While the band may not click with everyone, Tool is one of my personal favorite bands of all time. More complex, cryptic, disturbing and downright perplexing than most bands have ever been, Tool has continued to evolve with every release. While this evolution may have lost older fans in the long haul, I have been utterly intrigued by the new routes the band has continued to explore (if you want proof, their two latest releases are my two favorites by them). The more I think about it, the less doubt I have that Tool remains one of the most consistently great acts I’ve ever come across.
1996 saw the release of “Ænima,” the album that signified Tool’s place as one of the most innovative bands to emerge at the time, as well as one of the most dark and menacing. While the album is one of the angriest I’ve heard, the anger is demonstrated in a perfect manner that is neither querulous (ooh, pretentious words) nor condescending. Next, 2001’s “Lateralus” proved Tool’s aspirations to mature in terms of musical composition and experimentation. The most recent release, 2006’s “10,000 Days,” continued in the path of “Lateralus” and brought in more casual music observers thanks to singles “The Pot” and “Vicarious.” Throughout this entire time period, Tool has never censored themselves for the benefit of anyone and they have not drastically sold themselves out to the mainstream crowd. They are who they are, and apparently people seem to understand their nature.
Going even deeper into the band’s history, you will come across their 1993 debut titled “Undertow.” Equipped with explicit lyrics and even more explicit album artwork, the band had not yet reached their peak of masterful song arrangement that is present in their later efforts. In terms of lyrics, musicianship, anger, etc., this is essentially Tool-Lite™. Not that that is an awful thing. The good still outweighs the bad even during their humble beginnings.
Commencing the album is the animosity-driven “Intolerance.” The track introduces the listener to the great vocal dynamics that Maynard James Keenan would later be recognized for and the highly skillful drumwork by Danny Carey. While tame by the standards of the band’s later tracks, “Intolerance” is a very enjoyable listen and lets you know immediately how serious their music really is (Funny, as most of them just came off of working in the comedy-metal band Green Jellÿ).
The two more popular tracks “Prison Sex” and “Sober” come right after. “Prison Sex” has a surprisingly catchy groove to it that you would never expect from the dark band I’m trying to explain. The drumwork is rather awesome once again, kind of reminding me of “The Pot.” The time signature in both songs is 4/4, a tempo rarely ever used by the band. Even though it has a commonplace groove, Danny Carey makes the most of adding the tiniest details to the drums. “Sober,” which has now become an alternative rock staple, demonstrates the shady ambience found in many of their other songs. While very simple musically, this track is addictive and you’ll most likely find yourself listening over and over again. The vocals show feelings of depression and anger, and the dynamics between the two emotions are phenomenal.
“Crawl Away” moves at a moderate tempo, which coincides with the creeping vibe it gives off during the verses. The track is rather heavy on bass, almost to a Rage Against the Machine level, only much more despondent. The odd guitar tones act mostly to build a freakish aura. While “Crawl Away” is a decent song, it may take more than a few listens to let it fully sink in. The longest actual song, titled “Flood”, begins with a slow, moody riff being repeated for a number of times. By the time the jam session ends near the four-minute mark, it transitions to a less melancholy riff. Fortunately, the different riff doesn’t take away from the intimate aggression of the rest of the song; it’s still rather intense.
“4º” is a particularly unconventional track, even for Tool. The reason I say this is because of the usage of acoustic instruments (sitars possibly? I’m not entirely sure). Only during the intro and choruses are they used, but when they are used, they certainly stand out. The rest of the song bears a slight resemblance to “Eulogy” off of “Ænima.” “4º” is not quite as long standing as that track, but it is indeed enjoyable. “Bottom” has a Tool-like atmosphere but reminds me a lot of a song like “Unsung” by Helmet. Both are notably simple in regard to their riffs, but are very determined and (in the drummer’s case especially) precise in where they are going. Another feature of note is a long, spoken-word monologue performed by Henry Rollins that appears in the middle of the track.
One major problem that I have with the album is how overboard the band went with the lone “dead air” track titled “Disgustipated.” Sure, Tool has included empty tracks on their other albums (“Useful Idiot” from “Ænima”, “Lipan Conjuring” from “10,000 Days”), but this one is just friggin’ ridiculous. I will preface my criticism with the statement that we are now up to track number 69, as 59 other tracks were necessitated with 1-second intervals of silence. A little pointless if you ask me, but it gets worse. “Disgustipated” begins with a distorted recording of a sermon of some kind and switches to repeated chants of the words, “This. Is. Necessary. This. Is. Necessary. Life feeds on. etc.” Just when you’re hoping this is going somewhere (about 6 ½ minutes into it), you are “treated” to near-silence for nine minutes. The only audio is high-pitched interference of some kind. When it finished, I simply wanted to ask the band about why on earth they would include something so meaningless in an otherwise stellar release (Why’s. This. Necessary?).
Despite this major flaw, the rest of “Undertow” manages to still stand out as a good album. While still probably my least favorite Tool album to date, I can still give an honest recommendation to those who are willing to try something new from the typical alternative rock roster. Just heed my warning about “Disgustipated” when you listen, though. It is a literal waste of time.