30 Years Ago: How Tool’s Debut ‘Undertow’ Broke Every Metal Rule
Tool had given music fans a taste of what they were capable of with the Opiate EP in March 1992, then went on to some high profile opening slots for the likes of Corrosion of Conformity, Fishbone and Rollins Band. Buzz had been built with deft precision with the assist of fledgling label Zoo Entertainment, and the big payoff was to come in the form of the band’s debut full-length Undertow, which arrived on April 6, 1993.
Metal was in a weird state back then. Hair bands were officially a thing of the past and, in a way, it seemed as if the so-called Seattle sound had paralyzed the genre from attempting anything new for fear of being rendered immediately obsolete. Megadeth and Slayer, the old guard of thrash, had a deep enough fanbase to remain vital. Veteran outfits like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath were stumbling. Then there was groove metal of up-and-comers Pantera and White Zombie which excited fans both old and new: This provided a sliver of hope which Tool could lock into, because they definitely weren’t grunge.
“We had our own thing going on from the start and a lot of people didn’t know what to make of us,” guitarist Adam Jones told Loudwire a few years back. “The marketing department at the label went, ‘Okay, this band Tool is here. We don’t know what to compare them to, so we’re just gonna compare them to whatever is big in metal right now. And then Nine Inch Nails comes out and they kind of have a hit, so now we’re an industrial band. And then Nirvana gets huge, so now we’re grunge. But that was something we didn’t worry about. From the start, it was always just pure indulgence for us.”
Original bassist Paul D’Amour framed their broad interests in an interview with RIP Magazine: “We never said we were a grunge band. We're just a bunch of guys who listen to Judas Priest and Yes and Tom Waits and Minor Threat. We got together, and we just play what we know."
Watch Tool's Video for 'Sober'
Undertow, perhaps unsurprisingly, was like nothing else on the scene at the time. There was a mixture between the deep sludge of classic Black Sabbath, with frontman Maynard James Keenan often spitting his lyrics over the burgeoning groove element of metal. They even dipped into an industrial Ministry-like vibe at times: Check out the album centerpiece “Crawl Away,” as an example.
“We were trying to get past all the hair bands and these poofy-haired idiots that were doing their thing, and all the good club space was being taken up by them,” drummer Danny Carey told Loudwire. “There was a great underground movement of music in L.A. at that time, and we were really bonding together with them to fight against and create a new scene we felt was more worthwhile.”
Not like it was needed, but tour-pal Henry Rollins provided some cred by doing a spoken-word spot on “Bottom.” That might’ve been cooked up intentionally or not to draw attention to Undertow, but Rollins' turn eventually became an afterthought that just so happened to have fit. In the end, this debut didn't need any help finding an audience.
Kennan, for one, was not surprised by that success. “I was absolutely aware of having put the dominoes in a row and of making them fall in the way that I had hoped,” he said in the 2016 book A Perfect Union of Contrary Things.
And what of the title? "I really like the idea of an undertow," Kennan told Hot Metal. "Just like that feeling that you get when you are standing out in the surf. You just feel like you are being pulled under and out, whether you like it or not. I would hope that the music takes you to that place, it kind of pulls you under and throws you around – and you go with it."