Artist: A Perfect Circle
Album: Eat the Elephant
In Brief: An unusual comeback for a long-dormant band that will require a fair amount of patience from listeners used to their old sound, but that delivers a pretty solid payoff once you make the adjustment. The new APC sound, which is part tranquil, baroque-inspired meditation, and part alt-rock fury, connects with me as a listener far more frequently than I would have expected it to. But it comes with a few frustrating rabbit trails as well.
Maynard James Keenan is one of those enigmatic rock musicians who seems to always have multiple irons in the fire. This was true even in Tool‘s heyday, when in addition to composing fascinatingly dark prog-metal opuses with that band, he also had a side band called A Perfect Circle set up with guitar tech Billy Howerdel. I was only sort of into Tool back in the day, due to their phenomenal album Lateralus, which I still cite as my favorite record of 2001 despite not really getting into any of the band’s other albums beyond a track or two. I had tried out A Perfect Circle as well, with their 2003 release Thirteenth Step, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t do it for me. Both bands have been dormant for an extremely long time in between the last decade and this one, with APC’s most recent release coming out in 2004 and Tool’s in 2006. I guess Keenan also had Puscifer as a creative outlet, but it seemed up until recently that we weren’t gonna hear new material from either of his other bands any time soon. Then APC finally managed to get Eat the Elephant out the door in 2018, and rumors abound that the long-awaited new Tool album is more than halfway done as well, so this year could turn out to be a bonanza for longtime fans. Personally, as someone who was never quite sure about APC, I really didn’t know what to expect from Eat the Elephant, but I decided to give it a chance after a few reviews and a well-placed single in Spotify’s “Release Radar” playlist piqued my interest. And I was almost immediately rewarded for my curiosity, on an album that paradoxically seemed to expect a lot of patience from most of the people who would listen to it.
See, this is definitely still a rock album, but it’s a slowly unfolding one. Pristinely produced piano ballads and other bits of classical instrumentation come to the forefront on this record before the edgier, angrier, guitar-based material you might have come to expect from Keenan. It’s fitting for an album whose title denotes a long an arduous process where one doesn’t even know where to begin – I can only guess that Eat the Elephant probably represents some of the anxieties Keenan may have had about writing and recording new material as APC after so much time off from both that band and Tool. It gets off to a slow start, but there’s a method to the madness and a worthwhile payoff once you get to the more immediate, crowd-pleasing material in the album’s midsection. It’s certainly not an approach that I would have expected, only really having a couple Tool albums under my belt on which the “mellower” moments were much more dark and ominous, but the ingredients all make sense based on where I last left off with him. Keenan continues to be a powerful vocalist who can give a beautifully balanced, meditative performance just as well as he can give one that seethes with unbridled rage and resentment. Even when I’m unsure about where a song is going musically or lyrically, I pretty much always enjoy the tone and texture of his voice. And I do have to admit that this album has the occasional experiment where a song takes a hard turn into unexpected territory that seems to sabotage its potential, or a few lyrical moments where clarity would have been preferred to obscuring the meaning behind metaphors and sound effects. But despite that, I appreciate how this is an album that you have to come to on its own terms, and that doesn’t apologize for throwing the listeners’ expectations for a loop at the outset.
Judging from the lyrics, I’d have to say that there was really no better time to release an album like Eat the Elephant. Without naming names, this record makes it pretty clear in several spots that Keenan is profoundly unhappy with the current administration here in the United States, for which the elephant could be taken as a symbol of the dominant political party. Perhaps the instruction to “eat” that elephant is an encouragement that despite how insurmountable the odds may seem, concerned Americans do still have an opportunity to eat away at the unjust system they’ve been asked to pledge blind loyalty to. It could also be taken as a reference to ‘the elephant in the room” – i.e. confronting an uncomfortable topic that no one wants to talk about. Throughout the record, Keenan seems to communicate that just expressing dismay at the way things are isn’t enough – we’re tempted at times to just tune out because it’s so overwhelming, but he wants his audience to genuinely care and act on those feelings, and to hit ’em where it hurts whenever the opportunity presents itself via the ballot box or some form of activism. I really enjoy the multiple meanings that could potentially be in play here. The title ends up serving as a reminder that you don’t have to fix the world in one fell swoop, but you still have a responsibility to do something to change at least some small corner of that world if it displeases you as much as it displeases the songwriter. And if you find a record like this daunting just to listen to, it’s OK – take it in small doses if needed, but at least start somewhere. That’s what I had to do with Lateralus back in the day, and I was richly rewarded for it. While I don’t think Eat the Elephant reaches quite the same heights (and it might not be fair to expect that, considering that I’m comparing very different eras of two different bands who happen to have the same singer/songwriter as their nucleus), I do still think it’s worth the time and effort to pick it apart, piece by piece, and find the moments that resonate with you the most.
