If you’re a fan of Maynard James Keenan’s rare and complex brand of art-damaged music and refrigerator-magnet prose, the last few years have been golden. Along with his crepuscular metal band, Tool, releasing its first new album in 13 years, “Fear Inoculum,” in 2019, Keenan’s spidery alterna-rock act, A Perfect Circle, unleashed its latest album, “Eat the Elephant,” the year previous.
That the singer/lyricist/conceptualist has kept the sound and vision of APC and Tool separate from each other is a testament to Keenan’s wide-ranging flair for the dramatic. Both bands may occasionally embrace a similar lyrical abstraction and be stiffly mathematical in their approach (Tool being the more difficultly algebraic of the two), but where Keenan’s concerned, if the listener isn’t working hard to get to the meat of the matter, he’s failed.
Choosing, however, to throw kink, humor and improvisation into the mix is how we got Puscifer, Keenan’s other other band.
Born in 2003 during the murky “Underworld” movie’s film soundtrack, and eventually turned into an oddball, jokey, electro-dance cabaret act (any act calling its debut album “‘V’ Is for Vagina” is playing for obnoxious laughs), Puscifer was primed to portray Keenan’s teasing, sex-and-smarmy techno-tronic side.
Since that giddy commencement, Pucifer’s shifting lineup got less slimily silly and more trance-like and serious with each release (including 2011’s “Conditions of My Parole” and 2015’s “Money Shot”) until winding up with the airily hypnotic electronic rock of this week’s pre-Halloween release, “Existential Reckoning.”
The least humorous, most portentous of its works does come with goofball elements in its sleeve and video references to “Men in Black” and some bleakly comic peeks into an empty, post-COVID landscape. Beyond those minor jibes, this Puscifer is something of a frowny-faced look at one man’s insistent need to keep score — with other men, with nature or with himself — while fist-pumping the air with ’80s-vintage new wave pop tones. And it all works out brilliantly, and Maynard-ly, even when you think it won’t.
Take the opening track, “Bread and Circus.” As its slapping snares, breathy keyboards, Bernard Sumner-like pluck and mannered vocals unfurl, Keenan and fellow vocalist Carina Round can be heard turning the seven-syllable phrase “existential reckoning” into something more like 12 syllables, before going into a chorus that goes: “Acquiescent and idling. Predestinated circling. Romulus and Remus paradox, trade it all for nothing more than concessions, fireworks, pageantry, glitter, gladiators, and jesters, just entertainers. Bread and Circus.”
By all rights, persnickety lines like those should stop the proceedings, pretentious as they are and as overly complex for a pop song as this is. (The sound is not the wrenching metal of Tool by any stretch of the imagination.) Yet Keenan’s musicality and sense of contouring are as smart as his text, and each element within the contagious melody’s arrangement hugs his lyrics like a lover’s embrace. “Theorem” too, a lost Devo-meets-Prince track if ever there was one, uses the warmest, most soulful melody to thaw its icy twin vocals and cold, Ayn Rand-like lyrical ideas (“Resilient, social architectures must be built upon arbitrated firm foundations”).
That same slinky arrangement occurs magically within the glowing walls of the death-disco “Apocalyptical” and the “Midnight Express”-ish sequences of “The Underwhelming.” In both cases, Keenan’s highest register, together with that of co-vocalist Round, wrap its tonsils around arch lyrics (“Concrete conclusions be damned / They won’t believe you until it’s far too late… Be damned, dumb dumb”) geared for maximum-level finger pointing. Only on these two torrid tunes, Mat Mitchell — the third official member of Puscifer — unleashes one continuously undulating and menacing guitar line on the former and a crisply angry, even bluesy solo on the latter. There’s no such thing as singing the blues in Tool or APC, so enjoy it while you can.
Not every moment of “Existential Reckoning” is so exquisite or slippery. “Fake Affront” is probably meant to be bold and politicized, but instead feels tired and non-committal. “Postulous” is mere filler where there should be none, on an album of delightfully short songs.
For all the majesty and mirth, the best songs on “Existential Reckoning” are its sparest, and those where Keenan drops an octave and maybe even some of the pretense.
The slithering “Bullet Train to Iowa” merges the web-like guitar tangle familiar to APC with Puscifer’s most crunching, pulsing synths. To this churning, rocking combine, Keenan adds a low, breathy voice and the rare idea that he’s not the smartest, most perceptive person in the room. “I’m all aboard this surprise locomotion,” he sings with genuine awe. “Oh my. Oh well. Guess I’d better just enjoy the ride.” The steely ballad “Personal Prometheus” has much the same effect as “Bullet Train,” but adds a surprisingly gentle guitar lick, an oddly pastoral piano, and a lovely, non-FX driven background vocal from Round to its rigid, frigid lyrics. “A Singularity” is, true to its title, something lone, pensive and simple, away from the rest of the album’s fray, and better for it.
Like “Bullet Train,” there is “UPGrade,” a personal moment that looks inward to the reasons why Keenan works as he does. “UPGrade” may look dated on paper, but it’s an impish, mid-tempo track that questions — or at least points to — the reverie that makes Keenan unique, whether he’s cutting to the quick or, as is his wont, complicating matters. “How does one choose words so magical, they terminate or alleviate this morbid despair you feel?” he asks, in a deep, bright tone.
That he can turn that kind of existential reckoning into an “Oh my, oh well” moment like the one he had on “Bullet Train” is what makes Maynard Keenan unique, and still evolving as a provocateur and an artist. Guess he’d better just enjoy the ride.
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