"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.


Thirteenth Step

Maynard James Keenan - Lead vocals, Billy Howerdell - Guitar and vocals, Josh Freese - Drums, Jeordie Orsborne White - Bass

Tracklist:

  1. The Package !
  2. Weak and Powerless @
  3. The Noose #
  4. Blue $
  5. Vanishing %
  6. A Stranger ^
  7. The Outsider &
  8. Crimes *
  9. The Nurse Who Loved Me (
  10. Pet )
  11. Lullaby !!
  12. 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.

Apart from being the title of a quite decent A Perfect Circle album as well as the number of the last step on the hangman's gallows, the "thirteenth step" is an euphemism for sexual predation within 12-step program groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and similar. Originally, the highly religious AA'ers used the term "thirteenth step" to refer to the death of a recovered alcoholic, taking the thirteenth and final step into the grave (from where he supposedly would meet his God).

The contemporary use of the term arose when AA came of age and some of the more sinister aspects of the groups began to show. To understand how sexual predation is a problem in a group like AA, it is useful to understand how newcomers are inducted into the cult self-help group. When a newly sober alcoholic shows up at his/her first AA meeting, one of the first things to usually happen is for the newcomer and the group to select a sponsor who will help the neophyte with the steps of the program. Unfortunately, some of the program's steps are decidedly meant to destroy independence: Step 1 is admitting that you are powerless to control your own life, step 2 is to admit that you are insane, step 3 is to surrender your will and your life to God or the AA group. Sounds scary and sect-like? That's because it is. When a weak newcomer who's hit rock bottom (to use another AA term) takes the "fearless moral inventory" (confessing former sins) the 12-step program requires, it is usually the sponsor who's the listening part. Combine the independence-destroying exercises and this confession of a person's innermost secrets with an unscrupulous sponsor, and the opportunities for exploitation and manipulation would make a Microsoft executive rub his slimy paws in delight. If you take a random sample of drunks, I'll bet you a beer that you'll find a fair share of thieves, con artists and people of similar moral fiber in there, so it shouldn't really come as a surprise that some people read the steps and see opportunity. The people who serve as sponsors run the full gamut from sagely feel-good kind samaritans to dogmatic religious fanatics, neurotic control freaks, self-serving opportunist bastards -- and, of course, that subspecies of self-serving opportunist bastards, the sexual predators.

It goes without saying what some of these unsavory types would do with the power they gain over their sponsees. Recovered alcoholics seldom have much money to extort, and those brainwashed drones who have had a long career in AA often don't exactly function well in other social situations. Hence, abusing their position as AA sponsors is often the best chance they have of getting laid. Most AA groups have their share of sexual predators of both sexes (and sometimes both gay, bi and straight), meaning that while the stereotypical situation is an older male member taking advantage of a female newcomer, the opposite occurs at an alarming frequency too. Everyone's a target to a pack of these desperate freaks; man, woman, gay, bi or straight. While the AA organizations frown on the practice, it is still very widespread among their members.

The fact that it is so common that the AA'ers have invented a term for it should be raising alarms everywhere.

The title of this album by 'A Perfect Circle' gives a reasonable idea what to expect – its topic is addiction, whether it be to alcohol or to anything else. Released in September 2003, it is a concept album which tells the tale of a man who is struggling to be free of his addiction. The title 'Thirteenth Step' is very obviously derived from Alcoholics Anonymous' infamous 12 step recovery program. In my interpretation, I shall refer to the substance that the protagonist is addicted to as being alcohol – simply because it is easier to type than “the substance to which he is addicted”

'The Package' begins the record with our hero already in the depths of his addiction, and going into withdrawal. “Comfort is a mystery, crawling out of my own skin.” So he goes in search of more alcohol to quench his desire, and arriving at the dealer to “take just what I came for, then I'm out the door again”. He just wants to get the deal over as quickly as possible, his focus is completely on getting that which he wanted. mine...mine...mine” he says, completely powerless against the craving.

