TOOL – Undertow (1993)

TOOL – UNDERTOW April 6th, 1993, TOOL released their debut full length album Undertow on Zoo Entertainment. Produced by the band and Sylvia Massy, it was recorded from October to December 1992 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys and Grandmaster Recorders in Hollywood, California.

The year was 1993, grunge was reaching boiling point, Nirvana had dragged the entire underground, overground with one exceptional heave in September 1991 with the release of Nevermind. In fact Nirvana’s heroic heave not only dragged their Pacific Northwest counterparts into the limelight, they also shone a light on all manner of rock music that had lived on the fringes. Artists who were previously content to be outsiders at the rock n roll party, were suddenly thrust into the middle of the melee.

Nirvana was the rising tide that floated all boats. What was unique was how odd and different each of these bands were, both to each other and from what came before. 90’s alternative rock was a ture melting pot of styles and sounds. Even in the microcosm of the Seattle scene, the “big four” (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains) sounded like polar opposites. This somehow tempered the general public into accepting variety and oddity as the norm.

Tool was one such oddity, a band of prodigious talent, formed in Los Angeles in 1990 by Paul D’Amour and Adam Jones who wanted to enter the film industry. Maynard James Keenan, who had studied visual arts in Michigan and worked as a pet store remodeler and drummer Danny Carey who had recorded session work with singer songwriter Carole King and performed in Green Jello (later Jelly) with Maynard.

In 1992 they released their debut EP Opiate. The following year, at a time when alternative rock and grunge were at their height, Tool released their first full-length album, Undertow. It expressed more diverse dynamics than Opiate. Tool’s abrasive sonic assault begins from the opening notes and continues through the final moments of the last song. With its technical brilliance, musical complexities, and aggressive overtones, Undertow not only paved the way for Tool’s own subverting of rock cliches, it also proved that alternative rock/metal/whatever you want to call it, could be simultaneously intelligent, emotional, and brutal.

Singles like “Sober” and “Prison Sex” had the kind of angry self-reflection that punks, goths, metalers, grungers and shoegazers felt. The band married Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics to twisting, mathy passages, but anger is anger and Tool’s ability to channel that rage was exemplary. Such is the full throttle, emotional power of Tool’s music, one feels even if Nirvana hadn’t gotten the ball rolling. By 1993, Tool would have helped send the remnants of any ’80s metal bands fleeing anyway.

The album’s intense, “reactionary” energy was partly a reaction to Maynard’s experiences in the film business and to the band’s brushes with the Hollywood hair-metal scene. Though rarely one to get into specifics about the meaning of his lyrics, Keenan revealed to Loudwire in 2015 that the album allowed him to vent the frustrations he felt while trying to make a living doing set design in Hollywood during the band’s early days. “I was busting my ass working on movie sets in Hollywood trying to survive,” he recalled. “Rent was high and there was a lot of weird hypocrisy that happens with both the film and music industries. There was a whole dog and pony show which I found very awkward. So, a lot of those original pieces were inspired by that kind of energy. The music was emotionally driven and very reactionary.”

Tool’s music, he recalled, was also a reaction against L.A.’s superficial and self-consciously decadent hair-metal scene, which dominated the local clubs into the early Nineties. “We were trying to get past all the hair bands and these poofy-haired idiots that were doing their thing, and all the good club space was being taken up by them. There was a great underground movement of music in L.A. at that time that we were really bonding together with them to fight against and create a new scene we felt was more worthwhile.

During the recording of “Disgustipated,” the album’s creepy closing cut, producer Sylvia Massy added to the aural nightmarishness of the track by recording Keenan firing four rounds from a shotgun into an old upright piano. Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett also smashed the piano with a sledge hammer, earning himself a spot in the album’s credits in the process.

One of the album’s standout tracks, the dynamic seven-minute epic “Bottom,” includes a spoken-word cameo appearance by Black Flag/Rollins Band frontman Henry Rollins. According to Maynard, Rollins did his spoken-word part on “Bottom” to pay off a massive poker debt. Keenan told Musique Plus in May 1993. “When we went into the studio, [Rollins] came down and he read that part, but he also wrote his own part to kind of paraphrase what I’d said. His part sounds better for him, the way he speaks, so it just sounded way better to have his part in there instead. So we put his there.”

Maynard also told the magazine that Rollins’ presence was motivated not by a sense of artistic kinship, but rather as payback for a poker debt. “He had a gambling debt for a while with us,” Keenan claimed. “He’s kind of a bad poker player. He lost a lot of money … like $3,000. Turns out he was losing the T-shirt money. He was borrowing from the merchandiser to play poker with us and he’s really bad at bluffing. So we pretty much nailed him, and that’s actually how we got him to play on the album.”

Tool’s highly visual identity was present right from the start, but really found it’s stride with Undertow, from the iconic red ribcage art on the albums cover to the unsettling stop-motion clips for Sober and Prison Sex, that smuggled the band’s ideology into living rooms around the globe at the height of the glossy MTV era. This is a band whose striking visuals, emotive sounds and dark persona was like catnip to the music masses in the early 90’s.

Tool would go on to develop a more progressive style of music and presentation. But with Undertow their dynamic sound was already firmly in place. While not as refined as Lateralus, and not as orchestrated as Aenima, Undertow represents a band in complete control of their destiny. Undertow’s success saw them earn a slot on the second stage at Lollapalooza 1993, as that tour rolled on and Undertow reached platinum status they were bumped up to main stage status. They never looked back. Undertow is as perfect a debut album as any released in the 1990’s. Let’s raise a glass to its 30th birthday…!!!!