Rating:
8.9
Tool - Undertow
6 April 1993


01. Intolerance
02. Prison Sex
03. Sober
04. Bottom
05. Crawl Away
06. Swamp Song
07. Undertow
08.
09. Flood
10. Disgustipated


Most newbies to Tool's fanbase know Tool for calm, introspective, and meditative works like Lateralus and 10,000 Days, but little do they know of the darker Tool that emerged from the early 90's. Before writing sincerely beautiful songs like "Parabola," "Schism," and "Wings for Marie," Tool wrote songs that evoked bleak emotions of darkness, regret, sadness, anger, and emptiness. Before the progressive intricacies of Lateralus and 10,000 Days, Tool composed heavy, raw music that had an artistic, intellectual side to it. Clearly, Tool were a different band in their early days, and Undertow, their very first record, showed the world what they were capable of.

From the dark, doom-laden intro "Intolerance" to the industrial closer "Disgustipated," Undertow is an artistic exhibition of creativity and variation. Songs like "Prison Sex," "Bottom," and "Flood" exemplify this truth with their progressively shifting atmospheres. For a more insightful example, one should take note of how the song "Prison Sex" is composed. As the song begins, the bass player contrives a groovy introductory tune leading into a rather solid, upbeat composition that drives the song. However, before one can realize it, the upbeat instrumentation nosedives into a slow, brooding, and depressing conclusion, leaving the listener in disbelief and awe. This intriguing technique of atmospheric progression is executed very impressively and is one of the many factors separating Tool from the rest of the crowd.

Obviously, the aforementioned technique of atmospheric progression wouldn't exist without talented band members, and Tool are composed of them. Each band member does an exemplary job on Undertow and contributes to the music in his own unique way. Drummer Danny Carey is quite appropriate for this band, for he shifts his style whenever the atmosphere does. One moment he's drumming with subtlety, the next he's drumming with relentless ferocity (see the latter end of "Crawl Away"). Guitarist Adam Jones also complements the band with his dissonant riffs and unpredictable play patterns. Ex-bassist Paul D'Amour, unlike many other bass players, plays a primary role in every composition, as he usually drives each song with his groovy bass. However, as talented as each band member is, Tool would not be the same without lead singer Maynard James Keenan, who plays an integral role in conveying the many different emotions found in Undertow's songs. Some times Maynard whispers his subtle feelings in desperation; other times Maynard shouts them in sheer distaste and anger. On every occasion, he, like his band mates, doesn't fail to impress.

It's also important to note how thought-provoking the songwriting is. Discussing topics such as violation ("Prison Sex"), regret ("Sober"), hypocrisy ("Intolerance"), and change ("4 Degrees"), the lyrics do well in driving Undertow's bleak atmospheres without seeming cliched or pretentious. What's most interesting about the lyrics is that most they can be interpreted in any way. For example, one may perceive the lyrics to "Sober" as anti-religious; however, another can interpret the same song as a sorrowful cry of regret and shame. This broad scope in Tool's lyrics is both ambitious and impressive, encouraging the listener to think deeply about the content of what he just heard.

I could probably continue discussing Undertow over the course of several additional paragraphs, but for the lack of space, I'll simply conclude succinctly: Undertow is most definitely worth a listen. Showcasing interesting techniques that would be later perfected on future works, Undertow is the artistic, creative, and ambitious album that started it all for Tool. Anyone who is interested in this band or simply curious in knowing Tool's roots should give Undertow a spin, for he will not be disappointed.

Performance: 9
Songwriting: 9
Originality: 9
Production: 8


Band profile: Tool
Album: Undertow


 


written by Axe Argonian | 15.12.2010


Guest review disclaimer:
This is a guest review, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.



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Introspekrieg - 15.12.2010 at 23:16  
I thought 4 Degrees was about anal sex... I guess that can be open to interpretation. Groovy review.
Axe Argonian - 15.12.2010 at 23:24  
Written by Introspekrieg on 15.12.2010 at 23:16

I thought 4 Degrees was about anal sex... I guess that can be open to interpretation. Groovy review.

Actually, to an extent it is. Maynard has said on several occasions that the sexual concept of opening up and being willing to try "new things" is used to encourage one to introspectively open up and experience new things that would be beneficial to him.
Daydream Nation - 16.12.2010 at 02:05  
Very nice review, although I believe that your rating is far too high. It certainly isn't worth a 9 out of 10 for originality in my books...many of the songs still blend together for me and while there are many impressive tunes, I'm still under the impression that their sound is not fully developed yet (eg Swamp Song). They would improve greatly on their next album.

