For the past 20 years, Tool have evolved into an alternative rock juggernaut. With their arsenal of artistic chops, including fascinating album artwork and engrossing music videos, there are few bands who can boast a higher degree of devotion in their followers.

In the world of hard rock, Tool have always been a band apart from the rest. Too metal for grunge; too smart for metal, L.A.’s fiercest quartet have grown into an institution.

Able to carry the ticket sales of an entire music festival on their own, the quartet come fully armed with their own mythology, religious doctrine, and most importantly, a vast army of fans. But of course, it wasn’t always this way. It’s been twelve years since Tool first made their way to Australian shores, and two decades since they released their debut album Undertow.

20 years ago, Tool were a fierce emerging band about to release their debut full-length through BMG subsidiary Zoo records. A band of unlikely, disparate members, they managed to quickly carve out their own distinct sound.

Singer Maynard James Keenan, a former forward observer in the United Sates Army, had moved to Los Angeles to practice interior designing for pet stores. Adam Jones was an art-school graduate who had moved from Illinois, where he had previously played in a band with Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. Before joining Tool on guitar he worked as a makeup and set designer on films such as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.

Paul D’Amour was a bassist from Washington State, and like Jones moved to Hollywood and began working in the film industry before being introduced to the band. Danny Carey was a Kansas native who’d moved to LA to play drums. Living next door to Keenan, he’s quoted as pitying the fact that the band couldn’t find a drummer, and thus jammed with them.

Within six months Tool had a label, and were on the road.

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Such was the influence of the Seattle grunge explosion that after only two shows in the City of Angels, the band was already attracting label attention. Signing with Zoo records, the band sacrificed a larger paycheque in favour of having complete creative control over not only their music, but their album art, music videos, and even merchandise. In the world of hard rock, Tool have always been a band apart from the rest. Too metal for grunge; too smart for metal.

In 1992 they released their debut EP Opiate, filled with their harder-edged earlier tracks marked by Keenan’s overt disdain for organised religion, it quickly cemented them as an alternative band on the rise. A slot on the upcoming Lollapalooza tour alongside Primus, Dinosaur Jr, and Rage Against The Machine only served to build anticipation for their debut album.

Undertow was recorded between October and December 1992 at Grand Master Studios in Hollywood, by future Rick Rubin understudy Sylvia Massy. Though the album consisted of songs seen by their earlier fans as ‘soft’, Undertow was a harsh and unrelenting experience.

Starting with its creepily enigmatic sleeve, a curdled red sculpture by band member Adam Jones – colloquially known as ‘the ribcage’ – shadowy against a pitch-black background, hinting at the dark themes dwelling within its sonic contents.

Keenan continued with lyrical themes exposing the perils of religious indoctrination, as well as more personal and confronting explorations of personal relationships, control, and child abuse. 

Meanwhile, the band was continuing to evolve their sound. Adam Jones’ guitar work was becoming more textural and abrasive, Danny Carey’s drumming was becoming more expansive, while Paul D’Amour’s dread-soaked basslines propelled the songs forward.

Their first single ‘Hush’, from Opiate, was the only video in which the band appeared. With lyrics condemning censorship, the video featured the four members standing naked in a white room, tape across their mouths, and signs reading “parental warning: explicit parts” covering their sexual organs.

However, in keeping with their expanding ambition, and making use of Jones’ skills as a makeup supervisor, their videos for Undertow singles ‘Sober’ and ‘Prison Sex’ were eerie stop-motion animations.

Much like the song’s controversial subject matter, the video for ‘Prison Sex’ came under scrutiny and was banned from MTV shortly after its release. Guitarist and director Adam Jones described the video to Hypno in 1994 as “a surrealistic interpretation of the involuntary circle of retribution caused by molestation.”

With its visuals of a broken, one-eyed porcelain child, an angry wasp in a jar, and a slinking, sinister antagonist, it’s metaphors were unsettling to say the least.

Though the video courted controversy, the song itself is a much nastier affair. Beginning with the nails on a chalkboard screech of Jones’ guitar, Keenan delivers a harrowing story of a victim of molestation growing up to commit child abuse themselves, filled with creepy pseudo-religious imagery, “my lamb and martyr / you look so precious.”

Delivered from the position of the antagonist, Keenan offers brutal lines like “I have found some kind of temporary sanity / in this shit blood and cum on my hands.” Album opener ‘Intolerance’ is an equally punishing attack on religious hypocrisy, with Tool doing away with verses and choruses entirely; Keenan’s lyrics delivered more like bleak poetry than rock and roll prose.

‘Sober’ is Tool at their most straightforward, even managing a pretty damn catchy chorus. Turning their gaze on drugs, Jones has claimed the song is about an artistic friend of the band, who thanks drugs for his best works. Once again, Keenan instills the songs with biblical undertones, using references to Jesus and Mother Mary.

As Jones has stated in a 1994 article in Guitar School: “I don’t tell people to do or not do drugs. You can do what you want, but you have to take responsibility for what happens. If you become addicted and a junkie, well, that’s your fault.

‘Bottom’ combines Jones’ staccato palm muted guitars with Keenan’s soulful growl, he even lets out one of his trademark extended howls, before the entire song slinks into a pretty ridiculous spoken word middle section courtesy of Henry Rollins, with lines like “I’ve gone to great lengths to expand my threshold of pain.”

