I figured the best way to start this was to open my CD cabinet, close my eyes, and point. Voila! Tool’s Undertow, an album I listened to ad nauseum when I was 19. It’s very much an album that points to a specific place and time for me, and doesn’t get the attention it used to. Which is a shame, because it’s a damn fine piece of music.
In 1993 I may have been the target demographic for Tool’s first full-length album. Released deep in the throes of the post-Nirvana grunge/alternative landscape, Undertow also brought to the table enough heavy metal bonafides to appeal to those who spent the better part of their teen years wearing out their Metallica cassettes. 80’s Metal had already collapsed under its own weight, and 90’s alternative was about to do likewise, but Undertow provides a sturdy link between the two. If you don’t overhyphenate, as metalheads are bad to do, it may be the Last Great Heavy Metal album. At the same time, it’s one of the more complete alternative albums.
Dark, haunting, and propelled by relentless basslines that would become a Tool hallmark, Undertow comes across as the sort of fully-realized album most bands of any genre never put out. It’s length (close to an hour to cut through 10 songs) lends itself to the sort of theatrics, dynamics, and time changes of high-watermark metal albums like And Justice for All or Powerslave, but without the 10-minute centerpiece suites of either. Tool would save those for future albums, and with a later propensity for filler would sacrifice cohesion in the process.
At the same time, Tool immerses itself in vague and brooding imagery, from lyrics to song titles to the album art itself. It’s a tone much more consistent with the alternative music of the time, and is possibly its greatest strength. Undertow never fully reveals itself to the listener, choosing instead to step briefly and repeatedly into the light before retreating back to its more comfortable shadows, like the horror villian you never get to see in full view. It’s an effective technique, and paired with the themes of violence, abuse, obsession, and defeat, makes for a frightening record. It’s not easy listening, but over a decade later stands up amazingly well.
Heavily, heavily recommended in a car.