1. Eat the Elephant
The beginning of this album is perhaps the most difficult part to take in, because the first three songs are the most down-tempo and least “rocking”, for the most part, out of the entire track listing. Despite the inherent challenge presented in opening an album this way, I really enjoy the title track, which is a pristine latticework of drums and piano, employing an almost jazzy chord progression to go with the light, but cymbal-heavy percussion, as Keenan slowly and somberly sings over it to ease us into the daunting subject matter ahead. Genre-wise, I don’t even know how I’d describe this song, but the texture of it tickles my ears in all the right ways, without it being a conventionally “catchy” song by any means. Perhaps I really like the way that the melody slowly unfolds while Keenan is giving the advice that when faced with an insurmountable task, the best thing to do is just to stop second-guessing yourself and start somewhere. Even if the circumstances aren’t ideal, even if you end up making a ton of mistakes that you have to go back and fix later, even if you feel like you’re barely making a dent in an overbearing to-do list, you’ll probably feel better for at least having started than you will for procrastinating yet another day. (I mean, that’s basically how I have to approach writing reviews these days – just dive in, start writing about the first track, don’t worry yet about the details I might miss on the first pass, because once I’ve got that first paragraph out of the way, the rest tends to flow a lot more naturally.) This might be more of an attention-grabbing track if it had been reworked as an upbeat rock anthem, but then its chorus of “Just take the stab/Just take the swing/Just take the bite/Just go all in” would come across as a lot cheesier. For this to work, the approach needs to be slow and cautious, with Maynard sounding almost a bit weary and nervous about what might lie ahead. It’s a weird way to start off an album, but giving that it’s a song about getting over yourself and getting started on something you’re tempted to put off, there’s really no place for it to go other than track one.
Don’t let the second track fool you. It feels like it’s gonna be a big rock anthem when it first kicks in, due to it being the first place where you hear more traditional rock drumming, and the soaring lead guitar from Billy Howerdel. But it’s short-lived – by the time the song reaches what you might call its chorus, it abruptly slows down and becomes a tranquil piano ballad. Why these two approaches – which might have worked well as the basis of two completely separate songs, or perhaps with the slower part being an outro to a more intense rocker – were fused together into a single song is beyond me, but it only serves to distract from the individual aspects of this disjointed song that I’d enjoy a lot more without the back-and-forth between them. Keenan is certainly building up to a solid point as he articulates his frustration with our tendency to let technology divert our attention from what’s going on in the world around us: “We have been overrun by our animal desire/Addicts of the immediate keep us obedient and unaware/Feeding this mutation, this Pavlovian despair.” But what starts as poetry turns into a painfully didactic lecture right after the song slams on the brakes, as if a teacher had to suddenly quiet down the entire class to make an announcement: “Time to put the silicon obsession down/Take a look around/Find a way in the silence.” The nearly six-minute song falls right back into that section again after an otherwise strong second verse, and by the second time through, I have a weird mix of feelings, because on the one hand I can relate to what Maynard has to say, but on the other hand I feel like I’m being condescended to a bit. There are other songs on this album that I feel do a much better job of challenging, or even criticizing, lazy Americans, so it’s not that I think I’m getting my toes stepped on per se. I just hate the whole idea that the more entertaining aspects of the song have to come to screeching halt just to make sure the message gets across, which for the most part isn’t a problem elsewhere.
3. The Contrarian
Really, guys… another ballad? My initial willingness to roll with an unorthodox start to the album has turned to impatience thanks to the dull thud that “Disillusioned” landed with, and I feel like that hurts an otherwise exquisite song that probably shouldn’t have been placed in the third slot. The dark, skeletal ambiance of this song is accompanied by a harp, of all instruments, which fits in with the slow groove of the rhythm section a lot better than you might expect. Here, Keenan is on the verge of whispering his lyrics at times – at least, if it’s possible to whisper melodically – as he compares a politician or other influential figure to a magician whose only purpose is to deceive his audience for personal gain. It’s a subject that APC was already pretty familiar with during the Bush years, so it’s not like we haven’t heard this before, but I do appreciate some of the colorful phrasings here: “Beware, belie his smile/As warm and calculated as heroin.” I feel like this song would have hit harder if it showed up as a breather between some of the album’s more intense moments – since we’re now 15 minutes into the album and most of us are probably dying for some hard-rocking action at this point, I’m gonna guess that a lot of folks are probably going to overlook this song’s quietly ominous charms.
