TRIBUTE: “Undertow” by Tool

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One of the greatest debut albums of all time turned twenty on the 6th April 2013. After releasing one EP called “Opiate” Tool launched into the music world with the noise, aggression, tenderness and pure modern rage of their debut album “Undertow” – a fantastic piece of art that introduced new flavours to the rock n roll dialogue.

What makes “Undertow” such a vital recording is the fact that it was incredibly different at the point when it came out. In the midst of the grunge and alternative nation that was happening Tool were different and like the outsider sounds of “Rollins Band” they made heavy yet progressive sounds that put a focus on introspection, self-reflection and a big spotlight on the nonsense of human beings. Tool weren’t overly political or direct about spirituality but through their collective intelligence the band was able to touch on these topics without being preachers or activists, they simple gave you the information and their emotional interpretation of a sometimes very cruel and confusing world. Whether it was aimed at the Government or just the personal politics of modern living who knows, because at the end of the day Tool open up your mind with their sound but rarely do they answer the question for you. Another quality of the Tool sound that is established with “Undertow” is the bands use of humour. I’ve always felt that Tool is the musical representation of the radical comedian Bill Hicks.

I first heard “Undertow” in 1997 when my brother Ben brought the album. Ben became a fan of the band a year earlier when he heard “Stinkfist” on Triple J and fell in love with the band. I remember hearing it with him at the same time, Triple J was playing the single in advance of the album being released. I remember both of us being blown away by this new unique sound. I’m so glad I got to live in an era where Tool sounded fresh (to me they still sound fresh, but their sound has been ripped off by lesser human beings).

Ben brought “Ænima” the day it came out in September 1996 and I didn’t really become a fan of Tool until I was 16 years old in 1999. I had a healthy appreciation and respect for the band but made no purchases until 1999. Ben however remained the Superfan (both then and now) and my exposure to “Undertow” in 1997 didn’t yield as much “whoa” as it does now.

I will be honest, when I finally brought “Ænima” in 1999 that is the album I preferred and when the amazing masterpiece of modern art “Lateralus” was released in 2001, that album took over my life. It wasn’t until 2007 that I fully indulged the brilliance of “Undertow” – having owned it since 2000 I had given it brief moments of my time but again was always quite consumed by “Ænima” and “Lateralus” but after years of ignoring it I finally become an avid fan of  “Undertow.”

What I love about “Undertow” is that it is more a punk rock record than a metal one. I hear a lot of Black Flag, Rollins Band, Minor Threat and Big Black. The journey of “Undertow” is a rewarding one for it doesn’t travel the bliss of later Tool albums; it is a brutal and confronting collection of songs that highlight the bleakness of life in 1993. There is something haunting and mysterious about this album and I’ve often found that this album is the most accessible the individuals of the band have been but it also feels like this album was a purposeful glimpse at the personalities of each member but in this dark way it’s also the band putting an end point to it all and shutting the door on allowing their audience access to their personalities. It feels like the band have extended the perfect handshake, ushered you into their world uttered “welcome” and then just disappeared from view giving you the listener the power to consume the sound and to take from it what you need. This became even more apparent when you listen to “Ænima” which took them further away, as individuals, from their audience but through this disconnection and mystery they gathered more people to their little revolution. Their music also got deeper and more introspective as they evolved whilst still keeping the spotlight away from the personalities of the band. I’ve often wondered if that is why so many people, out of sentimentality favour “Undertow” because the band was still accessible to them. I’m personally a big fan of the way the band has disconnected themselves from the audience and put the spotlight on the journey of their art, giving you the fan ultimate control over how you interpret and worship their music.

It is this mystery that makes Tool still so appealing and relevant to this day and why so many fans still religiously follow them. I think the appeal of Tool lays in the way the band has created that distance between them and their fans in order to keep the focus purely on their music. People, whether they love or hate the band, are fascinated by this and the standard uneducated argument in relation to the distance they create (between fan and band) is that they are “Self-Indulgent” and “Pretentious” as both people and artists. I never understand this argument because I often thought that most serious and good humoured artists would strive for that focus in their career. Examining for a moment the dictionary meaning of being “Self-Indulgent” I don’t see why adhering to this principle, at least in the art world, is peppered with negativity:

Self-Indulgent: Excessive indulgence of one’s own appetites and desires

If you then look at the dictionary meaning of the word “Pretentious” you will find the following meaning:

Pretentious: Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

So in essence it seems that the human beings who label any artist, Tool included, as Self-Indulgent are actually, by definition, being pretentious. Tool isn’t attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc than is actually possessed. Tool has the talent and a level of artistic discipline to make amazing music by using an excessive indulgence of their own appetites and desires for making meaningful pieces of art. It’s an argument I’m sure that will be pulled apart by people who like to prove that they are better at the internet than me, but when all is said in done it is a facet of the Tool story that needed to be addressed.

When all is said in done, it doesn’t matter what I say – Tool are by definition a revolutionary band. The sound they established on “Undertow” birthed a new kind of rock n roll sound and while the sonic blueprint of Tool can be traced to a number of different artists it still remains solely their own. With “Undertow” the band signalled its intent and hinted at their desires to be progressive putting a focus on art whilst showing amazing technical and emotional discipline. Like all of Tool’s music the beauty of “Undertow” is that presents itself to be a complicated movement of songs but when you dissect it the music itself still adheres to the less is more theory with the varying dynamics of the songs amplifying the complexity of it all. On “Undertow” Tool opened up the door to their mysterious world of sound and birthed a degree of wonder that still resonates with millions of people.

By Dan Newton

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