Undertow


Band: Tool
Album: Undertow
Best song: “Prison Sex” is probably the best song, but the entire album is very strong.
Worst song: I honestly like every song on this album.

This is the week of Passover and I’m on quite the streak of nonseders. Oddly enough, Passover is probably my favorite Jewish holiday, as it’s the “eat food and tell stories” of Jewish holidays.

But, I haven’t had a seder in many years and I’m perfectly OK with that. Instead, I buy a bottle of Kosher wine and drink it in one night, usually in front of the TV. It’s a pretty great tradition and I’m glad I do it.

I had my bar mitzvah in 1994. I was one of the stars of my Hebrew school classes because I took religion somewhat seriously back then and cared about my Jewish identity. It was important to me and languages came easily to me when I was a kid, so I was able to get the torah portion easily. Unlike almost everyone in my class, I did the entire torah portion for that week in my bar mitzvah, as well as the haftorah.

Which is to say that I kicked major bar mitzvah ass.

The turning point, of course, to me was college. Like so many people, I ended up reading a lot about religion and the moment I completely decided I was an atheist was upon reading, oddly enough, the Straight Dope. The column had a series called “Who wrote the bible?” that examined the gestation of the most famous document in human history.

I’m not going to try and convert anyone here on the Internet, but I’ll simply recount my experience. The SD column explains that many people have edited, translated and, generally, changed the document throughout the centuries. Which is to say that God didn’t write the thing, nor is it accurate for anything other than a lot of neat morality tales.

Of course, I do find religion completely fascinated and adore, for example, the work of David Maine. But, I don’t believe in any of that stuff; it’s too silly. As David Cross once said “Where are all the unicorns?”

I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in reincarnation or magic. I’m a big believer in the scientific method and said method doesn’t really prove the existence of a higher power without a whole lot of fudging. I tend to think that we create these myths — in a smaller sense, we do this in sports with things like “unmeasurables” and “heart” — to explain things we can’t explain. Eventually, we end up learning why these things happen. We used to think, for example, that all the animals in the world got there because a deity put them there in the span of seven days. Now, thanks to Darwin, we understand that natural selection occurs and animal populations change over time to reflect natural selection.

Nevertheless, I do things like have a Chanukah party annually or drink a bottle of Kosher wine on Passover. I take off the days for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashannah, despite not

Part of this is simply being “other.” I’ve got a lot of punk rock still in me (despite not actually liking punk), so being “other” has always been part of my life. Growing up in an interfaith home, I probably could celebrate Easter and Christmas and all that stuff, just for the nonreligious stuff. But, I don’t. I consider myself Jewish because it is, on some level, the absence of being Christian, the mainstream religion.

Secondarily, it’s also a touch to my heritage. I’m mildly obsessed with my own makeup and familial history — as evidenced to my two trips to Italy in the last five years — and I’m Jewish on my mother’s side. I’m reminded of my Sicilian heritage every time I write my name. A huge part of Judaism is the scholarly nature of it and I prefer that notion in my personality. Hebrew school, though ridiculous, was helpful in the sense that I learned a lot about Judaism’s history and such.

The history of the Jewish people is not without interest and one thing that Hebrew school and growing up Jewish gives you is the sense that Jewish people are survivors and have done very well. This is hammered into your brain from birth, no question. There’s truth to it, of course, as Judaism has outlasted the Greek, Assyrian, Cannanite and Roman religions until today. And, moreover, the influence of Judaism on American culture is far larger than the number of Jewish people in the United States.

Which is to say that there’s a powerful history there. I’m proud to share a heritage with Larry David, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Albert Einstein and the like. That’s not without it’s value.

Of courses, this is all combined with the fact that I wear a Jewish star necklace and have for years. There’s no real reason for it (save for a heritage shoutout thing), as, again, I don’t believe in God. However, I wear it because I love the way it looks on Paul Newman and I hope to emulate him, if even in the smallest possible way.

Undertow has nothing to do with religion, as I see it, save for the fact that Maynard James Keenan is something of a famous atheist. I didn’t get way into the album when it came out, but loved the singles.

Since then, though, I consider the album one of my favorites. One of the longest reviews I wrote while in college was for the band’s Lateralus album, trying to connect the history of progressive rock from the beginnings of Genesis and King Crimson to Tool today. I wish I still had that file, so I could post it here, but the point is this: Tool is not a metal band. Tool is a progressive rock band that plays metal.

Tool is a metal band in the same way that Dream Theater is a metal band. Both bands play drawn-out songs with archaic topics with serious changes. The big differnece is that Tool doesn’t totally suck.

“Intolerance” has a drive unseen in other songs of its type, “Bottom” features Henry Rollins in his best spoken word song appearance, “Crawl Away” is strong and fast, “Sober” is a thing that deals with the creative process and alcoholism in an interestin way and “Prison Sex” is a deep look into Keenan’s own difficult upbringing involving sexual abuse.

Moreover, Keenan’s lyricism is strikingly interesting. Unlike so many prog bands, Tool’s music doesn’t fall into the completely absurd, but rather can build on an aggression and feeling that resembles that of a grown-up Trent Reznor.

Undertow (and later, Lateralus) show these strengths well. It’s one of my favorite records.

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