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Undertow by Tool
It's hard to imagine how Tool got to where they did if you remember what it felt like to discover the band via Undertow.
Without all the personal history, I might have given up on Tool a long time ago. When the band released Fear Inoculum in 2019, it had been 13 long years since their last album, 10,000 Days. It was almost jarring to hear new music from the band, but it quickly grabbed Tool fans with its complex, lengthy new tunes. It's not the subject of this essay, so I won't go in-depth about Fear Inoculum, but it's safe to say that Pneuma immediately launched into the list of the best songs in the Tool catalog with its anthemic guitar riffs.
The idea that a band as popular as Tool would only have five proper studio albums in the more than 25 years since becoming well-known - you know without breaking up and disappearing completely - is almost inconceivable. Tool is a band that's always been known to produce on their own schedule, but this time it wasn't their chosen pace. Tool dealt with legal issues that put their new material on pause for the better part of a decade. However, despite this mountainous eight-year obstacle, the band just kept selling out shows. I have seen Tool many times over the years, but I attended one of those sold-out shows in 2017 and made it a family affair.
The Youngest Kid at the Tool Show
My oldest son Ben finished his school year on June 5, 2017. It's not every day you graduate the first grade. He had just turned seven years old. His mom thought I was insane. Let's be honest, she still thinks I'm insane. I took off work early, picked him up off the school bus, got in the car, and drove to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. We checked into a hotel, grabbed some dinner at Noodles and Company, a fast-casual spaghetti chain that my son talks about to this day because he enjoyed their buttered noodles. My son still thinks of this as a fancy dinner, and I have not disabused him of this notion because it's kind of awesome how the perspective of children isn't ruined by the idea that a franchise noodle peddler is somehow uncool. We walked up the hill to the Petersen Events Center on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh and settled in to watch the same band that I first saw on May 15, 1994, as a fifteen-year-old.
The lights went down. The joints were lit. The middle-aged men were bellowing. Tool opened with the percussive storm that is The Grudge. Tool drummer Danny Carey caused many sweaty men to become air drummers even though he was chopping up time with his feet on his bass drum pedals.
Other than Justin Chancellor replacing Paul D'Amour on bass, it's the same band. But they're also definitely not the same band for obvious reasons. It's 23 years later. Tool is no longer the band that graduated from the second stage of Lollapalooza after Babes in Toyland left the tour. Consider the main stage that year and how many bands Tool went on to equal or surpass. Primus, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr. Fishbone, Arrested Development, Front 242, and Rage Against the Machine. Of course, it's not a competition or a zero-sum game. There's room in the world for many successful bands. It's just to put into perspective the meteoric rise of Tool. When the crowd gets too big at the second stage you get promoted. Those are the rules.
Back to Pittsburgh.
More than ten years since releasing their last album - and almost 25 years since releasing their debut - Tool was touring and selling out basketball arenas. My son and I had an incredible time. He wore ear protection, but anyone who has seen the wild videos that played behind Tool, especially during the Aenima years, knows that you might need eye protection as well. I wouldn't swear to it and my memory is getting worse as I get older, but I think there was video of elephants having sex at one point? Why? Who knows. It's Tool. They like to be shocking. It was a musical education for my son and thanks to Tool and its audience an even bigger education than that.
"Dad, why did that guy fall into the wall in the bathroom?"
"I think he drank too much beer. It can be fun to drink, but don't ever drink that much."
"Dad, why are these people allowed to smoke inside the building?"
"They're not allowed. Don't ask me why it doesn't smell like a normal cigarette."
Beyond my personal experience sharing Tool with my seven-year-old son, the show was especially notable to me. The band played a great setlist including Schism, Opiate, Aenima, Forty-Six & 2, Sweat, and Stinkfist. You know what they didn't play? The band didn't play a single song from their major studio debut Undertow. The album that put them on the map and gave them the fame and success that would allow them to tour without new material was completely unrepresented in the entire setlist. It's incredible really. Thanks to Setlist.fm I can look up tour stats for the entire 20-show run. They never bothered to play any songs from Undertow on that entire tour.
That's the album I'm going to talk about today, however. No matter how much the band seems to want to distance themselves from Undertow, it's still one of the greatest, most formative albums of my life as a music fan. Judging by the reaction of Tool fans worldwide, I'm far from alone.
