Ever since Maynard James Keenan first appeared on the rock radar, the singer’s depth as a creative entity has never been questioned or debated. The singer has always been so prolific that his muse has required three bands to be contained and satisfied; Tool came first and accommodated the heavy/mathy/stoic root of the singer’s output, A Perfect Circle arrived next to satisfy the singer’s poppier, “rock superstar” output, and then there has been Puscifer – the project that has been sleeker (in its own way), more suave of demeanor and, while still very dark, the sexiest of the singer’s three outlets.
Of course, Keenan is up front for all three projects and has altered his persona as has been required as he has made his way along. Observing that conduct, the obvious comparison which could be made between each of those projects and how they relate to one another (as well as to culture, to art, to popular taste and to music in general) would be to compare it to the artistic procedure that David Bowie employed throughout his career. Like Bowie, Maynard James Keenan augments the presentation of his music to fit a particular character (Tool, APC and Puscifer each seem to be intended to be presented by different individuals, in a way) and, as Bowie did, Keenan always keeps the same name – essentially illustrating that each is a unique character with a unique voice and sensibility, but all hung upon the emotional/intellectual framework of one individual. This working dynamic has been the thing which has kept Maynard James Keenan’s music both interesting and fantastic for almost thirty years – the regular shifts in focus are the things which constantly affect fresh excitement and enthusiasm for the music – but Existential Reckoning (well, specifically for the vinyl presentation) promises to make fans re-think what they assume they knew about Puscifer as a project, as well as Keenan as its creative force.
As soon as “Bread and Circus” slithers out to open the A-side of Existential Reckoning, longtime fans will be able to recognize the difference between the sound which comes to typify this album and everything (under the names Puscifer and A Perfect Circle and Tool) which came before it from Keenan. The song’s incredibly methodical pace and very expansive, almost trance-y air call comparisons to acts like London After Midnight, Tweaker and The Cure as well as the darker side of Incubus to mind, and listeners will find that there is a romance about the rhythm and the vocals (the duties for which are split between Keenan Carina Round) which is perfectly hypnotic. Even the lyrics – which mention games of chess, checkers and Monopoly in a manner which implies that games can get complicated unexpectedly – have a subversive, “only simple on the surface” quality which inspires the minds of listeners to begin racing and leaves them wide-eyed and excited as the cut draws to a close. It’s perfect bait – and listeners will be on the hook before “Apocalyptical” has the chance to get under way.
When “Apocalyptical” does get wheels beneath it though, the “gothic” angles get sharper and will catch listeners all the way along. Here, Keenan makes the most of the gothic angling that Bowie used on Outside (particularly the spare and angular guitar style of Reeves Gabrels and Carlos Alomar, which feel awkward – but have a habit of getting stuck in one’s head while in the shower) to present his own impression of a dark, rain-slicked cityscape devoid of cheer but also full of activity – even if it isn’t readily obvious, at first. The understated hook of “Apocalyptical” pulls listeners along easily into the more clearly Round-fronted “The Underwhelming,” which closes the side and definitely further firms up the album’s “gothic” angling.
The B-side sets the gothic, Bauhaus/Sisters of Mercy/ Depeche Mode inspiration that fans have often quietly said is integral to Puscifer’s makeup, and presents it right up front so that it’s unavoidable for listeners. The side opens with the absolutely intoxicating “Grey Area” (which is the closest in construct to a potential radio hit – at four minutes in length and, with glowering guitars guitars as well as sonorous synths set in such a patently obvious pop form) before dropping into a self-indulgent, digital dump of a mess called “Theorem” and then recovering for “UPGrade.” In that, the final cut on the side, Keenan balances elegantly on top of a simplistic and stomping beat, and watches the instrumentation assemble neatly beneath him in the mix. It’s pretty incredible – and when the song ends, it does so with such a perfect flourish that listeners will be ready to continue the vibe and renew the side to the C- before the needle lifts from the B-, just to keep the sound moving smoothly.
…And, while the album’s C-side opens exactly as one might expect of an artist who first gained renown in the darker, more metallic and gothic corners of the alt-rock form (read: “Bullet Train to Iowa” sounds more than a little like a Tool B-side – not an A-side because it focuses more on emotional darkness than emotional darkness and an unexpected hook), “Bullet Train to Iowa” still feels captivating because the overlaid vocals throughout the song bounce neatly off of very, very grainy rhythm guitar figures and the synths patter like an emotionally unbalanced new wave song without actualltyfeeling poppy, but still no less memorable. The exact same thing proves to be true of “Personal Prometheus,” but Puscifer’s ace in the hole is the fact that the whole band gives themselves completely to the gothic isolation which had only been hinted at previously in the record’s running. The contrast of darkness and light in this cut is exactly what every fan of Tool craves – and they’ll love it so much here that, when lines like, “Listen closely for the echo” should be sending chills up their spines, they’ll just be caught in fits of rapture instead. After that, they’ll still be feeling the vibe as Round shifts gears, takes the movement in an uplifting direction and shows listeners the light at the end o the tunnel. The shift is tremendous – unbelievable even – and while Round’s voice felt like the uncharacteristically warm spot in the sun of the album’s running to this point – listeners will find they’ll that they’ll take it gratefully and hope for more as the needle lifts and listeners rush to flip to the final side.
Perhaps emboldened (or because they’re aware that the record is coming to a close soon), “Postulous” opens the final side of Existential Reckoning strongly – with more force and a brisker rhythm. Amid crunching tones and very dancable drums, Keenan deftly manufactures an instantly satisfying dark pop song and pushes none of the boundaries inherent to that genre (read: the song is wound tightly, is limited to three and a half minutes and the drums and vocals drive it) – but rather than feeling completely static, the song is remarkably satisfying; the way the vocals relate with the drums is the dictionary definition of pop orthodoxy, but it feels like a satisfying tension reliever within the context of the album. Here, Keenan attempts no vocal histrionics – he’s just in, out and done – but given the singer’s previous history, that change feels revelatory; it’s just short, sweet and solid. Conversely, it’s followed by “Fake Affront” which almost feels like a send-up of Keenan’s more melodramatic and aggressive history (I defy readers not to crack a smile the first time they hear Keenan and Round split vocals here and go back and forth with the lines, “Heard it all before/ Shut up – shut the fuck up” against production which sounds a little like Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah”), but also gets very interesting the more heated Keenan clearly gets and the closer to word salad the lyric sheet becomes, and gets a little taunting when Round lifts the lyrical melody from “I Want My MTV” in the last minute of the song’s running. It’s a moment so understated that plenty of listeners could miss it, but that levity is so perfectly placed that those who catch it won’t be able to keep from laughing out loud.
The side closes by coming back to a more sombre point, but “Bedlamite” straddles the line between the darkness that most fans of Maynard James Keenan’s work have grown accustomed to and an up-looking vibe upheld mostly by Keenan’s own vocals. The results feel like a perfect last shot with a finger waving on the way out the door; the atonal calls to raise a glass on the lyric sheet contrast perfectly against the Velveeta -slick bass which drives the song, and the much-higher-in-the-mix guitar supplies a great tension which refuses to be denied. The combination of those elements provides s perfect close for this album because, while loose, it collects all the elements used throughout the album and piles them onto a perfect combination platter for listeners; as awkward as it could definitely be, it plays surprisingly smoothly – which is the perfect end to an exercise of unlikely sonic bed-mates.
Sound weird, reader? Sound a little off-filter? It is – but Existential Reckoning does not disappoint. This might just be the best album you buy in 2020. [Bill Adams]
Existential Reckoning is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.