Before the metaphysics, before the astral projection and Fibonacci sequences, before the Vineyards and global domination, Tool were angry.
It was 1993 and Grunge was, for all intents and purposes, King. And you either embraced it for all its Mudhoneyed Nirvana or you knew it didn't quite empathise with your state of mind, and while I have always liked the music grunge bands produced, I felt there was a strain of anti-intellectualism running through its veins that marked it down as pandering to a mass market.
Since, 14 year old John fancied himself as a Warrior-Poet, I could never fully enjoy the work of Edward Vedderhands et al. I was moping round HMV one day when I came across a CD by a band who I had read would be playing the (still relevant then) Reading Festival. I could just about make out a red ribcage on the cover and I was intrigued enough to buy it. I got it home, put it straight on and from then on my life was different. They blew my preconceptions of musical possibility out of the water and created endless mental cycles of fascination with their developed and highly specific sense of collective mystery.
In light of Tools later work, Undertow almost seems basic by comparison, but it posses a compact and direct train of thought that was simultaneously both accepted and challenging. Lyrically it extorts the accrued bellicosity of a man examining mistakes; both his own and those of the people surrounding him. Being prosecution and judge like only a young man can, Maynard dissects the divergent notions of acceptable behaviour that have been proffered to him throughout his life. Be they military diktats, religious views, everyday masochism or the slovenliness of the idle stoner.
The music, while inspirational and worthy of awe, sounds to me now like a group of musicians stretching their legs and finding out just how far they can push the envelope before the Post Office refuses to carry it.
Paul D'bours pick played coily bass rhythms often lead the way in the songs, giving the whole album a grimy, soiled feel. Especially appropriate when several songs are about being used; emotionally and physically. Locked tight to the bass drum and sinuously strong like tightly plaited hair, D'bour handles the bass like a guitar, playing chords and dual tones in a highly distinctive manner; this technique is especially memorable in the subdued and sullen intro to Sober.
The palate of effects deployed by Adam Jones is both restrained and reverential; harking back to classic rock with the cutting edge of his clean sound. His riff writing is already impressive but has not yet taken on the mysterious and beguiling personality it would would later develop. Its stark and jagged forms do however perfectly reflect the bilious, stalking anger being vented by Maynard.
When they recorded Undertow, Danny Carey had just finished a long stint of drumming for Carole King and I've always felt that this substantially influenced his playing; in both phrase and technique employed on this record. I think this gives the album a peculiar, almost 1970's feel and is perhaps the first chapter in the giant reference work “Are Tool A Metal Band?”, which is still being compiled today. There is a spaciousness in his playing that comes from being used to playing with a much larger (in number) band, making his playing redolent of Ian Paice from Deep Purple in places and Alan White from Yes in others. And also, Mr Carey had yet to incorporate electronic drums into his kit, which would become such a dominant part of Tools sound on future albums.
For the most part, the songs follow the traditional format of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-outro. Swirling and catchy, abrasive yet melodious, each is a perfect little capsule of intent. Giving us pause and entry into the minds of men who would elucidate and inspire interest as much for their music as for their extropian intellects.
But having got this far in my reminiscence, it has just occurred to me that this is a début album.. A fact which I knew implicitly but failed to consciously engage with. When viewed in this light, Undertow must be hailed as a work of preternatural assurance and restraint. Impressing without bluster or grandstanding, it is very much the cleverest kid in the class, who is the most bullied. However, it creeps like an assassin; with heart rate slow and stable, blood cold and thoughts fixated. But yet allows the listener to follow each reverie, guided purely by glimpsing shadows and the sound of teardrops.
Buying this album, triggered a solid decade of Tool obsession for me; So, it really has a lot to answer for. But that it the power of actual genius, is that it answers your questions with unerring simplicity. In this case with bloody kneed grace and a calculated sense of its and our (in)significance. It made me aware that the world was full of pain that I could not comprehend and that resolution wasn't always achievable, but that the struggle to purge yourself of the darkness is purification in itself. That everyone is both dominant and supplicant to something or someone; that as the wheel of machinations turns, nothing can truly escape.
Life feeds on Life feeds on…..This is Necessary…..Life feeds on Life feeds on…….
– John Whitmore