That’s why Undertow is this week’s Album of Record.
Surpassing Initial Success
Maybe it's not that notable that Tool doesn't need Undertow at this point in their careers. They're not the first band to make their initial success irrelevant with monumental achievement after the fact. Radiohead recently started playing Creep again live, but they probably didn't play it for more than a decade? Maybe close to two decades? The fact is that they just surpassed that version of the band to the point that nobody even cared if they played a song from that album or not. How about an even funnier example? What about Aerosmith? They have been around long enough that other than Dream On and Mama Kin, the band plays more of their stuff from the 1990s than anything that made them famous in the 70s and 80s.
As an aside, I recently showed Armageddon to my 11 and 9-year-old sons. I thought it might be a fun popcorn movie from back in the day. It's... uh... not good. I did want to close my eyes. I did want to fall asleep.
That was a cheap joke.
Anyway, you could argue that for all the success bred from Undertow that Tool just surpassed it. Aenima went triple platinum by 2003. And I'll defend the breakout single Sober to my dying day because that song absolutely killed when it came out. It was dynamic and atmospheric and set crowds into an absolute frenzy. Musically, however, it's got to be extremely boring for the band to play. I'm a mediocre guitar player and I can drop that fat string down to D and teach most people how to play a basic version in no time. The huge chorus? On guitar, you strum the open strings without pressing anything down.
I have a friend who is phenomenal on guitar. He loves heavy complex music. He'd rather not play guitar at all than to play Tool riffs. That's not to say they don't work or that they're not the basis for incredible songs. I'm just saying maybe those old riffs bore the shit out of the guys who wrote them.
Breaking Down Undertow
What was the initial appeal of Tool and Undertow? Remember these were the pre-internet days. It was a lot of mystery. Most of us saw Tool videos in the dead of night on MTV and they were beyond weird. Claymation animation but not in a Primus Pork Soda kind of way. More like a Nightmare on Elm Street kind of way. Meat tunnels were invented by Tool thanks to the video for Sober. The band was in the video, but barely. The brief clips were frenetic. The sober promotional CD featured lead singer Maynard James Keenan in a mouth-opening device that looks more like a torture device. The band leaned heavily into imagery that made you think these guys were only able to release music because they'd been released from the mental hospital where they were being treated for their recurring bouts of criminal insanity. I felt about this band in a way that I felt about The Silence of the Lambs movie. It was creepy and scary and opened doors that I didn't necessarily want to open, but it was too thrilling to stop watching.
Then, when you bought the CD, it was more mystery. One of the things that an old guy like me knows and that all of my friends knew at one time is that there's a secret picture of a cow licking its own butthole hidden in the CD art of Tool's album. These are the things that get lost to time as we move beyond CDs. Talk about your classic 90s Easter Egg. I'm not a vinyl person, but someone will have to tell me if the cow licking itself survived to the record, presuming there even is an Undertow vinyl. I have no clue. It's instructive too knowing what we know now about the band Tool after many decades.
Tool is a band that's funny. In a dark humor kind of way, but they're funny. For all the fans that took to the internet to write about the song meanings and lyrics and all the hyper-serious analysis of the work, and holy shit there was a lot of that, this band was kind of mocking the world as much as they were commenting seriously on it. The hidden track on Undertow should have been the first clue talking about the cries of the carrots... I can't remember if it was from a concert I went to or one of the Tool bootlegs I listened to over the years, but I distinctly remember Maynard telling the following knock-knock joke.
Little Boy Blue.
Little boy blue, who?
"Michael Jackson." Maynard said in his snide almost lispy voice.
But back then, as a teenager, this band felt mysterious. They felt dangerous. This was unlike anything I'd ever listened to before or after. And the mystery couldn't have been any bigger than when you got a look at Maynard James Keenan. He had a weird serial killer three name name - one that everyone actually used - and he had the look to back it up. He was a diminutive scowling man who stalked around the stage like a praying mantis with a mohawk. He looked like a guy your mom would have crossed the street to avoid so you wanted nothing more than to listen to this guy's band. The fact that he could sing as well or better than anyone else in alternative or rock music at the time was all the better.
