Review Summary: An album that focuses on atmosphere and subtlety.
Particularly passionate music fans sometimes have tendencies to do their best to categorize bands and albums as thoroughly as they can, organizing everything and everyone into neat little labels and sub genres that they can point to when asked about the style of a band. Some bands however, give people extraordinary trouble in assigning a convenient label. These bands usually spawn heated genre debates in forums and comment sections on YouTube. Tool is definitely one of those bands. I've heard countless different descriptions applied, from alternative metal to progressive rock and even industrial. One thing is certain, they only confuse people more with every release.
These deceptive qualities apply to their debut album, Undertow, a record that took me quite awhile to understand. Hearing for the first time, I simply regarded it as a great rock album and didn't go much deeper than that. Upon further listening, my perception became more muddled. Other textures I hadn't noticed before started to creep into my awareness. This is evident in the opening track, Intolerance. It starts off with some barely audible ambient noise that sounds like a scuba diver running out of air. The song then starts with a syncopated Drop D riff and vocalist Maynard James Keenan's slightly deranged vocals (being sure to point out that we all lie, cheat, and steal). If you're listening to this song for the first song, you'll probably be paying attention to the riffs and vocals, but listen to it again and listen to it closely. Listen to all of the subtle sounds in the background, especially during the breakdown. Being aware of these gives a whole new and extremely dark atmosphere to a previously rather upbeat hard rock song.
Another particularly ingenious moment is in Sober, arguably the most well known song on the album and one of the band's best known pieces overall. Near the end, all of the instruments drop out one by one until it's almost dead silent with the exception of Keenan's whispered vocals, before swelling back into full loudness before you have time to realize it and continuing into the last chorus. It's a great use of dynamic range and it really creeps you out.
It's moments like these that give the album it's unique feel, one of a band that is striving to paint a picture in sound and raise emotions in the listener rather than just moshing the hell out of you for an hour, which is something I really respect. Never fear however, there are still plenty of heavy moments on the album. In fact, the heaviness of Undertow is what separates it from Tool's later releases. The songs are much more riff based and carry a more definite hard rock/heavy metal style, but like I said above, it's not the focus.
This album is definitely not for everyone. Some may find it boring, but if you're willing to listen to it carefully, I think you'll be able to appreciate the extreme care put into how everything plays out.
Undertow (title track)