4. The Doomed
Awwwwww, YEAH. Bring the RAGE! Kicking off with a solid, heavy drum beat, and building up to an intense maelstrom of sound from both traditional rock instruments such as the lead guitar and bits of classical instrumentation such as the bells and timpani, this song turns out to be a pretty awesome mashup of classical and hard-rock sensibilities, and also one that quite devilishly trolls the ultra-conservatives who put Trump in the White House. It’s not exactly a secret that Keenan is no fan of Christianity. I used to feel at odds with him over that despite respecting his creativity as an artist. But it’s quite clear to me here that while he’s downright pissed off and having a bit of fun baiting the Evangelicals, his real issue is the corruption of religion and the illusion of piety used to manipulate the masses for the material gain of a select few. The lyric here purports to be “The New Beatitude”, and basically it turns the words of Jesus all topsy-turvy with rather provocative language: “Blessed are the fornicates/May we bend down to be their whores/Blessed are the rich/May we labor, deliver them more/Blessed are the envious/Bless the slothful, the wrathful, the vain/Blessed are the gluttonous/May they feast us to famine and war.” basically, that’s who we elected: A narcissistic, incendiary, entitled brat of a man who somehow managed to pay lip service to the faith credentials his voter base expected him to have, even though anyone with more than just superficial knowledge of the teachings and character of Jesus knows that isn’t very Jesus-like at all. In the calmer bridge section, Maynard makes this distinction clear by asking what has actually happened to the people being shouted and trampled over by the monsters currently in power: “What of the pious, the pure of heart, the peaceful?/What of the meek, the mourning, and the merciful?” So yeah, this one pretty much falls into the category of “Jesus was a pretty cool guy, but his so-called followers are largely imbeciles”, which I have to agree with despite trying to be one of those followers. I like that while this song is pretty clearly designed to offend (if nothing else, his harsh cry of “FUCK the doomed, you’re on your own!” at the very end will startle anyone who wasn’t paying close enough attention to be either thoroughly riveted or disgusted already at that point), it also makes a chillingly strong point about how “Christianity in name only” has become the culturally dominant belief system in a country whose leadership shows zero respect to anyone who doesn’t exhibit total conformity. I’d have been among the easily offended years ago, but now? Right on, guys.
5. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
One thing I’ve grown to appreciate about Keenan is that the man has a wickedly dark sense of humor. That’s exhibited best on this track, which is a much brighter, poppier combination of anthemic rock and bits of classical influence, once again using the piano and timpani to stunning effect alongside the pounding drums and heavy guitars. It’s almost like he wrote a catchy radio-bait song on purpose just to troll fans’ expectations of him – but I have to say it worked wonders, because this is the song Spotify happened to put in my path that first got my attention. And it wasn’t just because it was catchy – it also manages to be a heartfelt farewell to several celebrities (“Willy Wonka, Major Tom, Ali and Leia have moved on”) who died in 2016, the year when seemingly the best and brightest of humanity (or at least Hollywood) were seemingly all bailing out on us. And yet, this is all happening against the backdrop of looming nuclear war, detailed in the same terms one might use to describe a celebratory parade: “Bravissimo, hip hip hooray/For this fireworks display/Mind and body blown away/What a radiant crescendo!” I love how the metaphors about our minds being blown and our hearts melting and all that stuff that would normally just be cheesy feel-good pop song sentiments, are actually what would literally happen in a nuclear blast. This song is at once great fun and downright terrifying. And of course it’s titled after a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference, imagining those luminaries who had left us as though they were the dolphins in the Douglas Adams novel, who had ascended to a higher plane of sentience than the rest of us and who had decided to get the hell of the planet while the getting was still good.