The band's second single was called "Prison Sex." When you really dive into that song and explore the meaning, it's really heavy. I'm not going to do a complete deep dive here, but it's about the cycle of abuse and how it can perpetuate from victim to victim. Not to minimize that, but once you got past that and when you're a teenage boy and the band you're obsessed with releases a song called "Prison Sex" as a single, you feel like you're sticking your middle finger up at the world. Don't ask me why young, suburban males feel like flipping off the world, just know that we do.
According to the official Tool FAQ on Toolshed.down.net which is the Tool bible online, when the band released the song as a single, Tool drummer Danny Carey said of "Prison Sex", "It will annoy a lot of people... which is half the fun."
What many fans might not know or might not remember if they grew up in a post-video world on MTV is that this was big business. Having a video play on MTV was a big deal. Tool ultimately proved that getting a video banned from MTV might have been an even bigger deal.
In an interview with Revolver, guitarist Adam Jones talked about the band and their early videos. Jones had an extensive resume in the film industry having worked on big-budget Hollywood films like Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. He brought more than his musical skills to Tool, also providing the visuals for their videos and early album artwork. The label wanted the band to make videos that sold the band members, probably Maynard, if we're being honest. Jones and his bandmates refused.
The video was not only banned by MTV, but it received a visual effects award nomination by, well, um... yeah... MTV.
As an aside, I was searching for stats and details that I might have forgotten about Tool and the song Prison Sex while I was writing this essay and in the Google search results, I came across "Prison Sex (Karaoke Version) [In the Style of Tool] by The Karaoke Universe on Apple Music. This is the subversive nature of getting popular and being shocking. Not only is it incredible that the karaoke version of this exists, but I'm desperately imagining scenarios where this is being performed in bars across the country.
I imagine the karaoke host talking into his muffled mic via his overused, blown-out speakers,
"Hey there ladies and gentlemen, we having a good time? Let's keep it going now. Coming up to the stage next, we've got Steve singing... uh.... Prison Sex. Alright, let's give it up for Steve!"
Arriving at Tool
The only thing that might be even more important than the origin story for a band getting signed is how you came to find the most important music of your life. As much as the music itself, the method and time period you discover music is one of the more potent relationships that music has to your life.
Back in the 90s, it felt more mysterious how you discovered music. Mind you, I'm not saying it was better. In so many ways it was harder, more random, less efficient, more expensive, and limiting. There were gatekeepers and high hurdles that were difficult to jump.
So how could you find music? You could find it on the radio or MTV, but that certainly wasn't easy for weirder more subversive artists. You could read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, and there you could find out about something less marketable, but then you had to figure out how to hear it. You could randomly choose something in the record store because it had a cool album cover and was located in the proper genre of the music store back when music stores were prevalent cornerstones to musical culture. More likely than anything else, you had some cool friends or older siblings who just got you in terms of music. Sometimes you came up with something and introduced them to it. Other times they introduced you to it. In my case, my friend Kevin and I did a lot of this throughout middle school and heading into high school.
What this usually meant is that we both bought enough albums and weeded through enough bullshit to get to some good stuff and then we'd share the good stuff. It's almost more interesting to talk about the stuff we didn't share. One band, in particular, comes to mind.
Remember the band Dig? Most people don't and shouldn't. Dig was a band fronted by a guy named Scott Hackwith who had produced The Ramones. They recorded with Dave Jerden who did Dirt for Alice in Chains the year before. Dig was featured on MTV's "Buzz Bin" with their hit song "Believe" off their 1993 album also called Dig. The album cover was cool. It's got a big black fly sitting on what appears to be half a pottery head with a wide toothy smile. There's lots of whitespace on the cover and Dig is in all lowercase in small clean letters on the upper right-hand corner. We would never talk about an album cover like this anymore because it just doesn't matter. Back in the 90s this passed for logic in selecting an album to purchase at the store sometimes even if you only knew one song.
It's bad logic. I'm a sports guy too, so I compare it to draft picks.
It's like the NFL draft combine where you see how many times someone can lift heavy weights and then deciding to select them to play football. Yes, strength and weight-lifting are indicators, but they don't necessarily mean you can play football. As Tool proved, an awesome album cover can certainly add to the mystique of a good band with an incredible batch of songs. However, you can also have a one-hit-wonder with an awesome album cover, which is how I'd describe Dig. The point here is not to obsess about Dig, but that's a bullet I took personally so that my friend Kevin wouldn't have to. You're welcome, Kevin!