You also remark about the atmospheric progression---not exactly sure if I would describe the album like that. To me, the songs shift together and share a very unified and cohesive atmosphere (bleak, sombre, aggressive) throughout, despite the differing themes each song addresses. It's almost like each track describes the very grimy intricacies of this atmosphere, and by the end, I really felt like I had experienced something real and raw: I knew exactly how the songwriters felt. But that's just me--when I think of changing atmospheres, I think of Soundgarden's Superunknown, with very noticeable shifts in atmosphere and pacing. I'm certainly not saying your interpretation is wrong--it's just an interesting one I had never really considered.

That being said, I agree completely with what you say about their song lyrics being broad; you articulated it very well. In fact, this is the primary appeal of the album to me, so I'm glad you discussed it. And Maynard's vocals were very fairly put. Perhaps the performance rating is a little high as well compared to their classics like Lateralus, but overall your interpretation is very clear and quite valid to me. This is a surprisingly complex album to review, and I think this is one of the better reviews I've seen of it. Good on you.
Rupert - 16.12.2010 at 07:30  
Written by Guest on 16.12.2010 at 02:05

You also remark about the atmospheric progression---not exactly sure if I would describe the album like that. To me, the songs shift together and share a very unified and cohesive atmosphere (bleak, sombre, aggressive) throughout, despite the differing themes each song addresses. It's almost like each track describes the very grimy intricacies of this atmosphere, and by the end, I really felt like I had experienced something real and raw: I knew exactly how the songwriters felt. But that's just me--when I think of changing atmospheres, I think of Soundgarden's Superunknown, with very noticeable shifts in atmosphere and pacing. I'm certainly not saying your interpretation is wrong--it's just an interesting one I had never really considered.


I have to agree more with the reviewer on this point, though like you point out to each his own because we are talking about interpretations and opinions here. The only thing I really do disagree with in the review is that I'm pretty sure the opening to "Prison Sex" is played on the guitar. This is based on the sound and tone of the riff, so if you've investigated this and found it was in fact played on the bass, nevermind this comment. Aside from that, great review! I like how it was practically written as an essay and you really brought out the obvious thought they put into making this album, which is the kind of review this band deserves.
Axe Argonian - 16.12.2010 at 19:32  
Written by Guest on 16.12.2010 at 02:05

Very nice review, although I believe that your rating is far too high. It certainly isn't worth a 9 out of 10 for originality in my books...many of the songs still blend together for me and while there are many impressive tunes, I'm still under the impression that their sound is not fully developed yet (eg Swamp Song). They would improve greatly on their next album.

You also remark about the atmospheric progression---not exactly sure if I would describe the album like that. To me, the songs shift together and share a very unified and cohesive atmosphere (bleak, sombre, aggressive) throughout, despite the differing themes each song addresses. It's almost like each track describes the very grimy intricacies of this atmosphere, and by the end, I really felt like I had experienced something real and raw: I knew exactly how the songwriters felt. But that's just me--when I think of changing atmospheres, I think of Soundgarden's Superunknown, with very noticeable shifts in atmosphere and pacing. I'm certainly not saying your interpretation is wrong--it's just an interesting one I had never really considered.

That being said, I agree completely with what you say about their song lyrics being broad; you articulated it very well. In fact, this is the primary appeal of the album to me, so I'm glad you discussed it. And Maynard's vocals were very fairly put. Perhaps the performance rating is a little high as well compared to their classics like Lateralus, but overall your interpretation is very clear and quite valid to me. This is a surprisingly complex album to review, and I think this is one of the better reviews I've seen of it. Good on you.

Thank you for the comment. I appreciate it and always enjoy reading other people's opinions.

To me, the originality score is based on the opinion that the songs seamlessly shift atmospheres, while at the same delivering intellectual, thought-provoking messages. Although the concept of atmospheric progression is something that many contemporaries employ today, at the time of Undertow's 1993 debut, it was largely unheard of. In regards to your opinion that the songs blend together, I believe that this is the kind of album that requires multiple listens before one can discern between the lines and detect each distinct, unique atmosphere. That's just my opinion, however. Undertow is the kind of album that leaves different effects on different people, and the fact that you interpreted it differently further proves that this is a very unique, ambitious, and thought-provoking album.

Again, thank you for the comment. I appreciate it.

Written by Rupert on 16.12.2010 at 07:30

I have to agree more with the reviewer on this point, though like you point out to each his own because we are talking about interpretations and opinions here. The only thing I really do disagree with in the review is that I'm pretty sure the opening to "Prison Sex" is played on the guitar. This is based on the sound and tone of the riff, so if you've investigated this and found it was in fact played on the bass, nevermind this comment. Aside from that, great review! I like how it was practically written as an essay and you really brought out the obvious thought they put into making this album, which is the kind of review this band deserves.

Actually, after investigating more meticulously on the matter, I noticed that both the guitar player and the bass player play as the song begins, so at least I'm 50% right in saying that the bass player contrives the intro. Thank you very much for pointing that out for me, however. I probably would have never noticed the electric guitar's contribution to the intro otherwise, due to the complex subtlety in Tool's music.

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