Thursday, August 15, 2019

100 Albums: "Thirteenth Step" by A Perfect Circle

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: A Perfect Circle
Title: Thirteenth Step
Released: 2003
Genre: alt-metal


During a hiatus from Tool, singer Maynard James Keenan got involved with a side project being orchestrated by his roommate, guitar-tech Billy Howerdel. Howerdel's instrumental demo tape was richly textured (what would you expect from an album composed by a guitar tech) but still missing something, so Keenan and some other friends--including drummers Josh Freese and Tim Alexander, bassist Paz Lenchantin, and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen--to put together an album. The result was 2000's Mer De Noms, a radio-friendlier version of the kind of art-metal Keenan was otherwise associated with. It spawned a few successful singles, but when Tool released their masterpiece Lateralus in 2001, we assumed that APC had been a one-off. But we were wrong. In 2003, APC put out a follow-up that felt less like a side-project and more like a normal album written by a normal band in the studio. It was mostly the same line-up as the first, subbing in Jeordie Osbourne White (then better known as Twiggy Ramirez) for Lenchantin.

The album is themed around addiction and recovery in both literal and metaphorical senses. Opener The Package is quite literally about scoring something you want, although whether it's drugs or sex is left ambiguous. The Outsider takes the perspective of someone trying to understand, and failing quite badly, why someone they care about is trying to "disconnect and self-destruct one bullet at a time." The lead single Weak And Powerless (embedded above) has the feel of a love song but is being sung not just about but to drugs, with references to "China White" and "chasing the dragon" right there in the lyrics. The Noose has some of my favorite lyrics penned by Keenan:

Not to pull your halo down around your neck and tug you off your cloud
But I'm more than just a little curious how you're planning to go about
Making your amends to the dead

The album includes an off-beat cover of Failure's The Nurse Who Loved Me that is downright eerie and a gorgeous closer in the form of Gravity. Again, this is an album largely composed and produced by a guitar tech, so the guitars sound amazing. Freese is an incredible drummer who is allowed to cut loose from the typical metal-drumming mold--most notably on The Noose with its stagger-stop verses. A few of the songs are a little math-rocky, and you sometimes wonder if the man is in fact a machine sent from the future to lay down complex percussion patterns. And while the title of the album is a clear reference to the twelve steps of recovery, it never explicitly states what the thirteenth step would be. The only clue we get is in the final lyrics of the album: "I choose to live. I choose to live."

Further Listening: I waffled between including Thirteenth Step or Mer De Noms on this list. MdN has some of APC's best songs in Judith, Orestes, and Three Libras, but it's a little weaker in the back half. Still a considerably good album, though. They also put out an album of mostly covers called eMOTIVe that includes a spell-binding a cappella rendition of Joni Mitchell's Fiddle And Drum and Passive, which was a reworked version of a Tapeworm song. For those not familiar, Tapeworm is a now-defunct supergroup that included Keenan and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and was active for the better part of a decade. It's probably the most famous band to never actually release any music.

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