The Metal genre, for all it's stereotyping of leather and male bravado, can be thought provoking and introspective if done the right way. The key, you see, is to never let the music overshadow the message. In the early 90's, the music was loud, with many following the grunge crowd in an effort to stay with the times. One band who refused to allow the current trends to dictate their musical style was Tool, and their 1993 debut full-length release, 'Undertow', almost single handedly created a new sub-genre within the metal framework.
Founded in 1990, the members of Tool (consisting, at the time, of Paul D'Amour on bass, Adam Jones on guitar, Danny Carey on drums and Maynard James Keenan on vocals), decided that the path less traveled might be the right one for them, and their 1992 debut EP 'Opiate' saw the seeds of the band's sound being planted. With the emphasis on power chords (the band themselves called the album "slam and bang heavy music") and Keenan's vocals, the band sought to develop their sound further. More dynamic than the 'Opiate' EP (something that the band did on purpose, as they put their heaviest material on the EP), 'Undertow' seemed to hit at just the right time.
As raw as 'Opiate' was, 'Undertow' was a little more polished while not detracting from the band's heaviness. Combine that with how lyrically bleak the tracks were, it seemed to fit home with both heavy metal and grunge fans. Keenan noted this, stating that "...what we've decided to do...is play music, so all the ugly stuff is gonna come out there. It's kind of like going to an A.A. meeting and hearing a guy give a speech about all the horrible things that happened to him when he was drunk. It's not as if the rest of our life is that way." Henry Rollins joined the band (Black Flag, Rollins Band) by doing a spoken word on "Bottom", a section that Keenan agrees is better than what he would have done on his own. "That's actually a spoken word part I do there and I've always done. When we went into the studio, he came down and he read that part but he also wrote his own part to kind of paraphrase what I'd said. His part sounds better for him, the way he speaks, so it just sounded way better to have his part in there instead. So we put his there."
Musically, the band seems to be channeling their inner Black Sabbath, with drummer Carey using Neil Peart as a starting point to establish his own identity. D'Amour's (who left the band after touring 'Undertown') bass style allowed Jones to channel Tony Iommi, relying on power chords and song structure more than guitar solos. As much as Jones' playing is integral to the success of 'Undertow', it's Keenan's brooding vocals, part philosophical, part personal, but all emotional, that is the glue that holds the album together. "Prison Sex" is thought to be about child abuse (possibly's Keenan's own) and "Sober," the most well known track from the album, is (according to Jones) about a friend of the band whose artistic expression only comes out when he is under the influence. "4 Degrees", however, according to Keenan, has a much more straightforward (but equally as interesting) meaning, saying that "apparently the anal cavity has 8 more working muscles and is 4 degrees warmer than the vagina. This, however, is NOT a song about violation. It is a song about opening up, completely, without reservation."
Reaching #50 on the US Billboard 2000 in 1993, and certified double platinum in 2001, 'Undertow' had massive success on both sides of the pond. RAW Magazine (UK) had it listed at #6 in their 1993 "Albums Of The Year" and Classic Rock Magazine, in 2001, listed it as #87 of the greatest rock albums of all time. "Sober" reached #13 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Track Charts while "Prison Sex", the second single from the album, reached #23. An album that might be too heavy for alternative rock but too quirky for heavy metal, 'Undertow' straddles the line between heaviness and agony, being progressive while mainstream at the same time. The band isn't just content to wallow in their own darkness; 'Undertow' invites the listener to join them, and in doing so they might have find their own salvation.