The year was 1993 and the times they were a changing. The generational pull of Gen X was underway and a new American President ushered in a hopeful, new time for a while. Some of the cultural touchstones of the time included a weekly science fiction program about aliens and monsters dominated prime time in The X-files, the best comedy in ages, Groundhog Day reminded us why Bill Murray was and is a goddamned national treasure, and Jurassic Park was the most dominant movie in half a decade. Also, a little known “alternative metal” band from Los Angeles, by way of everywhere else named Tool hit the scene with their début full-length album and changed the course of modern music. Oddly those particular references to pop culture coinciding with Tool’s ascendance from the underground to popularity all signal a weird synchrony that was represented by the band and the music they brought to bear.

Tool had been gaining steam for a number of years in the packed musical scene that als spawned Rage Against The Machine, Kyuss, Green Jelly, and many others neither going down the road of Grunge or whatever was commercially safe at the time. Four disparate personalities in the original lineup of Tool: Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Danny Carey and original bassist Paul D’Amour has some midwestern work ethic in common, but also held tight their like-minded creativity and fearlessness as writers. No wonder the crux of the bidding war then ended up ensnaring the band, hinged on which label gave them the most artistic freedom. At least, it was supposed to on paper.

Where as the Opiate EP was a group of some sick studio tracks with a few live cuts of unreleased songs altogether in a taut but hodge podge flow, Undertow was meant to be explorative and sat with for repeated listenings. Even songs that were around for years in different forms like all-time hit ‘Sober’, was turned epic, yet meditative. The band seemed fully formed when they arrived, but to many ‘Sober’ and the video by Fred Stuhr (RIP) was many a new fans introduction to the band, they worked for years to get to this moment. This was just a stepping off point as they were transitioning out of bleak, short, sludgy metal songs that more in common with The Melvins and Butthole Surfers, than anything else. You could argue some of the tracks today sound almost be darkly anarcho punk for the early 90s, a far cry from the prog powerhouse we know today.

The album has no visible or aural flaws: incredible (and banned at the time) artwork, Maynard’s whisper to howling vocals, Danny’s slick beats. Adam’s all encompassing tone and searing riffs and Paul’s meaty bass lines. The production by Sylvia Massey helped put her on the map and make her wildly in demand in the years to follow. Just like some of the greatest albums ever, you can hear a veritable symphony of music in a layer under the songs themselves. Whether you hear it for the first time or the fiftieth, it will blow your mind.

Of course the album spawned “hits” and classic tracks for the era and for the band like ‘Prison Sex’, ‘Intolerance’, ‘Bottom’ featuring Henry Rollins, ‘Crawl Away’, and all the tracks have their mega-fans, including the incredible bonus track ‘Disgustipated’.

People can argue about what the best Tool album is, but this one put them on the map and led them further down the path they are on now.