“Seems like I’ve been here before/Seems so familiar” howls Tool singer Maynard James Keenan howls at the beginning of Opiate, and he’s right. The Los Angeles quartet had to win its success by cutting through a thicket of Metallica, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Rollins Band. While initially part of the pack, Tool’s moshable metal was never at its head. The rhythm section of bassist Paul D’Amour and drummer Danny Carey (whose credits also include Pygmy Love Circus and Green Jelly) is a synched, propulsive machine, and guitarist Adam Jones is as tasteful as metal players come, always looking for some sonic alternative to typical axe-hero wankerdom. Keenan isn’t the most distinctive of singers, but he can growl with the best of ’em and deploys his voice as part of the overall package rather than as a force in its own right.
Opiate is the Tool appetizer, a six-song EP of studio and concert work. The slamfest never lets up, latching into some particularly powerful grooves on “Hush,” “Sweat” and the live “Jerk-Off.” The title track, a bit more layered and defined than the other five, introduces the religious fixation Keenan explores in greater depth on Undertow.
Tool’s full-length album is even more molten but not quite as consistent as the EP. While Keenan battles the church and inner demons (“In order to survive you/I must survive myself”), the musicians stretch out, taking most of the songs over the five minute mark. Undertow misses Opiate’s brutal economy, though each track has at least a couple of slick tempo changes to help hold interest (sixteen minutes of “Disgustipated” is a hair too much, however). Henry Rollins co-wrote and guests on the roiling “Bottom,” and “Prison Sex” wields a knife-edged guitar hook to excellent effect. (Those who leave the CD player running after the last songs on both Opiate and Undertow will find bizarre, unlisted tone poems at the end of each.)
While Tool worked on its second album, D’Amour hooked up with some buddies — Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards from Failure and Chris Pitman from Zaum — and cut a covers LP as the Replicants.