Tool - Undertow
Volcano
Tool Metal
10 songs (1:08)
Release year: 1993
Tool
Reviewed by Al
Archive review

I rather like Tool. A bit of an understatement perhaps but true nonetheless. In fact if they released an album featuring nothing more than 50 minutes of Maynard James Keenan mumbling incoherently about his deep love for marsupials I’d probably still buy it. It is on this note that I have decided to add a review for the one unreviewed full length in their discography on this site.

If you have never heard Tool, there is little I can do to describe their music. I can think of countless adjectives and superlatives including progressive, technical, emotive, heavy and beautiful but to nail them down to a specific ‘sound’ would be like convincing the Catholic church to adopt ‘Angel of Death’ as the new Lord’s Prayer. My best advice to you is to right now, go buy Lateralus and listen to it at least five times. Probably have a cold shower and a little cry if you need to then come back to this review.

The band at the time of recording Undertow consisted of Maynard James Keenan on vocals, Adam Jones on guitar, Danny Carey on drums and Paul D’Amour on bass. D’Amour later departed the band in 1995 to be replaced by Justin Chancellor. I mention each separately as every one of the musicians in the band was and is a master of their art, playing and songwriting to a staggering degree of expertise which has very rarely been surpassed.

This was the bands first full length having only previously released the EP Opiate. The EP was a more straight ahead ‘rocky’ affair than their later work which showed the promise of what the band would become. Undertow however erected the foundations of what they are today and is a very important record in its own right. The songs are in general shorter and less experimental than their later work and thus it fails to quite touch the brilliance of Ǽenima and Lateralus. This does not however prevent it being a damn fine offering.

The album opener is ‘Intolerance’, a straightforward rocker in a similar vein to much found on Opiate. It builds around a twisting riff accompanied by Keenan’s ethereal vocals to a superbly technical close. This leads into ‘Prison Sex’, a supposedly autobiographical account of child abuse. Subject matter aside, this is one of the bands more accessible works as it has a comparatively orthodox structure and easily digestible rhythm. It’s an obvious single and one of the many highlights of the record.

Speaking of highlights, the third track is ‘Sober’. This is not only one of my favourite Tool tracks, it has a permanent place in my list of favourite songs. Period. Keenan’s vocal performance is stellar, veering from restrained singing to anguished snarl without warning to brilliant effect. The lyrics, composition and musicianship are almost faultless.

‘Bottom’ is prophetic of the Tool sound to come in later albums. Technical, experimental in structure and clocking in at over seven minutes. The middle of the song is broken up by a spoken word passage by Henry Rollins whom the band shared their first tour with. A very good track but not quite as amazing as the three before it. ‘Crawl Away’ is the heaviest song on the album. It features some of the best drumming Tool have put to CD in its closing moments and thus is another one of my favourites on the album. ‘Swamp Song’ is a bass heavy, downtuned monolith which sounds almost Kyuss-esque in places and leads into the title track, a hypnotic mix of the band playing to their full ability which still manages to surprise me in some ways every time I hear it. ‘4°’ is a masterclass in tempo change. It’s equally one part slow-burning, melancholic and heavy, one part soaring, technical and triumphant. ‘Flood’ I see as the true album closer. It’s largely instrumental until the second half of its epic near eight minutes. It features a vocal performance second only to 'Sober' and some of the best lyrics on the album.

You may be asking at this point why, if I love this record so much, have I not endowed it with classic status and wasted your time with this archive nonsense. The reason for this is ‘Disgustipated’, the final track which lasts a colossal fifteen minutes. The unfortunate part is that ten minutes of this is white noise. Even that could be forgiveable if what comes before was any good but unfortunately it’s dull, repetitive and uninspired. The only interesting thing about it is that halfway through it skips your CD player to track 69. ‘Third Eye’ it certainly is not.

This CD deserves a place in any musical connoisseurs collection along with the other Tool albums. I would actually recommend this as a place to start with the band as it is the most accessible of the three. One thing to bear in mind when discovering Tool is that this is a band that requires a small part of effort on the part of the listener. Do not try to like it the first time you hear it as you probably won’t. Give it time to grow on you and allow yourself to discover its nuances. Do this and you will be rewarded with a band will give you back tenfold the effort you put in.

Killing Songs :
I love all of them besides Digustipated. Sober and Flood are personal highlights though.
Al quoted 93 / 100
Jeff quoted 90 / 100
Other albums by Tool that we have reviewed:
Tool - 10,000 Days reviewed by Al and quoted 95 / 100
Tool - Ænima reviewed by Jay and quoted CLASSIC
Tool - Lateralus reviewed by Danny and quoted 96 / 100
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