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Tool - Undertow CD (album) cover

UNDERTOW

Tool

 

Experimental/Post Metal

3.12 | 392 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars It must be human nature to draw lines of demarcation between decades because each generation seems to claim theirs as being distinct from the previous ones. Admit it, we all do it. The counter-culture kids of the 60s (I'm a charter member of that clan of rascals) alienated those who grew up in the 50s by gravitating first towards the rebellious, shaggy-haired British Invasion adherents and then towards progressive rock and psychedelia. The children of the 70s separated themselves by embracing a wild potpourri of musical styles along with the disco and punk movements. The youth of the 80s adopted the New Wave-tinted, MTV-led video phenomenon as their own while nurturing the rise in metal and techno pop in their cultural outlook. Then came the early 90s wherein the grunge and the alternative rock sensations became king of the realm, all but shutting down progressive metal and relegating it to the status of passÚ. From that stagnant atmosphere arose the band known as Tool.

Most of us got our first exposure to the group via their disturbing but fascinating stop-action videos that effectively set them apart from the glut of flannel-garbed sheep herders. Yet it was, of necessity, their music that really grabbed our collective attention. They had their own individual sound that disassociated their persona from the still-dominant Seattle scene altogether while lyrically they presented their scathing views on late 20th century civilization in a brutally honest and undisguised manner that fit right in with what was going on in music at the time. History has proven that nothing has more impact than originality and there's scarcely an artist or group of musicians that have made a lasting impression without that important characteristic being foremost. Tool was the huge yellow sunflower growing up amidst a field of same-colored daisies that grabbed your eye from the word go and made you take notice whether you wanted to or not. "Undertow" was definitely not your parents' rock & roll. A new spin had been spun.

The opener, "Intolerance," revealed that these guys had discovered a totally unique take on riff-driven heavy rock, one that was very dark and massively intense. The song has a tribal appeal rhythmically and avoids the stereotypical structure that was predominant in that era. "Prison Sex" has a more staccato edge to it yet it's not as unorthodox as the previous cut. What becomes apparent is that instead of relying on the tried-and-true hot guitar solo they depend more on melodic interludes to keep things interesting while never ignoring the essential ingredient of dynamics. On "Sober" guitarist Adam Jones uses distortion and dissonance to create gut-wrenching tension while vocalist Maynard James Keenan emphasizes emotion over unintelligible screaming to express his angst. "Bottom" follows and it's a tune built upon a tricky riff but one that drummer Danny Carey expertly tames enough to make it feel completely natural and unforced. I really like how they allow the middle movement of the song to contain open spaces that let the spoken lines create the desired impact. Keenan's armor-piercing, long-held high note will rattle your spine. "Crawl Away" is next. A gritty riff sets the stage for a strong dose of what I'd term more traditional hard rock fare that turns extremely metallic during the mid section.

A hypnotic 6/4 time signature identifies "Swamp Song" as being special and the band constructs a musty, mysterious air to surround it. Jones' enormous guitar tone fills up a large tract of territory all by itself. I especially admire how they always find intriguing alleys to go traipsing down without sacrificing one iota of momentum. "Undertow" is an example of how the group allows Paul D'Amour's bass guitar to play a major part in the presentation instead of just being relegated to the basic foundation. His contributions give all their compositions a cohesiveness that's rarely encountered. The abrupt changes in direction encountered during this number demonstrate their willingness to go outside of their own, self-imposed parameters. A more subtle intro for "4*" offers a nice respite from the weighty density of their music for a moment but, at the same time, I love how they maintain an other-worldly ambience and avoid falling into a restrictive rut of predictability. In particular Maynard makes his vocal be more of an essential instrument in their sound than just a prerequisite addition on top. The beginning strains of "Flood" sneak in covertly before the band explodes into a hellish soundscape so palpable that you can almost smell the burning pools of sulfur. Halfway through the piece another one of Adam's stringent guitar riffs appears, then Keenan jumps in to take the song hurtling over the brink into a red oblivion. This is one of the most ferocious tunes you'll ever hear. The final cut is way off the reservation, an almost 16-minute-long abstract, experimental collage of noises and beats layered over a salesman-slick tirade entitled "Disgustipated." Shy is not an adjective that should be used within several hundred miles of Tool.

Released in April of 1993, "Undertow" only rose to #50 on the album charts but its main significance was that it figuratively broke up the logjam that grunge had created in the stream of modern popular music. Metal, it turned out, wasn't dead in the water at all. It just needed a progressive attitude adjustment in order for it to resurface and make its presence known again. Tool was just beginning to make big ripples, it turned out, and they never wavered from their we'll-let-our-music-do-all-the-talking-thank-you-very-much stance that continues to grant them immense respect from proggers worldwide. 3.5 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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