for heavier riffs, and cultural omni - chart presence.
Formed in 1989, TOOL’s unconventional song structures and philosophies put them more in line with the progressive rock acts of the early 80s than their pre-nu metal contemporaries. They met by chance. Danny Carey lived above Maynard and got introduced to Adam Jones through Tom Morello, a former high school friend. Maynard later explained, ‘Tool is exactly what it sounds like: It's a big dick. It's a wrench. ... we are ... your tool; use us as a catalyst in your process of finding out whatever it is you need to find out, or whatever it is you're trying to achieve.”
Before the psychedelic, mathy tones of Ænima, Lateralus, and so on, Undertow would introduce TOOL with a heavy sound where riffs and tones could be more equated to a preacher’s gospel of anger than the spiritual ascensions of their later work. Like any great opening track on a heavy album, Intolerance, sets the tone, boasting a sophisticated arrangement and a sharp mentality. With reckless instrumentals accompanied by both melody and ferocity, emphasized by TOOL frontman, Maynard James Key’s vocal discipline, the line in the sand is drawn from artist to listener:
“I need you to feel this.”
Maynard’s lyrics throughout the album describe pain and abuse ranging from timid to rash defining thematic hallmarks of TOOL’s music. Two of Undertow’s biggest tracks, Sober and Prison Sex emphasize a pattern of abuse as Maynard’s lyrics empathize the causation of pain and alternatively the will to endure it. They, namely Prison Sex, would introduce a principle that would define TOOL: the unethical practice of censorship and its effect on belief systems. The video was directed by TOOL guitarist Jones, whose prior film experience including developing the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. It deals with the topic of child abuse, and was immediately banned from MTV and while it is a fairly disturbing video even today, the song does point to an educated perspective on the cycle of abuse that censorship groups like the PMRC fail to recognize within divisive art.
Album cut, Bottom also follows this introspective analysis of a suffering body and mind, and the flow of lyrical composition, this time sung in tandem with godfather of hardcore Henry Rollins, convey messages of pain and strength. It’s a place where weakness of mind can hold us down, and an imagery of drowning in our own mistakes will keep us at the bottom no matter how loud we scream. Tangible proof that metal could be as thought provoking as it is brutal.
Accompanying Maynard’s emotional deliverance is the instrumental calculation and aggression from the musicians. It is this marriage of cerebral song ideas and unshakable technique and syncopation that would become the DNA of the TOOL sound. Adam Jones delivers tones that drive songs with chugging riffs and razor leads. Drummer Danny Carey’s persistent ability to maintain and evolve grooves never ceases to climax a listening experience while Paul D’Amour uses his bass like it's Mjollnir to create thick destructive tones, yielding one of the most impressive rhythm sections of the 90’s. Chris Haskett from the Rollins Band gets a liner credit for playing “sledgehammer,” which is the most economical use of back cover real estate to define destroying three pianos and a shotgun on track 69 Disgruntipated (tracks 10-68 are silent). While Undertow, characteristically acts as a first step in a varied discography, possessing a fresh energy but predating the grandiose complexity TOOL would later achieve, it is clear from the roaring 8 minute Flood or the complex escalation of the titular track that Tool sits in isolation from any other alternative metal act of their time.
Undertow is a necessary movement in the TOOL story. An album that would characterize anger and aggression in a way few had done before. Undertow got TOOL on the Lollapalooza tour where they were moved from second to main stage as Undertow approached platinum. They would later, in an unpredicted turn of 90s rock superstardom win Grammys and perform world tours, but Undertow marks the moment TOOL cemented heavy metal music as a still prominent genre in an era where grunge and pop punk tool over. “Life feeds on life, feeds on life, feeds on life.”
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