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Arts and Entertainment

Lucky 'Thirteen': Keenan bolsters potence

Tool frontman continues lucrative side-project with influental, aggressive guitar replacements Twiggy Ramirez, James Iha

Vijith Assar, Cavalier Daily Associate Editor A Perfect Circle shed light on the a secret epidemic -- the giant yellow death slug: The Tool spin-off is a more accessible version of Maynard James Keenan's morbid vision. Courtesy Of Virgin Records

Having lost angelic bassist Paz Lenchantin to the now-dismantled ranks of Zwan and ever-so-slightly less angelic guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen to the Queens of the Stone Age during what was probably one of the most turbulent eras of musical cross-pollination in the history of rock, the future of A Perfect Circle was thrown temporarily into disarray. Newly revived with the smashing James Iha and former Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy "Jeordie White" Ramirez, however, the Circle has continued unbroken with the release of a labyrinthine new album that confuses just as much as it shocks and (morbidly) delights.

The group was initially formed when the work of Billy Howerdel, a prodigious young Tool roadie, caught the ear of boss Maynard James Keenan, a vocalist who is indisputably on the leading edge of modern metal legendry. Pretty soon, and much to the dismay of tools (er... Tool fans) everywhere, the two had carved out a side project niche that resulted in a hiatus of a couple years for Maynard's first band.Following up on the swirled, disorienting entrance made by their first album together, "Mer De Noms," are the 11 tracks of pure bile and one rather curious lovelorn ballad that comprise "Thirteenth Step."

It's a less psychedelic and more metal trip than its maiden voyage, but not by much. Unfortunately, the Manson aesthetic brought by Twiggy creeps in from time to time; that's not to say that Manson, for all his other repugnancies, is musically substandard, but rather that Troy did a much better job of sculpting than do White and Iha. The guitar parts are fatter, chunkier and less sandpapery, a tactic that doesn't hold up as well without Marilyn's outlandish screeching to dominate the spotlight.

That's not to say that Keenan isn't pulling his weight here. The man has a flamethrower for a throat, and it's no wonder at all that he has spawned imitators galore in the likes of Chevelle's Pete Loeffler, 30 Seconds to Mars' Jared Leto and a score or so of others.Even without his power behind them, though, the vocals of "Thirteenth Step" would still shine thanks to the lyrical substrate. The first single, "Weak and Powerless," kicks off with the head rush embedded in "Tilling my own grave to keep me level / Jam another dragon down the hole."(What does it mean?What does it matter?) Likewise, the seemingly innocuous title "Blue" takes on a chilling new significance when he coughs up "She's turning blue / What a lovely color for you." In between these two lies "The Noose," the chorus of which we dare not transcribe here -- not because of explicit language or anything of that sort, but simply because of the sheer force of macabre produced by the masterful wordsmithing.

The most frustrating facet of the group's compositional style is the fact that it rarely seems to truly turn Maynard loose.Most of the time, his performances draw from two distinct personalities.The first is reserved, at least in comparison to its Hyde, but at the same time somewhat frantic -- it sounds like the voice of a mental patient who is recklessly waving a gun around in a crowded subway car. The second, in contrast, is teetering on the cusp of an explosion, like the same mental patient once he's got the gun planted on your forehead and a snarl plastered across his face. A Perfect Circle, Manson alumni notwithstanding, is generally seen as the lighter, artsy-rock counterpart to the no-holds-barred aggression of Tool; thus, Maynard usually tends to stick with the first approach. The prowess with which the vocals are concocted is no less remarkable, but it becomes very frustrating to have to listen to him continually build tension without ever releasing it upon the unsuspecting microphone.

Such is not always the case with A Perfect Circle, though, as the song "Judith" so shockingly demonstrated. "The Outsider," unquestionably one of the centerpieces of "Thirteenth Step," manages to recapture some of that same witchcraft -- and that's high praise indeed. On what was by far the most terrifying of the tracks on the debut, Keenan's enraged hissing of "Christ" foams spite enough from between his clenched teeth to unsettle all but the most devout believers.This time, his victim of choice is the word "precious," mangled so thoroughly as to make you believe that he's about to slit your throat and steal your ring.

Alright, this settles it.Maynard is my God.If you're with me, grab some Kool-Aid and get in line.


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