It’s amazing to me how the album opened on such a slow trio of songs that required patience from the listener, and then the second trio of songs are all heavy-hitters. This one mines similar lyrical territory to “The Doomed”, in terms of calling out the vast chasm between Christians who like to show off their supposed piety, and those who actually take action to help out the less fortunate in some way. It takes a little longer to unfold, being in 3/4 time and having more of a smooth, melodic approach until it gets to the heavier, crunchier chorus. A bit of the shook value may have worn off due to that earlier track being so powerful, but it still stings quite a bit when he urges those who seemingly love to hear themselves talk about their conservative religious values: “Sit and talk like Jesus/Try walkin’ like Jesus… Try walkin’ your talk or get the fuck out of my way!” While the general disdain that the privileged seem to have for the poor was probably the central idea behind “The Doomed”, this one was apparently inspired by the recent spate of mass shootings in this country, and the legal roadblocks anyone who actually advocates for change seems to run into each time: “Thoughts… and prayers/Adorable… Like cake in a crisis/We’re bleeding out/While you deliberate… bodies accumulate.” While he may be slightly guilty of oversimplifying a complex issue here (and I don’t know how a four-minute rock song can NOT do that, quite honestly), I think the point needs to be made blatantly clear that people are dying needlessly and there simply isn’t time to keep kicking the can down the road on this one. Does that mean there’s an easy solution? No, but harshly silencing (and downright mocking) the survivors when they so much as even try to suggest a possible way forward sure as hell isn’t helping.
7. By and Down the River
Apparently this track is a newly recorded version of “By and Down”, the first new song released by the band post-hiatus, which ended up at the end of their best-of collaboration back in 2013. This is one of the more cryptic songs on the record, opening with more of a watery/murky arrangement somewhat like something I’d expect from a slow-building Tool track. Lyrically this is one of the most cryptic tracks on the album, so I’m not going to hazard a guess at an interpretation. I’m mostly interested in this one for the otherworldly vocals at the beginning, where Maynard is elongating some of his vowels across several notes, almost as if it were some sort of a ritualistic chant. The song seems at first like a very experimental one that’s gonna take its time to truly get somewhere, but I liken it to a sleeping dragon, where at first you’re tiptoeing around trying not to wake it, and then it gradually realizes what you’re up to and then begins thrashing about and suddenly you’re running like holy hell trying to escape before it brings its entire lair crashing down around you. When the guitar, drums and the double bass get going in the latter half of this song, it really begins to soar – the guitar solo is definitely one of Howerdel’s standout moments on the album. While I’d still consider it more of a mood piece than a conventional rocker, I’m really fascinated by all of the contrasting textures in this one.
While this song has more of a straightforward structure, it feels like a bit of a musical mutant – verses in 4/4, chorus in 3/4, acoustic guitar strumming away throughout most of it (which is a less commonly heard instrument on this album), yet it goes into a pretty convoluted prog rock sort of outro that’s hard to describe. If I had to sum up the lyrics of this song in a single word, I guess I’d say “schadenfreude” – Maynard is basically pointing the finger and chuckling as some sort of an entitled blowhard who can’t be bothered to consider the consequences of their actions finds it all blowing up in their face. There are a few songwriting faux pas that I feel like he makes here – awkward word order and/or verb conjugation in lines such as “poetic justice consummate” or “choice and bed be made”, and even rhyming a word with itself in the chorus: “You don’t give a damn/Collateral be damned”. And most of the second verse is just a repetition of ideas from the first, so I feel like the song has mostly run out of ideas by the time the first chorus is over. I like what the song has to say since it’s a bit of a revenge fantasy without the vindictive person really needing to take any action – you just sort of sit back smugly and watch a complete idiot screw themselves over. And the breakdown at the end, while I can’t quite tell what’s going with the rhythm, is a fun little collage of strings and energetic guitars and drums. This song feels like it should have been workshopped a bit more before tossing it on to the album, but it’s quirky and kinda fun, and I enjoy it for those aspects.
I’m not really sure what the purpose of this morose two-minute string-and-piano instrumental is. All it really serves to do is put extra space in between two songs that would have made for a great segue if they’d been right next to each other. I don’t feel like I need a breather at this point, you know? I realize that it’s quite common for Tool to have little interludes like this in between the much longer songs on their albums, but at those have generally served as intros or outros to give greater context to the songs they supported, or else a chance for the band to just do something offbeat to mess with the listener’s head. This composition is mildly pleasing to the ear, but I can’t say much more about it than that.
