A Perfect Circle Straddles the Line Between Atmosphere and Aggression on Long-Awaited Album ‘Eat the Elephant’

Rock outfit A Perfect Circle is the brainchild of Tool and Puscifier’s Maynard James Keenan and multi-instrumentalist Billy Howerdel. Keenan has described A Perfect Circle as “a more right-brained, feminine result” than Tool, a detail that was immediately apparent upon the release on the band’s acclaimed 2000 debut, “Mer de Noms.” Their follow-up, ”Thirteenth Step found the band more atmospheric, while their eccentric cover album, “Emotive,” demonstrated a reckless creative freedom. Both of these musical directions are taken to an unprecedented extreme in the band’s first record in almost fourteen years. Howerdel plays most instruments on the album, and was heavily involved in the production. He reveals, “this is something that Maynard and I have been wanting to do for a long time. With Maynard, it’s always a matter of timing, he’s often scheduled more than a year out. There was a window we both had open and we were able to get working.” He describes the new musical approach, saying “we decided to strip songs to the bare minimum and build from there — not clog the pipeline with unnecessary stuff. It feels like a natural progression for us.” Eat the Elephant” finds the group, after such a lengthy absence, suddenly cast into the current social and political climate. Naturally, the album is thematically a response to this environment. “We’ve aged,” Howerdel explains, “we aren’t the same guys we were 20 years [ago]. I think we have a different perspective as people who have lived on the planet for a longer period of time.”

Howerdel “put the guitar down in 2014 or 2015 or so and decided to try and have some obstacles put in my way to get some different, creative avenues.” This approach has served to free the band from falling into cliche, making the new record sound fresh. He eventually “made a deliberate decision to write using piano,” and this choice gives the band a strikingly different sound from any other in mainstream rock today. The eponymous opener is slow, subdued, and melancholy, driven by plaintive piano, with ominous chords in the low register, foreshadowing the bleakness that characterizes the album’s lyrics. The band meanders freely over skittering drums and fading atmospherics. Keenan’s long, sustained notes create the feeling of being sprawled out in despair, entertaining the idea of an urge, but unable to mobilize. It’s an effective conveyance of the lyrics, “This task ahead / Ominous and daunting,” along with the listless call to action, “Just take the step / Just take the swing.”

The next song, “Disillusion,” takes these feelings to the next step, and sums up the album’s predominant theme in it’s title. Over a sparse arrangement with icy, prickly piano, Keenan bemoans, “Addicts of the immediate keep us obedient and unaware.” It’s a repudiation of a popular culture and collective psychology that induces mind-numbing inertia, a climate in which the ease of immediate gratification lulls unwitting subjects into complacency. Keenan’s command, “Time to put the silicon obsession down,” coincides with a total pause in the music, signaling that the call to action is getting more urgent. He delivers his lines with his trademark quivering singing, fading his syllables into volume like music played backwards. It’s an unsolved mystery where in the world this singing style ever came from, but it certainly makes him one of the most distinctive singers in music.

“The Contrarian” has echoes of the Mer de Noms-era. James Iha’s dreamy swirling guitars emerge, and the instrumentation is warm, lush, and sugary. The words, on the other hand, only grow more defiantly bitter. There’s a new directness, as Keenan, sings, “Hello, he lied,” with audible anguish in his voice, and goes on to warn, “Beware the contrarian.” The following song, “The Doomed,” begins with appropriately foreboding death stomp drums, and erupts into speed metal riffage, with a powerful bottom end. Keenan declares, “Behold a new Christ,” likely referring to the same, titular “contrarian.” It can be quite easily presumed that the evocation of Christ is issued with metal sarcasm. He continues, “Blessed are the fornicates / May we bend down to be their whores.” Yet, he appears sincere in his entreaty, “What of the pious, the pure of heart, the peaceful,” a very Christian sentiment indeed. The end of of the song assumes an unprecedented heaviness, as he lets out a ferocious scream, before exclaiming, “Fuck the doomed, you’re on your own.”