After getting the package, he retreats somewhere to enjoy it. 'Weak and Powerless', shows him indulging his craving – knowing all the while how powerless he is to fight it. “Desperate and ravenous, I'm so weak and powerless.” “Jam another dragon down the hole.” He is admitting that he is powerless against it, and even as he succumbs to his desire he hopes that he can be saved - “Promised I would find a little solace, And some piece of mind. Whatever just as long as I don't feel so.”

'The Noose' shows him observing someone who has approached him and wants to help, someone who has managed to rid themselves of the same addiction - “So glad to see you well, Overcome and completely silent now.” They have rid themselves of their demons, yet the protagonist feels some doubt as to whether they can truly help him. He believes that his would-be savior is looking down on him, so he challenges him “But I'm more than just curious, How you're planning to go about, Making your amends to the dead.” He chooses to ignore their attempts to help him.

'Blue' has the protagonist drinking with a group of other heavy drinkers. Under the influence, he realizes that his attempts to "just to keep things in the shallow end, 'cause I never quite learned how to swim” have failed, and he hears a fellow alcoholic "calling out to me, she's turning blue, such a lovely color for you." He is unable to help because of his having drunk too much so all he can do is watch - “while I just sit and stare at you.”

'Vanishing' is mainly an instrumental track. He is slipping away further and further into unconsciousness, and the track consists of him drinking so much that he can feel his consciousness fading. “Slowly disappear, never really here. Floating away.” By the end of the track he would presumably have passed out.

'A Stranger' has the protagonist being beseeched by an onlooker that he does not need to rely on alcohol. However, he does not want to believe them and tries to think of ways to deny that alcohol is having such an adverse effect on him. “while I formulate denials, of your effect on me.” He refuses to believe that this stranger could care about him, “You're a stranger, So what do I care, You vanish today, Not the first time I hear, All the lies.”

The next track shifts perspective from the protagonist to someone who is trying to understand his behavior - hence it being titled 'The Outsider.' He wants to understand what has caused him to have “given in to all these reckless dark desires”, telling him that he is “lying to yourself again, Suicidal imbecile.” He continues asking him “why do you wanna throw it away like this?” Finishing with “What's your hurry, everyone will have his day to die. If you choose to pull the trigger, should your drama prove sincere, do it somewhere far away from here.” He is trying to understand why he is killing himself through his actions, and why he refuses to seek help – lying to him and to himself.

'The Nurse Who Loved Me' sees the protagonist in hospital having gone too far. He is still under the influence of the alcohol and is vomiting up what he can “Say hello to the rug's topography. It holds quite a lot of interest with your face down on it.” In his dazed state, he believes that the nurse who is taking care of him is actually falling in love with him and giving him preferential treatment. “She's falling hard for me I can see it in her eyes. She acts just like a nurse with all the other guys.”

'Pet' sees the protagonist is the grips of withdrawal while under the care of another in hospital. He wrestles with his cravings while being told “Don't fret precious I'm here ... Go back to sleep.” He is unable to sleep because of the craving that he feels, hearing it as a voice which will keep him Safe from pain and truth and choice and other poison devils.” All the while he is being reassured that he is being protected by this other person “Lay your head down child, I won't let the bogeyman come.”

'Gravity' sees the protagonist out of hospital but unable to keep the self-discipline necessary to stay off the alcohol. “Lost again. Broken and weary. Unable to find my way.” He constantly tried to reinforce his desire to stay off the alcohol - “I choose to live, I choose to live” he tells himself. “Calm these hands before they, Snare another pill and, Drive another nail down another, Meaty hole. Please release me.” Yet his internal struggle seems to fail in favor of returning to the alcohol.

There is a track thirteen on the album, which serves instead of stopping the disc to bring it back to the first track – showing that these addicts, while they know what is going to happen and want to change, are often powerless to stop their downward spiral. There are two short instrumental tracks which I have not attempted to interpret above.

The above is my personal interpretation of the lyrics in this album, many have chosen to interpret each track as they each relate to each particular step of AA's 12-step program – I'm of the opinion that while the disc's message relates to a struggle to beat an addiction, to interpret it so strictly is to miss the point. It is a fantastic album, and I would definitely recommend it.

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