Review Summary: It might not be as theatrical or virtuosic as Tool's subsequent releases, but Undertow is an album so full of rage, so permeated with pure anger, that it's a more than worthy member of the Tool canon.
There really is something to be said for the power of raw, unadulterated rage in music. It can save a train-wreck of an album, redeem a flawed one, or give credence to otherwise melodramatic-sounding lyrics. Whilst Tool's first full-length album, Undertow, isn't quite a train wreck, or 'flawed' in any fundamental sense, it really is carried by the sheer, terrifying sense of anger which permeates its dark, oppressive sound-scape, and Maynard's vocals sound so genuinely tortured as to make each fresh listen as harrowing as the last.
Undertow opens with a sledgehammer to the face, the savage-sounding 'Intolerance.' This track is the perfect introduction to, and summation of, the sound which Tool went for on this outing, as the riffs are uncompromisingly visceral, the production raw and the vocals are, as aforementioned, about the most furious and wounded sounding as one is likely to come across. It doesn't quite matter what Maynard's singing on this album (although the lyrics are more than passable throughout) - by the time he's screaming 'LIE CHEAT AND STEAL!' at the end of this first song, the listener's left unsure if they're witnessing some kind of positive catharsis or the sounds of a brutal murder. In truth, it feels like equal parts both. One cannot understate how important Maynard's vocals really are to this album, moreso than with any subsequent Tool releases, as they supply the much-needed humanity to fill the gaping voids of the album's impersonal, in-your-face instrumentation and production.
That's not to say that, musically, the album isn't 'good,' per se, just that it's a bit basic compared to what Tool would later go on to do. Sober's main riff (and entire verse progression) is simply based around two chords - but Tool are suitably economical with their sounds that this riff comes off as sounding like the most evil thing imaginable, until you remember that it really is just a chord change and the illusion is subtle. Still, there are some interesting ideas here; be they the disturbing, almost dark-ambient intro to Flood, or the unexpectedly glorious bass/guitar unison towards the end of the pleasantly titled Prison Sex, Undertow actually has a deceptively interesting offering for the refined musical palate, it's just a bit more stenographically hidden than, say, 10,000 Days in its virtuosity.
Frankly, the real appeal of Undertow is fairly difficult to put into words. Everything one would want from a decent grunge/metal album is present and correct here, but on paper it's nothing to write home about, despite being a serviceable release. Upon actually listening, though, Undertow transforms into one of the most harrowing, cavernously bleak and affectingly furious albums I've ever heard. It's successor, Aenima, might well have been 'angrier' in terms of angstiness and typical themes (and is also a better album overall, to my mind) but Undertow has a palpable sense of rage that, at its height, feels so genuine and relatable as to seem almost metaphysical. So whilst it might be the little brother of Tool's more 'important' albums, Undertow is still more than worthy of carrying the band's name, if only for the terrifying sense of fury that informs every second of this miserable, suffocating but perversely intoxicating release.
I approved your review, man. It was a nice read, although it sounds like your rating of it is a 4.5-5 by reading it. Nevertheless, thanks for your review.
Although, personally, I don't think this album will receive it's justice until someone does a 5 review. I didn't hop into Tool at Lateralus. I've listened to them 20 years, and to me this is still their finest release and their true heart, regardless if it isn't as pretentious, flowery, or full of as much wankery or "deep"(...) lyrics as later releases.
Yeah, Aenima and Lateralus are both superb albums to me. I just don't like the fact that people rate this album lower, or don't understand what this meant for Tool or how big of an album this was when it came out. This album was a fucking beast, as well as the videos of Sober and Prison Sex.
Yeah, I can totally understand someone not being into this if their first exposure to Tool was Lateralus. Their style evolved quite a bit, but that's because they damn near already perfected the sound they had on this album.
That 'EUPHORIA' section in Undertow is one of the most chilling things I've ever heard!
And thanks for the nice comments guys, I'm starting to think maybe I did underrate this a bit, it's probably on level pegging with at least 10,000 Days for me now I think about it. Not quite Aenima/Lateralus tier, but nowhere near as far off as people make out.
Good review man, this is a pretty underrated album in terms of Tool's discography. Some amazing songs on here, particularly Sober and Prison Sex. There's more quiet, sad, desperate rage on this album than 20 death metal albums combined.