tool-undertowIn 1993, metal and hardcore bands endured the wandering eyes of the fans. There were notably few metal-oriented heavy music releases that year. Grunge was breaking, and the adolescent masses were increasingly being captivated by the loose, do-it-yourself ethos found in the hybrid punk and garage rock. Experiments proliferated from the rapidly growing popularity of Rage Against the Machine’s activist rap ‘n’ roll to Radiohead’s first and arguably most accessible introduction to North America as a guitar-heavy British grunge outfit on Pablo Honey. More and more bands were bleeding across genre boundaries with abandon. In many ways the early ‘90s were a forge for many of the heavy music genres that are mainstream today, 20 years later.

From Sugar’s Beaster to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, the sound of the ’90s still rocked heavy and laid waste to guitar amps and home stereos alike, but the bands seemed far more likely to carry a tune, to eventually wind up in a navel-gazing power ballad than to grind out aggressive shots. It was as if for the first time what was once considered alternative was blown wide open and little room was left for the focused genre silo of metal. It suffered from stagnation both in theme and sound.

Out of nowhere a disturbingly dark video started getting frequent play on music television. The appeal was arguably the uneasy aesthetic of the video more than the song itself, as the unique style of the song juxtaposed against the images carried the swagger of cinematic art more than simple rock video. It was so unlike anything that had been heard or seen before that word spread fast through the underground metal community. Unlike the trend of videos at the time, it featured only quick flashes of barely visible band members, no black and white diagonal shots of concert footage or requisite bangs of hair dangling in front of faces. While the vocals cried out in disdain, the video took the viewer through a series of benign but possibly symbolic non-events. A stop motion animated character wandering around his labyrinthine, grey and dingy environment. His head was an ambiguous cross between exposed brain, skull and eyeless organic rot. He was both disgusting and adorable. As he explored his world, we heard the first bass riff notes of what would become one of the most recognizable and iconic songs of the era: “Sober”.

While the simple riff was played on bass, the guitar soared high as if it were in its own time signature. It arced across the simple bassline and then dropped again, just in time get back to the business of sounding surly. It gave the song depth and expanse, an echo cascade more akin to Pink Floyd than the gunfire rapidity of Metallica or Anthrax. The first few phrases of the track introduce Adam Jones soloing not to express power or show off his considerable skills fast-fingering strings, but to evoke a raw, emotional sense of desperation. It was groundbreaking. It was sincere. It was metal which valued artistic expression far more than simple adolescent defiance. For many, it was the first time they’d heard the sound now known as progressive (or prog) metal.

Perhaps the most notable and unique quality of Tool’s sound on their debut release, Undertow, is Maynard James Keenan’s deceivingly weak vocals. Pitched high, they warbled boy band style in the opening lines of “Intolerance”: “I don’t wanna be hostile/ I don’t wanna be dismal/ And I don’t wanna rot in an apathetic existence/ See I wanna believe you/ I wanted to trust you.” At the end of the verse, the bass drops into a rut, some reverb is added and Maynard bounces repeatedly over the line, “But you lie, cheat and steal/ And yet I tolerate you,” and it elevates to a snarl. The sincerity of the emotion and his talent for singing angry without having to resort to the theatrics of a death metal roar or over-the-top squeals was something brand new. Combine that with relentless muted power chords and bass notes which echo distantly and you’ve got a recipe for one of the darkest metal recordings of the decade. By the end of the opening track, the listener is drowning in Maynard’s rage without even realizing the tide had been rising. “No one is innocent,” he screams. Merely the end of track one, and metal music would never be the same.

The differences didn’t end at the music. Undertow also introduced the world of metal to a more disturbing, more perversely human form of negative imagery. While many metal albums focused on very obviously controversial anti-religious or pagan iconography, anti-political and anti-authoritarian themes, Tool took an almost comically disturbing approach. The original cover art was a simple and artfully designed rib cage. Inside it were photographs of a naked, obese women and an elderly man, the band members faces as human pincushions and a live pig resting on a bed of forks. No statement was being made, nothing overt or literal to say. There was no theme or stated intention. It would be the first in a long line of jabs Tool would take at their own fan base and the media, seemingly designed to entertain the band more than the listener.

Former Black Flag frontman, actor, spoken word artist and would-be NPR DJ Henry Rollins makes a notable appearance in the middle of “Bottom,” his speaking voice juxtaposed with the layered echoes of Maynard’s most furious wail. This unconventional cameo wasn’t touted or presented as “featuring,” it just seemed to fit perfectly somehow, quietly nestled in the fourth track on the record waiting to surprise you. More than just the value of his words, his presence was an unintentional boast of credibility for a band on the verge of blowing up.

In 2013, the bar of darkness has been set a lot higher. The murk and depths of dark heavy music are explored by artists in genres as diverse as dubstep, goth, metal and even country, often with a heavy hand. What few of them seem to master is instilling in their fans a genuine sense of bemused dread. There’s always an awareness that it’s just performance. Even at their most mature, Tool’s brand is deeply washed in a sort of existential anger. It remains to be seen whether or not that can survive the grounding effects of social media on an increasingly savvy fanbase. But even though subsequent records saw them grow their sound into something far grander in scale, Undertow remains immune to the passage of time. It’s haunting and menacing today even as the world seems more messed up than the band could have imagined in 1993. If there’s a silver lining to our current social climate, it’s that the next Tool album will have plenty of fodder to explore.

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