"So, what sort of music do you listen to?"
In a normal conversation, this might be an invitation to briefly detail a few of one's favorite individual or group musicians. Set the question in the context of an exchange between teenagers, however, and the meaning changes.
Which predefined category of pop music do you identify with?
Of the many indirect methods of gauging a fellow student's position within the absurdly complicated social networks of your average high school, this is possibly the most informative. By musical tastes, one can guess a peer's general clan. By clan, one can derive a wealth of information, from relative social status to extracurriculars to the probability of obtaining a piece of homework to copy.
There are a few broad categories. Hip-hop (also Rap or R&B) covers jocks and ghetto superstars. Alternative carries implications of preppiness or aspirations toward preppiness. Techno safely places one in the geek or techie categories. Rock (also Hard Rock) signals a wild-card, spanning from honor students to burn-outs, but there's a shared characteristic of quirkiness that often expresses itself as anti-authority behavior. Other categories may be important depending on region, the preferences may be expressed as local radio stations rather than categories, and social implications may differ, but however the numbers are shuffled they still add up to the same conclusion. It's all a part of the great game, the irrelevant constructs teenagers render for themselves in preparation for the equally irrelevant constructs they'll hit in real life.
I identify myself as Rock, lacking the charisma to break the rules of the game. I have my representative radio station, my expected favorite bands, my social grouping, and my clothing style that all correlate with the category. Safely predictable. In truth the music doesn't interest me greatly, because it all boils down to a few formulas. There's nothing more important in pop music than the formula. For example, your average Rock song will have heavy guitars, a bass, a set of drums, and minor digital manipulation. There will be screaming, either throughout or at climactic points. The theme will concern:
... almost without exception. Often one or more will be combined. There's a set vocabulary, full of words and phrases like 'down', 'I'm falling', 'listen to me', etc. Whatever event that's being described has always happened before, this being the last straw.
The point of the formula is to elicit feelings of the epic and the dangerous. They’re battle hymns, designed to get the adrenaline pumping and the muscles twitching. One only need watch the behavior of concert-goers to see it. But we are no longer a society that consistently offers channels for such energy. It’s hard to find battles worth fighting with brawn and aggression anymore. So artificial means are required to draw the energy, then dissipate it. Thus the formula, an efficient mechanism of converting that dormant need for the epic into profit with as little overhead as possible.
I enjoy feeling challenged. I enjoy having my aggressions manipulated by basic chord patterns and screaming. If I did not, I wouldn’t listen. But mainstream rock is for the car radio and the party background music. It is rarely worth a listen on its own merits when the hook wears off and the novelty fades. For music with greater substance, I turn elsewhere.
A Perfect Circle is the exception. They distill the musical elements and lyrical content of modern Rock, then twist it ever so slightly. The end result is music which technically conforms to the formula, yet elevates it. Maynard James Keenan's relationships aren't just dysfunctional, they're catastrophic, and he'll tell you exactly how in excruciating detail. His hatred drips with ruthless sarcasm. His authority figures aren't parents paying too little attention to their tragically angst-ridden children, they're frighteningly rational monsters stained from head-to-foot in blood, transforming hell into their playground. And when he breaks down, you're coming along for the ride.
Combining elevated Hard Rock standards with instrumentation and digital manipulation that, while certainly not ground-breaking, is nonetheless far more creative than their peers can manage, A Perfect Circle's first album Mer de Noms startled me. It showed greater intelligence than I'd ever thought possible of the genre. Already acquainted with Tool, the significantly altered tone Keenan took with his new team further shredded my expectations. Mer de Noms has lasted a long while in regular rotation with my other favorites, I don’t see it losing appeal anytime soon. I looked forward to APC’s sophomore effort with excitement, but trepidation. After all, the line-up had shuffled, and Keenan had spent the majority of his time with Tool. The break between albums had been substantial.
Luckily, they haven't lost the spark. Thirteenth Step explores darker psyches and experiments with further twists on the equation. Keenan hasn't given a specific explanation for the title and other bandmembers are careful to tread on his territory, but some possibilities offered include a play on APC's cyclical sentiments (the album has twelve tracks, the thirteenth step brings one back to the beginning), the superstition of those who count steps to skip the thirteenth, and the unofficial last step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program's famous Twelve Steps: fucking the newcomers.
The last would fit well with the album's content. While Mer de Noms both subtly and explicitly wove religion into its content, Thirteenth Step has shifted focus toward manipulation and addiction. The sort of twisted emotional machinations that would lead a person to use shared addictions to prey upon someone at his or her weakest sets exactly the mood that permeates this album.
It kicks off with The Package, muffled trash-can lids and unsettling melodies marking the start of a progressively threatening blend of guitars, bass, and crashing rhythm. It helps to have a good pair of headphones or speakers for full appreciation; many of the most interesting aspects of this song are barely audible. Keenan puts on a brave sneer as he explains, "Clever got me this far, then tricky got me in. I’ll take what I came for. Don’t need another friend.” The facade drops as over seven minutes he loses control of his voice, sucking air and snarling with animal desire to satisfy his addiction. You happen to be standing between him and the package. Oops. As the torrent of drums and guitars cuts out suddenly, his harsh whisper fades away to remind you, “Take what’s mine. This is mine. Mine.” Best to remember next time.
