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Tool - Undertow CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

3.18 | 513 ratings

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James Lee
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars The early 90s were a time in music when the long-dismissed threads of punk and metal finally achieved a more accepted prominence in the popular music scene. From the Seattle bands to SMASHING PUMPKINS to NINE INCH NAILS, heavy and often angry songs could be seen at the top of the charts- a welcome relief for many who during the 80s had to settle for metal and/ or go underground for music with a little more bite. "Undertow" came to me when I was doing college radio, and I first played "Sober" in a heavy set that also featured PRIMUS, JANE'S ADDICTION, SOUNDGARDEN, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES, and NOMEANSNO- pretty serious competition. Each band did different things with heavy guitars, tight and tricky rhythm sections, and immediately identifiable vocal qualities. "Sober" got my interest (and a lot of airplay), and the album became a minor sensation. A number of my hardcore punk friends liked the lyrics, which made sense- a lot of the punk bands survived solely on their shouted message rather than any distinctiveness of the music, and Maynard took his cue from the 'smartpunk' school (no coincidence that there's a Rollins connection). Many of my metal friends liked it too, which surprised me as they were generally suspicious of anything with the slightest hint of 'artsy-ness'. Personally, after listening to the album several times in its entirety, I felt a bit let down. It seemed quite similar from song to song, the vocals seemed lacking in variety, and the playing- while well beyond reproach- didn't really give me anything I hadn't heard other bands do with better results.

So then ten years passed, and the 'nu-metal' movement increasingly claimed the territory that the 'alternative' music had cleared. KORN and LIMP BIZKIT (and several hundred other bands) took the heaviness straight from METALLICA's unexpected MTV popularity and threw in a smattering of suburban white hip-hop. TOOL (along with fellow creepers RADIOHEAD) successfully rode the wake of this current, refining and exploring their more individual sound; new fans flocked to the sound while old fans almost never had cause to lose faith. Meanwhile, I was rediscovering my teenage love for progressive rock, and was surprised to discover that many prog fans considered TOOL to be, if not an official prog band, at least a decent modern simile. Being in a constant state of self-doubt, I decided to dust off ol' "Undertow" and see what the passage of a decade had done to my impression of the album.

Predictably, it sounds a little more dated than it did in '93 but also a lot more raw than I remembered. Nobody else really sounds like them, and they are not obviously derivative, which logically should result in a unique sound. Unfortunately (for me, if not for TOOL fans) that specific sound is really all there is to the band- it's an old cliche, but if you've heard one of their songs, you know exactly what to expect from every other song. I can discern more shades of expression now in Maynard's voice, but it is still mainly a one-trick pony, going from a flat almost-speaking tone to a ragged, swooping yell in a similar fashion on most songs. The often highly-regarded lyrics have a self- consumed, tortured poetic pose- peppered with some naughty words to prove that he's 'raw'- but little in the way of thought-provoking concepts or meaningful depth (hey kids, and critics: "deep" and "weird" are not always interchangeable). The individual tracks do have more distinctiveness than I once gave them credit for; however, I still believe that a lot of the sections could be swapped between songs with little appreciable difference. I still think that "Disgustipated" is more of a 'messing around in the studio' throw-away track than a bit of conceptual genius. I'll testify firsthand TOOL puts on a great live show, but somehow a significant amount of that energy isn't forthcoming when listening to their recordings.

Ultimately, I respect the band and wish them all the success they've earned, but "Undertow" is still not enough to get me excited. I can't really consider the album progressive rock (or even prog-metal) despite their occasional use of unusual rhythms, but they are undoubtedly 'progressive' for the modern heavy scene. A lukewarm but objective, aprreciative three stars from me; you don't have to go too far to hear them, and you'll know from the first few seconds whether TOOL is your kind of band or not. Maybe in another decade I'll pull the album out again.

James Lee | 3/5 |


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