Out-Tooling Tool

A Perfect Circle, Thirteenth Step

A Perfect Circle seemed, at first, like one of the world’s most blatant rip-offs. Its leader, Billy Howerdel, was a Tool guitar tech, and its vocalist was none other than Maynard James Keenan. And the sound of the band’s debut, 2000’s Mer de Noms, was Tool Lite — less abrasive and more oriented toward traditional songs, but still strikingly similar. There were key differences, particularly that A Perfect Circle better showcased Keenan’s versatility and felt more personal compared to Tool’s complex, mathy compositions and arrangements and obscure lyrics — cookie recipes (“Balls of Satan”) in German and the like.

A Perfect Circle’s new album, Thirteenth Step, is a significant step forward, with the offshoot band finding its voice. It’s a slow crawl, patient and building, and in that way, it’s even closer to the Tool ethos than the debut. The really funny thing is that this is the album that Tool’s 2001 record, Lateralus, wanted to be.

Tool has long been a case of unrealistic expectations. Based on the slim catalog, I’d say the band’s best work — one great album — might be the anomaly instead of the rule. Undertow was undifferentiated sludge with one good track — “Sober.” Aenima was a complete surprise, probably the best alternative-metal album ever, a lethal combination of the intellectualism and chops of heavier King Crimson with the speed, energy, and kick of metal. Expectations for the next record were high, but Lateralus took the King Crimson thing too far, and the album is cerebral and drained of life. Charitably, it’s difficult art, full of tension and interesting things but without release. Think masturbating for nearly 80 minutes without an orgasm, and you’ll get a sense of the frustration.

Thirteenth Step finds a midpoint between A Perfect Circle’s first album and the best of elements of Tool. The opening track, “The Package,” starts with offhanded percussion and a delicate guitar, before a thick bass and Keenan’s vocals kick in. The first words establish a trademark sound and lyric style for Keenan, sly menace mixed with a certain level of self-loathing and vulnerability: “Clever got me this far / Tricky got me in.” The track escalates, but oh so slowly; it doesn’t explode until after four minutes. But at least it does explode. “The Noose” features one of the best lyrical images I’ve heard recently — “Your halo slipping down / To choke you now” — and is also notable for its shimmering guitars, and the measured way Keenan sings, holding everything back just a touch.

The album is a wonderful blend of atmospheric soundscapes and crunch, held together by Keenan’s voice. Unlike Mer de Noms, which tasted good from the outset but doesn’t stick around, Thirteenth Step takes a while to get used to, but it’s ultimately far more rewarding.

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