Maynard James Keenan & Friends make a patchy return after a 15-year absence
Eat The Elephant may not be the record that fans of the storied Los Angeleno art-metallers have been waiting for, but it’s certainly true that A Perfect Circle’s latest album has itself been long awaited. In fact, there has been an even longer gap since 2004’s ill-advised mostly-cover album Emotive than there is between Tool’s 10,000 Days and their ever-elusive new record.
Speculation into the murky waters of A Perfect Circle and a new album stretches back ten years, since their lineup has always been somewhat revolving, if you’ll forgive the pun. Since he only plays on two tracks here, is live bassist Matt McJunkins a full time member? James Iha makes some sort of uncredited contribution, while drummer Jeff Friedl was pushed to the periphery too and session drummers brought in. It begs the question, where do they figure this time, and is this really APC’s reunion record or just Maynard James Keenan featuring Billy Howerdel and hired hands?
The record begins with the title track, which is somewhat pedestrian in terms of an opener. Disillusioned quickly sorts this, a powerful drum track pounding a confident rhythm section forward with grave piano chords. However, even through the couplet of Eat The Elephant and Disillusioned, the album’s flaws are apparent right from the outset.
For whatever reason, the band are only too willing to hemorrhage any momentum gained with massive minimalist sections, an effect that will return to frustrate listeners time and again throughout. Disillusioned’s frequent chasms of slow, clanging piano and voice sections are probably meant to be atmospheric, but they just come off as a lack of both chorus and ideas.
The Doomed, meanwhile, is the closest thing we get to something as darkly melodious as past triumphs like Judith, 3 Libras, or The Outsider in the opening tracks. It’s no coincidence that the rhythm section, whenever they figure across Eat The Elephant’s running time, are turned way up in the mix. It provides some much needed drive and stability to the more directionless songs, and when the whole band get involved the effect is cumulative, as on the heavy footed pounding of The Contrarian.
That’s not to say that there aren’t highlights elsewhere – far from it. Delicious nails several different tempos and even provides some acoustic jangle in its verses before distorted guitars light a fire under a chorus in which Keenan judiciously pronounces the title.
There are some standout tracks here, like the intriguing Hourglass, but the album’s default stance is to force things through a brown and boring filter. Too many tracks meld into one another, songs like By And Down The River and So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish are lower mid-range rumbles doing little to grab the listener texturally. DLB is equally guilty, a keys-focused segue that the album simply doesn’t need, as doleful piano is the record’s go-to mood.
Single TalkTalk is far and away the most successful track present. Both Howerdel and Keenan have spoken at length about the need to progress, mature, and make the kind of music they currently wish to, not simply emulating what they did a decade and a half ago. It’s a laudable sentiment, but writing some tunes helps too, and TalkTalk is by far the most listenable song on offer. Heavy yet melodic, it’s definitely up there with APC’s best work and is one of the few tracks that truly stays with you after the album has finished playing.
Keenan’s writing is as strong as ever on this album, and his vocal abilities have never been in question. But the arrangements surrounding him can come across as pompous and self-serious. A mixed bag, then, but not entirely without merit, and one that will tide us over until Hell freezes over and that new Tool album finally drops.
For fans of: Tool, Stone Sour, Breaking Benjamin
Standout tracks: Hourglass, TalkTalk, The Doomed