Without a pause for breath, the album moves into the first single, Weak and Powerless. Staccato drums and acoustic instruments keep time to the narration of a different sort of addiction. Compared to the excruciatingly drawn out nature of the previous track, this one moves blindingly fast through its climax and conclusion. A stand out moment is the change of tone near the song’s end as Keenan drops from his regular swooping voice to a low grumble to wish his guardian angel away. He will tolerate no impediment to his surrender.
Much of what distinguishes APC from standard Rock-formula bands is their skillful use of tension and release. Each song takes a starkly different character based upon how this tension is drawn and from what stuff. The Noose takes hold of the listener lyrically, Keenan’s warm and sincere congratulations for the subject’s defeat of his inner demons like joyful bells clanging suddenly out of tune as he mentions in passing, “But I’m more than just a little curious how you’re planning to go about making your amends to the dead.” The repeated introduction of this quip throughout the song baits the listener’s attention, waiting for a little elaboration on Keenan’s increasingly biting sarcasm. None comes until the last few seconds as he murmurs quietly, “With your halo slipping down... to choke you now.”
Following the jittery Blue (“Calling out to me, she’s turning blue, why don’t I just sit and stare at you. ‘Cause I don’t wanna know”) there’s a significant change of pace. Vanishing and The Stranger are listless, drifting pieces. The former showcases the best digital work of the album, layering the lyrics like a stratum of rock with hissing, whispering, delicate melody, and vocal tautness, properly haunting. The latter is a mostly acoustic piece, making good use of simplicity, but not particularly outstanding.
The pace picks up again with The Outsider. This song is a little heavier than most in APC’s repetoire, but it fits well enough within the album. It is the sort of overtly aggressive, pounding romp that could as easily be attributed to Tool as to APC. The subtle use of distorted violins in the background gives the only hint that this comes from Keenan’s more romantic side.
The final portion of the album feels somewhat lacking in substance. The Nurse Who Loved Me, a cover of Failure’s original, is interesting in its own right, but feels inappropriate. It’s poppy innocence, despite the twisted subject matter of a mental patient sexualizing his nurse, is conspicuous within the rock context. Crimes and Lullaby are unengaging filler material, and Gravity is so forgettable that it might as well be. Fortunately, a disappointingly anti-climactic ending is averted by the tour de force of Pet.
Modern rock often conjures up authority figures to protest against. They generally aren’t worth the effort, either so insubstantial as to be laughable or so melodramatic as to bore. APC takes a stab at the genre... with a broadsword. The song begins pumping hard, with a marching rhythm. Then all drops out to a gentle guitar and periodic bass beats. Taking the place of a gently condescending Father-like figure, Keenan coaxes a child to sleep in a manner most dissonant with the introduction, until one starts listening. “Lay your head down child, I won’t let the boogie man come. Counting bodies like sheep to the rhythm of the war drums. Pay no mind to the rabble.” The language juxtaposes concepts in a disturbing fashion, ‘enemy’, ‘evil’, and ‘demon’ paired with ‘truth’, ‘choice’, ‘reason’. “Just stay with me, safe and ignorant,” Keenan explains with questionable cheer as he suddenly launches into a screaming rage against, “The other ones! The evil ones!” The pairing of extremes, like aversion therapy against everything important to an individual, evokes the epic as forcefully as one might ever desire.
Praise for Thirteenth Step should be properly tempered. This is a pop album. It was engineered, not created. There’s nothing brilliant about A Perfect Circle when compared to the full range of musical talent out there. But if one is willing to limit this bird’s eye view to the world of mainstream, popular music, a world where empires rise and fall with the whims of an adolescent citizenry, Thirteenth Step is a solid achievement. It compares favorably with their previous album, showing progress in a new direction.
Music can be artistic. It can also be entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with either; it is up to the individual to choose how much of each he or she wants. Sometimes, I want to be truly moved by a work of music, to have my emotions touched honestly and skillfully. And sometimes I just want the formula to churn out the carthasis I need after a bad day. For the latter, Thirteenth Step is perfectly suited.
Maynard James Keenan - Lead vocals, Billy Howerdell - Guitar and vocals, Josh Freese - Drums, Jeordie Orsborne White - Bass
- The Package !
- Weak and Powerless @
- The Noose #
- Blue $
- Vanishing %
- A Stranger ^
- The Outsider &
- Crimes *
- The Nurse Who Loved Me (
- Pet )
- Lullaby !!
- Gravity !@
Thirteenth Step was released nationally in the United States on September 16th, 2003. It was dedicated to William L. Howerdel Sr., Judith Marie Keenan/Garrison, and Maj Christian Michael Lohner.