Retro Review: Tool ‘Undertow’

1993 was a year in which Grunge was at its height and Nu-Metal hadn’t yet appeared. Some classic films released that year include Leprechaun, Cronos, Army of Darkness, Fire In The Sky, and, while not horror but still badass, Jurassic Park. Also that year were great music releases from Wu-Tang Clan (Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers), Depeche Mode (Songs Of Faith And Devotion), Candlebox (Candlebox), Sepultura (Chaos A.D.), amongst others. Overall, it was one hell of a year in terms of entertainment. 
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Let’s be honest with each other; for all intents and purposes, Tool should probably not be as huge as they are. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tool and have been listening to their music since ‘Undertow’ came out. Growing up, the video for ‘Sober’ terrified me and gave me countless nightmares. However, their style, their album release pattern, their visuals, all combines to form a musical entity that should not be popular. And yet, something about Tool has people consistently begging for more and craving each album to enter yet another musical journey. Admittedly, I’m one of those people. Having seen Tool six times in concert, I can completely attest to the power of their music not only as an aural experience, but when coupled with their visuals, as a powerful, almost meditative force. 

So let’s go back in time to the first full-length release from Tool, ‘Undertow’. And no, ‘Opiate’ does not count as a full-length release. Kicking off with the track ‘Intolerance’, it is immediately apparent what you, the listener, are in for. Guitars that are more overdriven rather than distorted, a very unique bass tone, intricate and complex drums and finally deep lyrics matched with haunting, furious vocals all meshed together to form a song that played with expectations. Listen to the song with a good pair of headphones and listen to all the little things that are going on in the background and how everything is panned. There are constantly layered sounds and textures swirling around at dizzying speeds. Trying to keep track of what’s happening is near impossible. 
The production of the album is all about toying with aural expectations. Maynard’s vocals shift from having wet reverb effects to dry in-your-face power. While aurally pleasing, there are some volume shifts that are a bit inconsistent with the rest of the music. Paul D’Amour’s bass is thick, articulate and has now become one of those immediately identifiable tones that you can hear three seconds of and know which band is playing. Adam Jones’ guitar work may not show off the technical prowess of Van Halen or the chops of Pearl Jam’s Michael McCready, but his ability to control the overtones and feedback of his guitar is astounding. He also created a tone that is immediately identifiable and conveys the mood of the music wholly. His crunch and distorted channels are consistently articulate while sounding like they almost drip with agony and melancholia and his clean tones are riddled with fantastic and immersive effects. Danny Carey’s drumming is the stuff of legend but unfortunately, the drums don’t sound as tight as the other instruments, instead sounding almost boxed in and confined. 
‘Undertow’ is an album that has had amazing influence over countless bands and musicians. It is an album that has withstood the test of time, sounding as relevant and as intense as the day it was released, mired ever so slightly by a minimally less-than-stellar production. If you’ve been listening to the past few Tool albums and somehow haven’t yet gotten to ‘Undertow’, prepare for an album that is less progressive and more grunge-metal. This shouldn’t dissuade you, as the album is undeniably ‘Tool’. Go and get this album if you don’t own it. If you do, pop it in and relive the early 90′s. 
4.5 out of 5 skulls