The Good: Instrumentally intriguing, Good vocals, Good lyrics
The Bad: Annoying track gimmick, Somewhat repetitive
The Basics: An inspired, dark metal album, Undertow by Tool, quite simply, rocks.
As April rushed by with the bands of Maynard James Keenan as my Artist Of The Month, I found myself finally finding an album to crow about. The album was Undertow and it is the closest work by Tool I've yet heard that could have been considered for a perfect album. Yes, I enjoyed it almost that much and those looking for a moody, dark album in the metal rock genre are likely to be impressed by it and enjoy it as well. The album has an experimental rock sound and feel to it that is impressive.
But more than that, unlike the other Tool albums I have heard, Undertow has both decent (if occasionally creepy) lyrics and is produced so those lyrics may actually be understood by the listener. The debut album of Tool actually starts the band out high and it is a shame to hear the direction the group went in after this. They went from an auditorily intriguing band to one where they make interesting enough music, but cloud their purpose with poetic lyrics which cannot be understood.
That said, the most prominent problem with Undertow is the way the c.d. is produced. There are sixty-nine tracks on the c.d. but only ten songs. The final track, "Disgustipated," comes after a minute of clicks as the player goes through sixty empty tracks before playing light percussion and animal sounds. The wait between "Flood" and "Disgustipated" is annoying and gimmicky and after several listens to the album, this and the repetitiveness of several of the tracks was enough to rob it of consideration for perfect album status.
Even so, with ten songs occupying 69:12 (68:12 is music), Undertow is very much the musical vision of the band Tool. At this point in their history, Tool was a quartet consisting of Maynard James Keenan (lead vocals), Adam Jones (guitar and sitar), Paul D'Amour (bass) and Danny Carey (drums). The band wrote all of their own songs, save "Bottom," which was co-written with guest vocalist Henry Rollins. Outside "Bottom," all of the vocals were performed by Keenan. Undertow was produced by the band with Sylvia Massy, so it does seem to be Tool's musical vision which is being represented.
And that musical vision is one with pounding metal guitars, a bass which frequently works as percussion and a lot of banging on drums and cymbals. Carey is a very active percussionist and Jones and D'Amour bang on their guitars equally hard. The music has a very rich, deep, bass-filled sound. Listening to Undertow is to allow oneself to be washed over with a wall of sound. The music is pounding and dreary, with a strong sense of repetition which only leads to the oppressive feeling of the album. This is the clear intent of Undertow and Tool does it remarkably well.
Vocally, Undertow has Tool led by Maynard James Keenan and his vocals become hypnotic on "Intolerance" and crystal clear on "Sober." Keenan does not illustrate much range, though he yells through some of his singing on "Bottom" and he has a great emotive presence on songs like "Crawl Away." He is also able to give surprisingly wrenching vocals on "Undertow" (the song) and he tends to stay near the deeper range of the registers he can sing in.
But what makes Undertow so distinctive as a Tool album is that most of the lyrics can actually be understood. Undertow is a dark album with a lot of angst, centering on relationships gone wrong and hypocrisy. Take, for example, "Crawl Away," where Keenan sings "You crawled away from me. / Slipped away from me. / I tried to keep ahold, / But there was nothing I could say. / You slid away from me / You crept away from me / I tried to keep you down / but there was nothing I could say. / What you're trying to say / is you don't wanna play." Despite the simplicity of the lines, Keenan makes his point very clear and anyone who has ever been abandoned can relate to the song. The slow death of relationships and the problematic games that are played as part of those harsh endings is well-portrayed by Tool.
Similarly, "Sober" has a power to it that is not frequent in pop-rock. Keenan does a decent job of expanding what may actually be sung about in rock and roll music when he laments "I am just a worthless liar. / I am just an imbecile. / I will only complicate you. / Trust in me and fall as well. / I will find a center in you. / I will chew it up and leave, / I will work to elevate you / Just enough to bring you down . . . Why can't we not be sober? / I just want to start this over" ("Sober"). And the best part of it is that because the poetry can be heard clearly, Keenan makes his point and the song comes together wonderfully in an haunting way.
As well, Tool succeeds in being creative using samples, as they do on "Disgustipated." The ironic use of a preacher-style clip contrasts beautifully lines like "This is necessary. / This is necessary. / Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life" ("Disgustipated"). And this level of creativity ought to be rewarded, especially when it is executed so well.
But Undertow is not for everyone. It is a darker album and the repetitive lines on songs like "Intolerance" and "Flood" make it hard to listen obsessively to. But for those looking for an escape from the ordinary and obvious, Undertow makes for a great selection.
The best track is "Undertow," the weak point is the less-memorable "Swamp Song." But truly, there is no bad track on the album.
For other works by Maynard James Keenan, please check out my reviews of:
Aenima - Tool
10,000 Days – Tool
Thirteenth Step – A Perfect Circle
V Is For Vagina - Puscifer
For other music reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here for an organized list!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.