Apparently the band managed to get Rollins to agree to appear on the album on the back of a $3,000 gambling debt he owed the band. Or maybe that’s a joke.

The band became known for a malevolent streak in their sense of humour, traced back to their insistence that the band’s creation stemmed from a joint belief in the ‘religion’ of Lachrymology, or the ‘study of crying’. This dark sense of humour has remained throughout their career; Undertow‘s follow up album Ænima was dedicated to the late comedian Bill Hicks, known for his cold, biting social commentary.

Danny Carey has set up his drum kit in such a way that it has acted as a gateway through which he’s summoned, and subsequently contained a daemon. You know …funny.

That same snide sense of humour is littered throughout Undertow. Whether it’s Keenan’s lyrics on ‘Swamp Song’: “this bog is easy to get lost in/ when you’re a stupid, belligerent fucker”, or in ‘4 Degrees’ being charmingly named after the fact that the anal cavity is on average four degrees warmer than the vaginal cavity. “We all have a sense of humour. We just see the world as a strange and violent place… and we try and deal with it.” – Danny Carey, drummer

On album closer ‘Disgustipated’, with the supposed preacher recounting a dream about carrots with the “baaaa’s” of a flock of sheep in the background, the idea of a ‘carrot-holocaust’ becomes Tool’s idea of a joke (so too is the decision to have it appear as track ‘69’ when played on a CD player).

Some people claim it’s an indictment on religion, others on vegetarianism. Either way, with its hulking, barnstorming “life feeds on life/ this is necessary” refrain, featuring two pianos being bludgeoned by sledgehammers, and then blasted by shotgun rounds – it certainly reflects the band’s view of the world.

As Carey put it in Carelton University’s independent student newspaper The Charlatan, in 1994: “We all have a sense of humour. We just see the world as a strange and violent place… and we try and deal with it.

It wasn’t just the band’s music videos and taboo subject matter which were facing the wrath of censors. The album’s artwork, with images of an Adam Jones-treated pig corpse atop a table of forks, a nude obese woman, and depictions of the band members with crude instruments augmenting their face, all led to the album being pulled from the shelves at Wal-Mart and Kmart.

The band’s compromise was to replace the artwork with a giant barcode, and a note instructing fans to mail them to receive the original artwork free of charge.

Released on April 6th 1993, during their hugely successful Lollapalooza appearance, Undertow far exceeded expectations. It reached 50th on the Billboard 200, and was awarded double-platinum status in 2001.

In 2010, reported sales of the album were at over 2.9 million copies. Only its follow-up Ænima has outsold it, with Tool’s seemingly more popular 21st century output actually yielding poorer album sales despite their initial chart success. In 1993, it was Tool – the dissonant, angry, ambitious band themselves – whose sincerity and viciousness set them apart from the grunge masses.

Undertow would also be the only album featuring Paul D’Amour on bass. Justin Chancellor would replace him and has long been regarded as the Tool bassist.

D’Amour left the band amicably, citing a desire to go in a different direction with his music. On Undertow however, the bassist established himself a strong force within Tool, brandishing an entrancing tone which underscored ‘Crawl Away’ or ‘Flood’, and  especially the intro to ‘Sober’.

On subsequent albums Tool would increasingly evolve their sound, embracing the progressive rock influence of bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd as their structural emphasis became more overt. Increasing song lengths, multiple time signatures, and abrupt rhythmic and dynamic shifts saw Tool become one of the most revered bands on the planet for their sheer musicianship.

So too did their visual aesthetic evolve. Jones’ stop-motion videos earned bigger budgets, and proved all the more unsettling. Their album art too set them apart from any other band, with Jones uniting with famed transcendental artist Alex Grey to create the one-of-a-kind, Grammy award winning artwork for 2001’s Lateralus and 2006’s 10 000 Days.

In the beginning however, Tool had no fancy packaging to rely on. Undertow managed to garner enough attention based on its artwork and music videos, sure. But in 1993, it was Tool – the dissonant, angry, ambitious band themselves – whose sincerity and viciousness set them apart from the grunge masses.

Inspired as much by no-wave artists like Swans as they were by the experimental rockers of the ‘70s, Tool courted controversy for their explicit imagery, and won audiences with their gripping live performances, with Undertow as their powerful opening statement.

Combining explicit and equal parts hilarious and grotesque lyrics and themes amidst a scramble of pummelling low-end and shrieking guitars, Tool managed to quickly set themselves apart as a band not to be trifled with.

Full credit to The Tool Page for the valuable resources provided. Tool are currently on tour around Australia, check out the photo gallery from the band’s opening show in Melbourne here. Dates and details below.

Tool Australian Tour 2013 Dates

Sat 27 Apr Melbourne | Rod Laver Arena (All Ages) | Ph: 132 849

Sun 28 Apr Melbourne | Rod Laver Arena (All Ages) | Ph: 132 849

Tue 30 Apr Adelaide | AEC Arena (All Ages) | Ph: 132 849

Fri 3 May Sydney | Allphones Arena (All Ages)| Ph: 132 849

Sat 4 May Sydney | Allphones Arena (All Ages) | Ph: 132 849

Mon 6 May Brisbane | Entertainment Centre (All Ages) | Ph: 132 849

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