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Giving In to Lure of the Undertow, Tool Suffers Gladly

April 22, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

"I don't want to be hostile. I don't want to be dismal," goes the opening line of Tool's new album, "Undertow."

But the Warholian 15-minute ticker hasn't run out yet on hard rock's anger-and-grunge formula, so what the heck. The Los Angeles band spends virtually the entire album milking the most hostile, dismal feelings it can muster.

Unmodulated, unmitigated balefulness and rage are growing awfully familiar in the wake of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and numerous others. What keeps Tool's first full-length album interesting is its ability to mix things up, even if all the songs are about feeling down.

Instead of a steady diet of dense noise, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Paul D'Amour and drummer Danny Carey play with definition, discipline and a range of dynamics that gives Tool more dexterity than most straight grunge bands, without sacrificing impact.

The singer and lyricist, Maynard James Keenan, knows that if you want to go for dramatic effect, it helps to do some murmuring and whispering before you let go a scream.

On "Sober," a song of self-disgust whose lamenting chorus wouldn't sound out of place coming from Richard Thompson, Keenan achieves a sense of yearning-for-better before he succumbs to the worst. That introduces an element of poignancy to go with the customary grunge-rock dread.

When a song does call for screaming, such as the swaggering, chip-on-his-shoulder "Swamp Song," Keenan's feats of character assassination match the best efforts of such bilious champions as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry's Alain Jourgensen.


Speaking over the phone Tuesday before a concert in San Francisco, Keenan, 29, said that Tool has therapeutic reasons for accentuating the negative.

"What we've decided to do for our release 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."

He can even imagine writing a song based on more pleasant feelings. So far, Tool, which plays Sunday at California Dreams in Anaheim, has permitted itself one track of black-comic relief on each of its two releases (the band debuted last year with a seven-song EP, "Opiate").

"If things turn into good experience, maybe our approach will change," Keenan said. "Maybe (songs will be) more attentive to arrangements, ethereal stuff to take you into a dreamlike state. The same way we were trying to get out the bad seed (on the first two releases), there might be a seed we want to grow."

Meanwhile, there is a career to grow.

Tool's slot on this summer's Lollapalooza '93 tour could be a chance at rapid advancement for a band that thus far hasn't had an impact on the charts. Tool will start out as second-stage headliner, then switch to the main stage about halfway through the two-month itinerary.

The tour will mark a high-school reunion of sorts for guitarist Jones. Tool's founder hails from the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill., where his schoolmates included two other Lollapalooza musicians: Tom Morello, now the guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, and Maureen Herman, who plays bass in Babes in Toyland.

"Maureen and Tom and I made films together in high school," noted Jones, 28, whose enthusiasm in a separate interview contrasted with Keenan's civil but guarded tone. "Tom and I are good friends. It's a coincidence. Can you imagine it?"


As Jones tells it, Tool's arrival as a band-with-prospects also was a matter of coincidence. After art studies and a stop in San Francisco, he came to Los Angeles about seven years ago and found a job in Hollywood doing sculpture and makeup for film special effects.

Keenan's route was a little more circuitous. After high school in Scottville, Mich., he says, he served a three-year hitch in the Army. Keenan said he had done well in an officers' preparation program and was about to enroll at West Point when he decided he would rather be an artist.

He wound up studying art and design in Grand Rapids, Mich., which led eventually to a job in Los Angeles applying the spatial concepts he had learned to remodeling pet stores. After that, he worked on set design in the film industry.

Jones and Keenan met through a mutual friend. After hearing a tape by a band Keenan had fronted in his Michigan art-school days, Jones persuaded the initially reluctant singer to start a band with him.

"I'd seen the ugly part of the film industry, and I didn't want to get involved in the music business," Keenan said. "I decided if we did what we were doing and enjoyed it, (record companies) wouldn't look at us," which, at the time, would have been fine with him.

According to Jones, getting ahead wasn't the point when Tool began in 1991.

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