April 6th, 1993, TOOL released their debut full-length album Undertow on Zoo Entertainment. In 1993, grunge was reaching its boiling point. After the release of Nevermind in September 1991, Nirvana dragged the entire underground overground with one exceptional heave.

The trail Nirvana blazed dragged their Pacific Northwest counterparts into the limelight and 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 mainstream rock party were suddenly thrust into the melee. In many cases, these bands awkwardly accepted their newfound notoriety. Subverting the mainstream was always the modus operandi; being the mainstream was never part of the alternative rock script.

While Nirvana was the rising tide that floated all boats, ’90s alternative rock was a 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) were completely different musical propositions. Nirvana filtered punk rage through Beatles-esque melody, while Soundgarden blended Black Sabbath heft, prog time signatures, and angular post-punk grit. Pearl Jam channelled emotive ’70s hard rock, while Alice In Chains corralled potent metal riffs with devastating harmony and melody.

The sheer velocity of change brought about by the emergence of the Seattle scene tempered the general public into accepting variety and oddity as the musical norm. Bands that shared no geographical connection to the Pacific Northwest but shared an ideological outlook thrived. Festivals like Lollapalooza put together line-ups that defied categorisation; Grunge, Hip Hop, Shoegaze, Spoken Word, Post-Punk, and Alternative Rock all felt like limbs of the same body.

One such oddity was TOOL, a band of prodigiously talented individuals. They were formed in Los Angeles in 1990 by Paul D’Amour and Adam Jones, who were making a career in the film industry. Maynard James Keenan studied visual arts in Michigan and worked as a pet store remodeler. Drummer Danny Carey recorded and toured with singer-songwriter Carole King while also being in a country band with Jeff Buckley.

In 1992, they released their debut EP, Opiate, which was met with critical praise and an ever-expanding fanbase. With the grunge and alternative rock explosion in full effect, TOOL released their debut album, Undertow, in April 1993. Timing is everything, and TOOL’s darkly aggressive, ethereal rock fit the scene like a glove.

The album pushed more diverse musical dynamics and lyrical concepts than Opiate. Their abrasive sonic assault begins with the opening notes and continues through the final moments. With its technical brilliance, musical complexities, and aggressive overtones, Undertow not only paved the way for Tool’s own subverting of rock cliches, but 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 a searing self-reflection that punks, goths, metallers, grungers, and shoegazers could revel in. The band married Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics to a host of formidable, kaleidoscopic, and often mathematical passages. Each song is laced with razor-sharp hooks and crushing emotional intensity.

The album is a potent reaction to the Hollywood hair-metal scene and the hypocrisy of the film industry. Though rarely one to get into specifics about the meaning of his lyrics, Keenan revealed in 2015 that the album allowed him to vent his frustrations 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 a lot of weird hypocrisy happened in the film and music industries. There was a whole dog and pony show, which I found very awkward. So, that kind of energy inspired many of those original pieces. The music was emotionally driven and very reactionary.”

L.A.’s superficial and self-consciously decadent hair-metal scene dominated the local clubs into the early Nineties. As Maynard recalled, TOOL railed hard against that scene, “We were trying to get past all the hair bands and these poofy-haired idiots doing their thing, and they were taking up all the good club space. There was a great underground music movement in L.A. at that time, and we were bonding with them to fight against it and create a new scene we felt was more worthwhile.”

The album opens with “Intolerance,” a heavily syncopated, pounding slugger. Despite the song’s off-kilter attack, the groove is thick and filled with menace. Maynard sings, “See, I want to believe you/And I wanted to
trust you/And I wanna have faith to/Put away the dagger/But you lie,
cheat and steal/You lie, cheat and steal.” His voice holds a final “lie” as it washes out over the pulsating hammer blows of Paul D’Amour and Danny Carey’s rhythm section and the visceral cascades of Adam Jones’s guitar.

“Prison Sex” opens with the metallic cough of guitar strings fully depressed by a whammy bar, or maybe it’s something entirely different. The pitch soon returns to normality as Adam Jones kicks off a powerfully catchy single-note riff. The band locks in with deft precision, creating a savage bounce and groove.

Maynard wrote Prison Sex about the tragic cycle of domestic abuse; people who are sexually molested when they’re young are far more likely to become abusers themselves later in life than those who were never abused. In the first verse, Maynard sings, ‘I’ve got my hands bound, and my head down and my eyes closed / And my throat’s wide open’, introducing the topic in no uncertain terms. In the lines after the bridge, the victim becomes the assailant: ‘I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this / Shit, blood, and cum on my hands / I’ve come round full circle.’

