Review Summary: Humble beginnings...Turning Back the Clock: 20 Years Back
Rising metal act Tool have made a splash in the underground scene after the release of their 1992 EP Opiate
. While not one of the best releases in the last year, it certainly displayed some of this four-piece alternative metal group's potential. Songs like "Hush" and the title track were filled with chugging riffs and cynical lyrics about subjects such as censorship and religion. With the release of their debut studio album Undertow
, Tool showcase their incredible songwriting skills and excellent riffs on tracks like lead single "Sober" and opener "Intolerance".
It's not a perfect album though; the middle of the record is chock-full of filler tracks that easily rank among the album's worst. "Flood" drags on for nearly eight minutes, accomplishing nothing but showing how bland Tool can be when they want to. "Crawl Away" and the title track are both tedious and monotonous, wasting about ten minutes of album space on truly insipid music. Undertow
could have been a much better album if Tool had shaved off a minute out of half of the tracks, as many of the songs don't justify such a long running time. Even through all of its faults, this is just the beginning for them. Tool surely have a lot of talent (drummer Danny Carey and guitarist Adam Jones are absolutely excellent musicians), and their second album is one to look forward too.
20 Years Since
What impact did this album have when it first came out?
came out when grunge was the most popular musical genre at the time, and alternative rock was just starting to break into the mainstream. This album helped metal remain prominent among the Soundgardens and Smashing Pumpkinses, and let other alt-metal bands gain attention. Undertow
was met with mostly positive reviews, with critics praising the dark imagery in Tool's lyrics and the excellent instrumentation.
The band's cynical and grim attitude would not be without controversy, though. Second single "Prison Sex" and its music video were banned from MTV due to graphic depictions of child sexual abuse. Wal-Mart and K-Mart refused to sell Undertow
due to its album cover and liner notes, which contained photographs of naked men and women, pins stabbed into the heads of the band members, and a rib cage. In response to retailers' reactions, Tool released a censored version of the album cover, which contained nothing but a bar code, along with a snide note to the fans in the liner notes.
What role does this album play in the band's discography?
was Tool's very first full-length studio album, and for a debut record, it's pretty solid. Adam Jones' riffs are incredibly breathtaking, rocking hard on tracks like "Prison Sex" and "4 Degrees". This album is home to Tool's most underrated song, "Swamp Song"; Maynard's aggressive vocal delivery and Jones' chugging riffs are the main reason why the track should get more attention than it already does. Lyrics like “You’re a dumbass belligerent ***er, I hope it sucks you down” provide the catharsis that results from such a livid song.
is a great record, it’s still very obviously a freshman effort. Most of the songs here are rather formulaic, following the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge format that is used in about 75% of music. After this album, Tool would become more progressive, abandoning that format for nine-minute long epics. Another gripe about this record that would be fixed in following albums are introductions to songs; “Flood” opens with a four-and-a-half minute long instrumental section, “Intolerance” begins with someone drowning in water, and “Crawl Away” starts with an Irish jig fading in the distance for half a minute. This problem would be patched on later on Aenima
, where these little intros became their own tracks, like “Useful Idiot” and “Message to Harry Manback”.
is probably Tool’s darkest and bleakest record in their discography. This is mainly because of its production, giving it a grim atmosphere that hasn’t been recaptured on an album post-Aenima
. Album opener “Intolerance” is a perfect example of this; Adam Jones’ visceral guitar riffs and Maynard’s seething vocal performance create a gloomy background that is accented more by the track’s background noise.
How does the album live up twenty years later?
Looking back at it now, it’s not surprising to see why many people consider this to be Tool’s weakest effort. The instrumentation, although rock solid, pales in comparison to what they could do on Lateralus
. Much of it is formulaic; “Sober” reuses the same two chords throughout the track’s entire five-minute long runtime, and while Tool utilizes that format well, it’s pretty basic compared to the progressive-ness of tracks like “Reflection” and “Third Eye”. This was the band’s first (and only) album with Paul D’Amour as bassist, and he does pull out some nice basslines in tracks like “4o” and “Sober”. However, Justin Chancellor is far superior, and his work on Aenima
surely proves that.
For a debut album though, it’s pretty excellent. Despite the basic nature of “Sober”, it’s still incredibly infectious and captivating, and its hook is one of the best on the record. “4o” opens with one of Tool’s most addictive riffs ever, and even though its title comes from the fact that the anal cavity is four degrees warmer than the vaginal opening, the song isn’t sexual in nature; rather, it’s about emotionally opening up. Even “Bottom”, which drags on for a little bit longer than it should, shines in some areas.
Twenty years have passed since Undertow
was released; since then, Tool have gone on to bigger and greater things. Even if this album may not come close to the two albums that followed, it's not one that should be lost in the mix of Tool's classics. Undertow
was a necessary steppingstone to all the greatness that the band would later accomplish, and all of this record's flaws would be patched up in their subsequent releases.