Tool had only existed for three years when they issued their watershed 1993 debut LP, Undertow, an album that marks a distinct line in the sand — their critical leap from intriguing alt-metal pummel toward a style of prog-metal sorcery we're still dissecting 25 years later. Here, Tool became a genre unto themselves.
The "progressive metal" movement arose in the late Eighties, led by Dream Theater's symphonic virtuosity and the bombastic theatrics of Queensrÿche. But Tool immediately carved out their own niche — one defined by atmosphere and imagery more than shredding. The seeds of their droning sound were sewn on their debut EP, 1992's Opiate: Adam Jones' down-tuned riffs, Danny Carey's labyrinthine drumming, Maynard James Keenan's whisper-to-scream range. There were glimpses of brilliance (the menacing lurch of "Sweat," the noisy climax of "Opiate") — but the songs were more ragged and less ambitious, lacking the heady rhythmic shifts and sharp dynamic contrasts that have become their trademark.
In retrospect, that tentativeness makes sense. The band had already written much of Undertow at the time they recorded the EP, but they succumbed to their own insecurities and held back their most experimental material. "We felt like no one would take us seriously unless we recorded only our most aggressive, in-your-face songs and put them out there at one time," Jones told Revolver in 2008. "And I think that got us type-cast as a metal band."
Though it may have been as much circumstance as pure metamorphosis, Undertow shifted their focus away from conventional heaviness and into proggier territory. "We got together pretty quickly, and so a lot of the songs that ended up on the first release and the second one were first efforts," Keenan told writer Jon Wiederhorn. "We were just feeling each other out, so they were more compact and to the point. But at the same time we were quickly growing and some of the more adventurous stuff on Undertow was actually what was occurring after about a year of us being together."
In this context, opener "Intolerance" is the first signature Tool song, with Jones unfurling crunchy, palm-muted riffs over adventurous, off-kilter rhythms. Undertow, indeed, launched their obsession with tricky time signatures — but, crucially, also widescreen production and cinematic arrangements. Working again with Opiate producer-mixer Sylvia Massey, they reached a new level of studio craft, exploring a breadth of tonal colors. The small arrangement details matter as much as the riffs: the stoner-rock fuzz tone on "Bottom," the sitar jangle that opens "4°," the furious double-time climax of "Flood," the thrash-metal breakdown of "Crawl Away," Carey's nimble cymbal work on "Swamp Song," Keenan's unconventional vocal pattern on the same cut. (Just listen to the way his voice slithers around the word "stumbling" in fluid, dramatic swoops — the melodic equivalent of cursive writing.)
Singles like "Sober" and "Prison Sex" — in heavy MTV rotation thanks in part to their brooding, stop-motion-animated videos — sounded like nothing else in heavy music. (At this point, grunge was in its final run of dominance: Both Nirvana's In Utero and Pearl Jam's Vs. topped the Billboard 200 that year.) And the entire music industry — from radio programmers to critics to record executives — seemed unsure how to categorize the quartet. The L.A. Times, in attempting to praise the emotional resonance of "Sober," delivered the song a backhanded compliment, writing that it "introduces an element of poignancy to go with the customary grunge-rock dread."
They got the first part right anyway. "Sober" is easily the album's heartbeat — a masterpiece of tension and release. At its core, the song is a drop-D drone built around Paul D'Amour's solitary churning, harmonic-drenched bass chord; Jones alternates between clean-tone verses and distorted choruses, and Carey propels the track forward with his swooshing hi-hat groove. Then there's the exorcism happening behind the mic, as Keenan vents in a counter-rhythmic cadence about a friend's battle with substance abuse. "The song and video are based on a guy we know who is at his artistic best when he's loaded," Jones told Guitar School in March 1994, also referencing the influential clip. "A lot of people give him shit for that. I don't tell people to do or not do drugs. You can do what you want, but you have to take responsibility for what happens. If you become addicted and a junkie, well, that's your fault."
Some critics took issue with Keenan's frequent use of graphic sexual imagery, which often led to Tool being miscategorized as overtly macho or, worse, insensitive to survivors of abuse. In reality, the frontman uses physical penetration as a metaphor for deeper angst — on the bluesy "Prison Sex," his analysis transcends jail cells, condemning how one torturous act of indignity usually breeds another. "This song is about recognizing, identifying the cycle of abuse within yourself," he said onstage, introducing the song in 1996. "That's the first step of the process: realizing, identifying. The next step is to work though it. But this song is about the first step in that process, which is recognizing."
The lyrical nuance here is unparalleled in prog metal. Consider the warped Biblical spin of a line like "Do unto others what has been done to you," with its bleak spin on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Consider how "Released in this sodomy," when sung, sounds just as much like "Released inside of me." You rarely encounter that level of detail on a grunge record, even if the core angst crossed the genre border. (It's worth noting that the chorus of "Prison Sex" bears a coincidental resemblance with Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" — compare the ascending vocal lines of Keenan's "For one sweet moment I am whole" with Eddie Vedder's "Try to erase this from the blackboard.")
Keenan, always keen to fuck with interviewers, joked about his theme of "anal penetration" (which pops up again on Ænima's "Stinkfist") in a 2001 interview. "I think it's almost like the whole motif of Tool music in general," he said. "If you just relax and give in and listen, I think you'll really enjoy yourself."
Like all of Tool's subsequent albums, Undertow probably lasts 15 to 20 minutes longer than it needs to, and most of the filler feels designed to provoke squirming — from Henry Rollins' clunky spoken word on "Bottom" to the satirical sermon and chirping crickets that bookend "Disgustipated." But these dudes have always loved the element of surprise, and you have to admire their dedication to the long-form headphone experience.
Despite standing out like a sore thumb in the rock/metal landscape of 1993, Undertow resonated with fans who were itching for adventure. Outsider status be damned, the album still managed to go double-platinum in the U.S., briefly topping Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart and peaking at No. 50 on the Top 200.
Three years later, with Justin Chancellor having claimed the role of bassist, Tool showcased even more of a progressive edge on their 1996 masterpiece, Ænima. But Undertow was the crucial awakening — an album that proved "heaviness" could equate to emotional and thematic depth as much as sheer volume or force.
Below, see Maynard James Keenan train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and discuss how fighting relates to his philosophy of life and creativity: