Undertow, 1993

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to fill in some of the gaps in my musical knowledge; rather than keep up with the trends of the day, the focus will be on making sense of some of foundational acts that I’ve missed. For reasons that I cannot even explain myself (Governors Ball?), I am starting this exercise with Tool, the band that launched a thousand message boards in 90s and 2000s. “Sober,” the big single from Undertow, is an ideal way to understand what Tool was bringing to the table in the early Clinton years – namely, heavy rock filtered through a timely grunge perspective.

Ænima, 1996

Given that, before this experiment, the majority of my exposure to Tool was from deeply upsetting music videos, it is striking how conventional the band sounds on its first two records. Ænima has nods toward the progressive mantle the band would take up on its next two albums – “Forty Six & 2” specifically comes to mind – but it overall sound like a hard rock band experimenting rather than an experimental band that rocks hard. Luckily, those hard rocking songs (“Stinkfist” and “Hooker with a Penis”) kick ass like Motorhead on a ketamine & Metallica binge.

Lateralus, 2001

In high school, most of the Tool fans I knew were kids who were big into conspiracy theories, black sweatshirts and hair gel. Lateralus brings that into focus for me; it is an incredible album that combines the paranoia of the darkest X-Files episodes and the boundless creativity of late 70s Zeppelin or Hawkwind. It feels dismissive to even classify it as a hard rock album because it’s so rare to hear this level of fearless, confident complexity in popular rock (“Lateralus” might the best song in the catalog).

10,000 Days, 2006

A hallmark of Tool, as it moved from grunge-metal into jazzy power rock exploring the cosmic possibilities of time (or whatever) is thundering, almost tribal drums. 10,000 Days has more of this low-end tumbling than any other album, and while it propels the paranoia and possibilities of Lateralus, it also makes the album feel a little bit like a fuse that burns out right before it blows up. “Attack – release – attack” is the blueprint of effective hard rock; this record takes a noble, ultimately unsuccessful swing at subverting that (shouts out to “Rosetta Stoned,” the craziest song I’ve heard in some time).

Final Grades:

  • Undertow: Good
  • Ænima: Very Good
  • Lateralus: Great
  • 10,00 Days: Good

Tool: Very Good

Next Up: Sonic Youth.

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