And I don't know how many bullets Kevin took for me buying bad music to get to Tool, but he's the one who first let me listen to the entire Undertow album.
Kevin and his family were headed to Cape May on the Jersey Shore for a week and rented a house. They invited me to come along and hang out with Kevin, which entailed a hellishly long drive from Ohio to the shore. As a parent today, I can totally see the appeal of taking your kid's friend on vacation with you. We were 14 years old and other than occasionally having meals with his parents and getting caught coming home drunk and smelling like clove cigarettes one night, we didn't really bother them all week.
Anyway, Google Maps says it's just over eight hours, and with some stops, it must have been closer to 10 or 11. So, Kevin and I passed time in the backseat of his parents' car with our Discman portable CD players, our headphones, two giant Case Logic CD books, and lots of extra double-a batteries. I believe my Discman took four of those suckers. That anti-skip protection needed juice!
The only thing cooler than having your music with you on the go in those days was having access to someone else's music too. I honestly don't remember how many times I changed out the batteries, but I do remember that I listened to Undertow two times in a row on the way to Jersey and three times on the way home. As an aside, Kevin also had Predator by Ice Cube, which I listened to a couple of times, but that's a totally different podcast.
I also remember on the way home that Kevin and I were a little bit overexposed and tired of each other. Even people that love each other tend to get on each other's nerves after a week-plus of constant hanging out. Plus, we were worn out from the long drive. Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, I accidentally moved something in the backseat that caused his CD player to drop a half-inch from its perch on one of the CD books. It might has well have been a drop from the Empire State Building with CD player technology in those days. It skipped badly. Kevin was aggrieved by this and reached over and hit the top of my discman so that mine would also skip. It's really funny to think about this now. It was so childish and so funny that I have to respect it. It didn't escalate beyond that, but I know I said something really snippy like, "If you scratch the disc, I don't care because it's yours anyway." His mom yelled at us both, which seemed appropriate. Ah youth!
That's all a part of the story of how Tool became one of my bands in life. Millions of people love Tool and have their own version of the events, but these are mine.
I am positive I didn't know what Tool was talking about when I listened to it in those days. I'm positive that I had no basis to share the same emotions that led the band to write those leg-stomping angry tunes. I had no reason to scream at the top of my vocal range the way Maynard James Keenan did on so many of those tracks. But somehow it reached me in the backseat of that late-80s Buick with the pillow-soft ride speeding across Pennsylvania toward a week at the beach with my friend. Not a bunch of happy party music you could dance to. Something you could snarl to.
I fell in love with 4 degrees. I would later read in the Tool FAQ something about the anal cavity being four degrees warmer than the vagina. I had no idea about any of that when I started listening to it. And that could have been Maynard just messing with everyone. All I knew is that these were some of the prettiest vocal melodies on the album.
Free yourself from yourself.
It brings us closer than dying and cancer and crying.
Take it all.
I had no idea what Maynard meant then and I don't know exactly now either. But this was six minutes and two seconds of pure aggressive beauty. It felt caustic and important like there was no choice but to say it and say it loudly. It refused to be ignored.
Kevin and I ended up growing apart eventually in high school, but not in any kind of falling out. We just slowly went in different directions, which isn’t uncommon, but we're still friends to this day. I see him once every year or so at a concert of some kind. He and I saw Tool at least twice together between the Undertow and Aenima tours. Many sweaty mosh pits. More fun than trouble, but a bit of trouble too.
And that's where we'll leave this week’s essay on Undertow. We'll leave it with how it impacted me when I took it in and made it my own as a teenager.
I didn't really know what I wanted to say as a teenager, but whatever it was I needed to say it loudly like Tool. I didn't know what I was angry about, but I also wanted to throw my middle finger up at the world because I was learning to distrust it. I was far too much of a rule-follower and a wimp to do anything myself, so I listened to Tool. I outsourced my defiance and let them speak for me even if they were speaking about deeply personal things. I bought their t-shirts so that others would know that's who I was and what I was about. I co-opted them as a part of me and I was far from alone in doing so.