This would be the most energetic rocker in the back half of the album, though I think its strong setup is botched a bit by its clumsy payoff. The more abrasive guitar style here is offset a bit of the electronic effects that most of the sounds in this song seem to have been filtered through – there are bits of keyboards and programming, a slight robotic effect applied to Maynard’s voice in a few places, and an aggressive, machine-like tone to the song overall. It’s not quite industrial music, but it’s similarly menacing. I really love how all of the political word salad in the verses rolls off of Maynard’s tongue – it’s got to be one of the most fun songs to sing that he’s ever written: “Red flag red, all the sentinels are damned/The Tokyo kitty, swallow, rose, and canary/Tick tick tick, do you recognize the sounds as the grains count down/Trickle down right in front of you?/A little tickle tickle tickle, all your neck hairs prickle/As they barbecue the sentinels then eat them right in front of you.” Much like “So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish”, the lyrics are creepy, but the delivery makes them way more fun than they ought to be. But once the band has run this little obstacle course and they arrive at the more straightforward chorus, which is basically listing a bunch of different political affiliations and noting that they all “break down too”, the robotic effect on the vocals distorts the words so much that I feel like the punchline, “No hope left in the hourglass”, sort of falls by the wayside due to the difficulty of making out most of the words. I enjoy the fakeout where the song falls silent in its bridge section, aside from the low hum of a keyboard, and then builds itself back up again for a menacing coda in which Maynard is counting down to an explosion that never actually happens. There are lots of little musical moments in this song that I like, but as an overall statement, it just doesn’t hang together nearly as well as any of the big rockers on the front half of the record.
This track – which I’m tempted to view as the true finale of the album – has an appropriate mix of heaviness and lightness to it, given the title and subject matter. I get the sense that it started life as a delicate piano ballad, but then Howerdel overlaid some searing guitars on top of it and the “drum chorus” billed as having participated on this album (basically a fancy way of saying that the band had no permanent drummer at the time, so a bunch of friends helped out) laid down a much heavier rhythm than what might initially have been anticipated. It’s a good synthesis of moods – climactic where it needs to be, but giving ample space for the simple piano melody and the somewhat weary vocal performance. Maynard seems really weighed down, and his lyrics are filled with metaphors involving things like “Armor, anchor, lead and stone.” The gist of the song seems to be that there’s a glimmer of hope when we all share these stories of feeling burdened and beaten down, that this somehow lightens the load for all of us. It’s expressed best in the outro: “By the telling may they become/May they all be… feathers.” Now I don’t want to run the risk of talking like Jesus without walking like Jesus here, but I do have to point out that this is actually reminiscent of the words of Christ from the book of Matthew: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Whether you believe in a higher power who can lift those burdens off of everyone who shares them, or whether your belief is more in the power of human beings to lighten the burdens for one another, I think there’s a powerful sentiment in this song that we can all agree on.
12. Get the Lead Out
I said that I was tempted to view the previous song as a finale, because this one seems like a weird experiment that never got off the ground, that was too busy indulging in its own weirdness to actually flesh out the point it was trying to make. It fakes you out at first, with the slow, plodding piano making it easy to assume we’re gonna close on another ballad, but then, just like the moment in a trailer for a comedy film where someone says something wacky and there’s a record scratch and an awkward pause, you can hear actual record scratches as the song suddenly switches genres and turns into some sort of a mutant ambient hip-hop groove, with pounding drums and staccato strings and seemingly everything being sampled and looped over and over, leaving few if any traces of an actual live performance aside from a guitar melody that chimes in here and there. The mention of lead in the previous song was probably intended as a signpost to this one, which is basically trying to tell those who feel wounded and defeated to get back on their feet, yank those bullets out that have gotten lodged in their bodies, suck it up and endure the pain, but by no means should they call it quits. I feel like in just lazily glossing over what I’m taking from this song, I’m being more eloquent than the actual song, which is largely filled with repetitions of the title, and the phrases “Chit-chat, chit-chat, ain’t got time for that” and “Suck it up, buttercup”. It’s amusing in a flippant sort of way at first, but it rapidly gets annoying… and this this drags on for a good six and a half minutes without coming to anything resembling a climax or a definitive conclusion. There’s clearly some contempt that Maynard wanted to express for crybabies who admit defeat far too soon when they are the masses who need to be mobilized to defeat the arrogance and evil he’s been describing throughout most of the album. Why not hit us with one last dose of righteous rage, then? Hell, if you’re going to throw all notions of genre out the window and not care who turns their nose up at it, why not just go the whole nine yards and have some actual rap breaks in there? Normally putting a rap feature on an alt-rock album would be about the last thing I’d suggest, given how passé that idea became after the rise and fall of nu-metal. But shoot, damn near everyone’s remixing their stuff with guest rappers these days, regardless of whether it makes any sense, and I feel like it actually would have made more sense here, since the snarky setup would have been the perfect lead-in to some sharp-tongued street poet blowing us all away. This was a real missed opportunity, no matter how you look at it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Eat the Elephant $1.50
The Contrarian $1
The Doomed $1.75
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish $2
By and Down the River $1.25
Get the Lead Out $.25
Maynard James Keenan: Lead vocals
Billy Howerdel: Guitar, bass, keyboards
Matt McJunkins: Bass
Jeff Friedl: Drums
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