“Sober” was a calling card single for TOOL and opened the door for many rock music fans to the band’s cryptic world. Opening with Paul D’Amour’s percussively strummed bass, Jones whips a banshee howl from his Gibson Les Paul as Danny Carey enters the fray with a throbbing menace.

The music video for “Sober” is a beautifully disturbing piece of stop-motion animation. Fred Stuhr directed it, and Adam Jones designed the claymation character models. It starkly contrasted with almost every other rock music video aired on MTV in 1993. The video’s protagonist is a small humanoid living and sleeping in an abandoned mansion. He occupies a rusty room sparsely decorated with a table, chair, and a bed with no mattress, with a bleak, lifeless curtain as a blanket.

He stumbles upon a wooden box, which he opens near the beginning. Its contents are kept hidden for the majority of the video’s duration. Whatever it is seems to have adverse mind-altering effects—there are repeated shots of the humanoid levitating in his chair and his head and arm vibrating wildly. While experiencing these effects, the figure ventures through his living quarters and its many corridors.

The dark visuals complement the music perfectly. The ever-building intensity is reflected in the character’s journey on screen and the music’s ebb and flow swirling beneath. Maynard sings, “I am just a worthless liar/ I am just an imbecile/I will only complicate you/Trust in me and fall as well,” as he later implores, “Trust me/Trust me/Trust me.”

Famously, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain claimed the video was a “shameless ripoff” of the stop-motion animations by filmmakers the Brothers Quay.

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 sounded better for him, especially how he spoke, so it 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 as payback for a poker debt. “Henry had a gambling debt he owed us for a while,” Keenan claimed. “He’s a bad poker player. He lost a lot of money, like three thousand dollars. It turns out he was losing the T-shirt money. He was borrowing from the merchandiser to play poker with us, and he’s terrible at bluffing. So we nailed him, and that’s how we got him to play on the album.”

“Crawl Away” opens with the sound of a distant Zydeco band, or is it pan pipes? It entices you to jar your ear against the speaker in an attempt to identify the sounds, only to be hit with a pealing shard of feedback from Adam Jones’s guitar. At this stage in TOOL’s career, they delivered earth-shattering riffs that weren’t afraid to revel in a 4/4 groove. “Crawl Away’s” power lies in its sinister atmosphere, driving bounce and commanding delivery. The song’s chaotic middle threatens to derail altogether before regaining its savage poise.

The knotty twist of “Swamp Song” is prime TOOL. The song’s contorted riff snakes around the agile rhythm section. Maynard sounds maniacal as he spits, “This bog is thick and easy to get lost in/’Cause you’re a dumb and belligerent fucker/I hope it sucks you down. Down, down, down.”
The title track, “Undertow”, pulls no punches. Adam Jones lays down a series of emphatic ascending guitar licks built around a thick beating bass line and hammering drums. Maynard weaves and ducks through the soundscape before taking the song by the throat during its powerful chorus.

“4°” opens with what sounds like a sitar before launching into a tightly syncopated muted chugging riff. The song is relatively straightforward for a band so profoundly entrenched in subverting normality, featuring a soaring chorus and a pummelling middle where Maynard excels. All in all, it’s vital, exhilarating stuff.

“Flood” takes time to build a behemoth of an intro that lasts four minutes before the song kicks in. That intro is the sound of planets colliding. Its glacial trek through wave after wave of slow chugging riffs and grinding atmosphere is the stuff of legend. Once the song kicks in, the listener’s senses are ravaged. Epic..!

During the recording “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 sledgehammer, earning himself a spot in the album’s credits. “Disgustipated” is a claustrophobic, unsettling, nightmarish soundscape with Maynard repeating, “This is necessary/This is necessary/Life feeds on life, feeds on life, feeds on life, feeds on,” with manic hunger.

“Disgustipated” winds down to the sound of nothing but crickets for over seven minutes. Suddenly, a calmly spoken disembodied voice appears as if talking through a telephone receiver, recounting a dark tale, “It was daylight when you woke up in your ditch. You looked up at your sky, then that made blue be your colour; you had your knife there with you, too. When you stood up, there was goo all over your clothes. Your hands were sticky.”

TOOL’s highly visual identity was present from the beginning but found its stride with Undertow, from the iconic red ribcage art on the album cover to the unsettling stop-motion clips for Sober and Prison Sex. TOOL smuggled the band’s ideology into living rooms around the globe at the height of the glossy MTV era; this band’s striking visuals, emotionally vibrant sounds, and dark persona were like catnip to the music masses in the early ’90s.

TOOL would 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.