The latest single, “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish,” is triumphantly catchy, with big double-tracked vocals, sugary harmonies and stadium-size guitars that all make for an unanticipated brightness. The silly, cinematic grandeur of the string bits gives the song a cheerful bombast that is offset by the dark lyrics. Keenan mourns the loss of “Willy Wonka, Major Tom, Ali, and Leia,” and continues to refer to the “contrarian,” mocking, “Bravissimo, hip hip hooray / For his fireworks display.”  Next up, “TalkTalk,” is arguably the heaviest song on the album, and Keenan sounds most epic in his moments of rage, as when he chants, “Talk, talk, talk,” unhinged and explosive. The snide Jesus references also continue, as he bleats, “Try walking like Jesus.”

“By and Down the River” takes Keenan’s idiosyncratic, melismatic fluidity to a new level, with so much fluctuation that he sounds almost autotuned at moments, while still sounding like no one else. The theme of disillusionment continues, with lyrics like, “It’s no easy mission holding onto how I picture you.” The band name, “A Perfect Circle” describes an unattainable ideal, since any circle in the physical world will reveal imperfections if examined closely enough, and it’s fitting that so many lyrics deal with the difficulty of holding on to ideals.

“Delicious” has guitars front and center, displaying Iha’s special touches, and will likely evoke fond memories for Smashing Pumpkins fans. Keenan gets more explicitly political, ranting, “Wrong side of history / You don’t give a damn / Collateral be damned.” The short interlude of treated piano, was likely written by Howerdel, but also has echoes of Mellon Collie-era Pumpkins.

“Hourglass” showcases an entirely different band. It will leave fans aggressively scratching their heads, but also perched on the edges of their seats. It’s the most surprising, and possibly the most exciting moment on the album. It has more dance elements, seemingly influenced by Keenan’s Puscifer project, which he has described as, “where… my id, ego, and anima all come together to exchange cookie recipes.” “Hourglass” is so different from his persona in A Perfect Circle that it makes sense the Puscifer approach seeped into this band slightly. There are synths and heavily processed, robotic vocals. Keenan sounds unrecognizable most of the time, delving into uncharted territory, with a playful eccentricity recalling some of Mike Patton’s work. He continues the political bent, chanting, “Aristocrat, Democrat, Republicrat.” After this riot of a song, “Feathers” returns promptly to typical A Perfect Circle territory.

The final track, “Get the Lead Out” is another of the album’s wild left turns — that is, left for this band, perhaps right for others, as it’s a turn toward the center of 2018 mainstream radio. The vocal melodies could be written for any current dance pop hit. There are all the trends here: pitched down vocals, the stuttering effect that rose in hip hop and penetrated all popular music in recent years. Even with all this, you can tell that it’s none other than this specific band playing this song. As Keenan sings, “No time to coddle you,” it seems that the speaker has finally put his foot down, and is committed to action.

“Eat the Elephant” is a strikingly original, thoroughly realized artistic statement, grounded very much in the present moment, yet defying such classification with its rather alien originality. Howerdel has explained, “In the past 14 years, from where the world is, to us in terms of personal growth, both as individuals and as songwriters, it feels like this is exactly where we are.” It’s nearly a concept album with its bold, thematic thread: a strident, protracted utterance of strained anguish and reckless frustration. The mellow, restrained, detached music serves as a counterpoint to the lyrical intensity. A Perfect Circle is often thrown carelessly in the “hard rock” category, as they occasionally use metal as songwriting reference points. However, the resulting aura is markedly different. Whereas a band like Tool, cold, dark, and Teutonic, largely emanates typical metallic black and neon, A Perfect Circle is warm, and painted in pastels, albeit with dark, projected shadows that capture some of the edge and intensity of “heavier music.” The band is miles away from their earlier work, exploring different directions, disregarding stylistic continuity in favor of liberal artistic license, but still managing to subtly retain the sonic and emotive spirit of their earlier work.  

Eat the Elephant” is available April 20 on Apple Music.