This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Alternative Metal, Gothic Rock
Favorite Tracks: “The Contrarian,” “The Doomed,” “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” “TalkTalk”
“Rather than delving further into experimentation or exploring their strengths, the world’s most well-loved prog-metal band has made an . . . A Perfect Circle record.”
That’s the opening blurb of Pitchfork’s review of Tool’s 10,000 DAYS. The band who made A THIRTEENTH STEP, my favorite album of all time, were reduced to the music critic equivalent of a slur. Yes, A Perfect Circle are not, and will never be, Tool, especially since they were in the cursed no man’s land that is alternative metal, which is usually neither metal nor alternative enough to satisfy anyone. However, no one showed off more of the genre’s potential than APC. At their peak, they mixed snarling guitar grooves with ethereal ambience, theatrical embellishments of acoustic guitar and violins, and Billy Howerdel’s impeccable mastery of melody and dynamic compositions to make some of the most sweeping, relatable, and emotionally affecting songs in metal.
Sadly, their last full release was EMOTIVE, a 2004 Election Day release and a harbinger of those muddled, minor-key covers movie trailers love these days. It was an interesting idea, but the result was too gimmicky and convinced of its own brilliance to be anything more than a novelty. The fact that EAT THE ELEPHANT was also going to get political had me very worried, and I hate to report that it is an . . . A Perfect Circle record.
In interviews, Howerdel has noted that a lot of APC songs start off as more ambient, spacey soundscapes that get shaved down and diluted with traditional rock elements. On EAT THE ELEPHANT, a metal edge is gravely needed, nowhere more so than the opening two songs. The title track and “Disillusioned” are appropriately moody and complement each other thematically, with the former claiming to have the all the answers to solve the world’s problems (“Just take the step / Just take the swing / Just take the bite”) and the latter acknowledging that no one person can do it themselves with its intersectional outro of “You were never an island / Unique voices among the many in this choir / Tuning into each other, lift all higher.” However, neither song evolves enough to justify their length, and neither has the musical punch to work as an opener. When compared to the aggro of “The Hollow” or the lumbering build of “The Package,” it’s clear that more thought should have been put in the order of the tracklist.
What’s even more frustrating is that after the undercooked opening, the album hits an impressive high note. The transitions from quiet to loud are as satisfying and gorgeous as ever, and even though the songs are short, each provides the catharsis that has always been APC’s secret weapon. The commentary is at its best here as well. “Talktalk” and “The Doomed” effectively tackle religions’ penchant for words over actions and the well-off over the needy, while “The Contrarian” is a haunting acoustic warning about following the words of a grifter, and one orange-haired grifter in particular. Even if the guitars don’t have the girth I would like, and the overall disposition is a little too luminous, these four songs prove that APC can still build to a powerful emotional and musical crescendo that takes their listeners to somewhere fantastical, and yet can be easily applied to one’s own experiences.
EAT THE ELEPHANT runs out of well-groomed material in the final stretch, and features a half-baked bag of new musical ideas. “Hourglass” sounds like something from Linkin Park’s A THOUSAND SUNS period, wasting a great, whirring bassline on modulated, campy vocals, layers of industrial fuzz, and the laziest writing on the record. The final two songs aren’t much better, with the stagnant chord progression of “Feathers” preventing it from exploding like it needs to. The song can’t decide if it’s uplifting or morose, and the closer, “Get the Lead Out,” is similarly thematically dissonant. Where there should be an affirmative message regarding humanity’s ability to fight the societal ills the album has brought up, there are instead vinyl scratches, quirky plucked strings, and Maynard’s voice being too processed and muted to provide the final touch of humanity needed for politically-minded art.
The most baffling misstep on EAT THE ELEPHANT is a new version of “By and Down,” the first new song APC released after EMOTIVE. It’s an odyssey of a tune that walks the fine line between funeral dirge, intoxicating dream, and bombastic symphony, and remains one of their best. This new version somehow simultaneously sounds more desaturated and glossy. APC did bring in a new producer for the album, which might explain why the bass is unnecessarily overblown, the orchestral glitter has been stripped back, and Keenan’s voice is so much more prominent in the mix. The original’s power came from its delicate balance of beauty and doom, and none of that carries over to the new version. It’s perhaps the most telling example of APC tinkering with a formula that didn’t need to be changed to begin with, especially when APC did more with said formula then anyone else.
When I listened to Billy Howerdel’s Spotify commentary of their live album, I got the impression that MER DE NOMS and A THIRTEENTH STEP were products of a slapdash, chaotic creative process that should never have worked once, let alone twice. Their revolving door approach to members and habit of refurbishing old ideas for new songs was only saved by the talent of Howerdel and Keenan; It was inevitable that their abilities would fail eventually, especially when tackling such difficult themes. EAT THE ELEPHANT is to me what their first two records are to detractors; a product of artistic minds that juggles many ideas but forgets its fundamental appeal as a metal album.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend