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Tool - Undertow CD (album) cover

UNDERTOW

Tool

 

Experimental/Post Metal

3.25 | 689 ratings

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mental_hygiene
3 stars Undertow is Tool's first full studio album. I find it surprising that Tool had written most of these songs by the time they released Opiate because this album's material seems drastically more mature. While Opiate was based on immature aggression and heaviness, Undertow better distinguishes Tool among their peers. This isn't a progressive release by much, but it is a great alternative metal album. The production on this album is fine. The guitar on this record has a greater stereo presence and sharper edge which also distinguishes it from the bass and allows for better interplay between the two.

This is Tool's last release with original bassist Paul D'Amour due to his wishes to play guitar. I think he is a fine bassist on this release because of the more apparent low end dueling between him and Adam Jones on guitar, as well as his juicy tone on the Rickenbacker 4001CS (that's the Chris Squire model!). Well, juicy isn't the best word to describe it, but there's a certain trebly rumble that's on this bass that I love. In terms of guitar, there's a certain frustration I feel on this record because this is essentially the drop-d songbook. There's a reason why Tool is known for their rhythmic variance and not their melodic sensibilities. Even with MJK, Tool would probably be nothing without Danny Carey, and this album is a perfect example of that. While the riffage feels restricted to low end power chords, the drums drive everything.

Intolerance is the opening track, giving the first onslaught of drop tuning riffage. The coolest (and proggiest) aspect of this song has to be the time signature of the opening riff. I could just say 29/16, which sounds impressive, but I think this doesn't do any justice to the actual art of time signatures. What's important is first that it flows, which it does gracefully. But the actual breakdown is 123-123-123-1234 / 123-123-123-123-1234. By viewing time signatures like this, you actually see the nuances of it, that it's a collection small groups that make up a big picture. If we didn't have small understandable rhythmic chunks then we'd be failing to make rhythmic sense. Enough about that, this is a fine song with a great aggressive edge to it. I love how the vocals switch between upfront aggression and almost atmospheric chanting. I don't want to get into the game of sterilizing the meaning of songs by explaining them, but to me this is a song about the conflict between society and true honesty. Even in its simplicity, it's much more thought out than anything on Opiate.

Undertow's first single, Prison Sex, continues the greater significance and ugliness of Tool's aggression. In this case, Prison Sex is about the cycle of abuse, where victims become abusers. This isn't unfamiliar material for the grunge era, but Tool especially was not afraid to be very confrontational. If anything, they revel in it on this album, and the strength of their delivery makes it undismissable. Intangible things aside, I love the line cliche starting at about 3:20. I think one of the reasons why Prison Sex and Sober stand out is because of their relatively greater sense of harmony.

I think that Sober is a clear choice for the best song off of Undertow. There's something about MJK's vocal delivery that sells this song beyond anything else on this album. It's so direct, unpretentious, almost pleading to get away from itself but it can't deny itself. Regardless of your interpretation, it's a song that feels futile beyond anything tangible. I love it when you don't have to explain anything to get what a song is going for, and that's the ultimate success of a song. I didn't want to stray towards the singles when reviewing this album, but they really are worth it.

Among Undertow's longest songs, Bottom is the first, running at 7:13. The first few minutes are very typical of Tool at this point, drop tuned riffs with plenty of rhythmic interplay between the drums, guitar, and bass. Being one of the more progressive songs, Bottom calms down for a spoken word piece by Henry Rollins. I think his voice is a perfect match for the kind of aggression, self loathing, and futility demonstrated on this record. For the second part, we have lyrics that feel more typical of Opiate, and that means they're skeletal and only work in delivery. The difference is confidence.

If I were judging this album based off of the first four tracks, I would give it 4 stars. However, it starts to drown in itself. While I can recall what the first four songs are, it gets very muddy around this part. The main fault of this record are the middle two songs. Crawl Away verges on being indistinctive. It does pick up in its thrasher mid section. There's nothing outstanding about it, maybe we'd pay more attention to it if it was the opener. But it does come off as a bit draining by the end.

Swamp Song opens with a killer bass intro that gets (what do you expect) mirrored by the guitar. It has a clearly defined rhythm to it that pushes it through the muddiness I experience when listening to this album by this point. Still, I struggle to find much to say about it. It nails the atmosphere of the record but by the end I feel a bit drained more than anything else.

Undertow, the title track, picks right back up where Bottom left off. As much as I love heaviness in music, you have to have a balance. And it's the fact that this song isn't just drop d chord riffs that actually pulls it out from the muck. My favorite part has to be the anticipation when the drums cut out in preparation for the chorus. The tempo change by the end is also super effective. This is a great track, and I am going to keep going back to this.

4 Degrees highlights my struggle in reviewing anything by Tool: there's the fan interpretations, there's the band's interpretation, and then the fact I feel like I'm putting way too much effort into something that might possibly have been an afterthought. That's also my problem with this album specifically. This could be a song that uses sex as a metaphor to explain global warming, or it could just be about sex. However, I do like the varied percussion on this track. There's a lot of rhythmic subtleties throughout the mid-tempo verses that gives this a bit of oomph.

I, for one, actually love the intro to Flood. It borrows from doom and sludge metal in its heaviness and sparse devastating guitar hits. I don't think it overstays its time at all. After 4 minutes of atmospheric aural plundering, Tool picks it up and we get another fantastic vocal delivery from MJK. Flood is a bit more of a journey than any of the other songs. The use of time signatures on this track is also very satisfying for me.

After Flood, the album derails a bit. So we have tracks 10-68 that are there purely to leave the final track, Disgustipated, at 69. That was probably very funny for them when making it in the studio. Thankfully, they left it off the streaming versions.

As for Disgustipated, it's a percussive and atmospheric collage of noises and spoken word. It's a religious satire that feels very direct and heavy. You can hear the noises of Tool destroying a piano in the studio while the chanting continues. It's no Revolution 9. Then it moves on to a droning dissonant noise with crickets in the background. This track flows like a mental breakdown.

For all that's said about Tool, I was hoping that this would be a more fulfilling listen than it actually was. The first 4- ish tracks of this album are killer, but it really drags by the end. I don't plan on giving this a whole listen again. Again, a lot of the songs on this are absoslutely fine on their own, but there's only so much you can do in an hour with these types of songs that keeps it interesting. Early Tool was a force of angst, and their hard edge definitely puts them ahead of the pack for 1993. I really want to keep giving this album a chance because for all it doesn't do right it doesn't exactly fail at anything. It's certainly an above average release, with plenty of great aggressive moments and a greater introspection into the human psyche. Keeping all that in mind, I give this a 3.3 star rating, rounded to 3.

mental_hygiene | 3/5 |

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