It starts slowly.
A swell of thousands of excited voices in unison, then quelled gently by Maynard’s solitary introductory vocal, “from dehumanization to arms production, we hasten this nation towards its destruction.” A sweetly sinister music box melody and Billy Howerdel’s moody guitar work, it’s already enough; the audience’s attention is entranced in anticipation, the intimacy is infectious, and the stage is already set for Stone and Echo’s Red Rocks Amphitheater.
“Power is power, the law of the land.
And those living for dead will die by their own hand.”
But just hang on a second, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is peeking round the corner now. That sullen piano line and wonderfully somber vocal always had something twisted-ly captivating about it. “You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.” And the show’s only just begun…
Like many, ‘The Outsider’ caught me. Can’t be considered surprising; the roar of the vocals and Howerdel’s guitar riffage in full onslaught on my senses, it was absolutely my kind of music. “Disconnect and self-destruct, one bullet at a time”. A Perfect Circle’s signature hit that most know had my attention immediately and completely, but it didn’t stop there. Before long it was the sparse, beautiful ‘Orestes’, or the tense introductory bass leading into ‘Weak and Powerless’s eclectic electric guitar licks and pitter-patter percussion. Mer De Noms and Thirteenth Step had the kind of allure that meant you had to listen closer, pay more attention or simply risk missing the point, and the momentum lead neatly into 2004 cover album, Emotive. But this was where things came to a close, for a while. With Keenan’s responsibilities towards Tool and Puscifer, and Billy Howerdel focusing on solo project Ashes Divide, A Perfect Circle spent fourteen on-and-off years mostly absent from the scene, save for touring appearances, the greatest hits album Three Sixty, and of course A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone and Echo, in 2013.
The appearance of Eat The Elephant (and it’s thoroughly perplexing artwork) was, at the very least, a little surprising. Sure, the members of A Perfect Circle are not entirely known for taking themselves too seriously, Maynard James Keenan in particular being especially guilty of this; the Puscifer project is filled to the brim with sarcastic references to a number of taboo subjects, even naming their debut studio effort V Is For Vagina, while Tool’s various sexual allusions are relatively self-explanatory. Despite this, taken at face value, Eat The Elephant’s artwork is just plain peculiar, but it’s important to note that it is, of course, everything it was intended to be; take into account just how violently juxtaposed it is by pre-release single ‘The Doomed’, a track stylistically backed by huge Billy Howerdel guitar riffs, furious percussion, and beautifully utilized music box chimes and haunting atmosphere.
Lyrically, ‘The Doomed’ spends much of its time being a polar opposite to the ridiculousness of the strange figure that inhabits Eat The Elephant’s artwork, instead engaging in a full-frontal assault against social inequality, “what of the meek, the mourning, and the merciful?” And yet, much like the artwork, ‘The Doomed’ is loud, in your face, and catches your attention. It faces the “elephant in the room” problem of the lyrical content head on, with Maynard James Keenan vocally toeing the line between vulnerability and enraged frustration, with the track’s ending boiling point culminating in an eruption of frantic drums and Keenan delivering a final aggressive roar of “fuck the doomed, you’re on your own.”
To say that Eat The Elephant has immediately painted itself as somewhat confusing to the wary, inattentive listener, is probably accurate enough, but this really is only just scratching the surface of what the album has to offer. Indeed, to completely polarize things right from the very beginning, Eat The Elephant’s introductory title track is the album at its most unexpected; ‘Eat The Elephant’, a track once in connection with none other than Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, is a jazz song. A sweetly delivered, mellow, beautiful jazz song. Gently swaying back and forth in fluttery percussion and light piano keys, Maynard James Keenan croons away with not a hint of guitar distortion in sight, “without you to remind me, just begin.” And begin it does, the track bleeds softly into the more traditionally ‘A Perfect Circle’ track, ‘Disillusioned’. Moody, reverb-heavy guitar work and euphoric atmospherics swell gorgeously behind Keenan’s tentative vocal delivery, lyrically the track reflects on societal disconnection and calls for a change; “time to put the silicone obsession down, take a look around, find a way in the silence.”
Continuing onwards, Eat The Elephant’s ever-contrasting stylistic approach keeps things moving forward intriguingly, the tense, overbearing nature of ‘The Contrarian’ deceptively welcoming at first, an elegant introductory harp rippling through the mix, before Keenan’s rather disturbing vocal delivery plunges the track into far more harrowing atmosphere. Lyrically the track focuses on the fear of an individual rejecting the popular or socially accepted; “beware the contrarian” – beware the one who rejects the norm. Considering the tone of ‘The Contrarian’, this is then completely uprooted by the far more uplifting direction of ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish’, a track that borders on the likes of vibrant, U2-esque guitar tones and euphoric vocal delivery, taken into far more cinematic territory and lyrically describing itself better than anything that could be written here; “Hip hip hooray, for this fireworks display. Mind and body blown away, what a radiant crescendo.”
And so, the album strides forward, delving into some unexpected territory while still maintaining a level of what should be expected from the band; ‘TalkTalk’ effectively acts as a richly blended result of the heavier Mer De Noms elements with Thirteenth Step’s more mellow direction, while ‘By And Down The River’ incorporates more orchestral instrumentals alongside Billy Howerdel’s warped, flanged out lead guitar tones, reminiscent at times of the likes of Riverside’s Piotr Grudziński, and Maynard James Keenan’s vocal delivery setting a longing, mournful stage for the track to explore. ‘Delicious’ mixes acoustic riffs in with some of the more conventional electric guitar riffs of the album, with Howerdel utilizing a chunky overdriven tone and Keenan delivering some of his more sarcastic lyrical content of the album.
Now, while piano instrumental ‘DLB’ drifts by and allows for a moment to breathe, reflection seems to certainly be the focus for just a few moments; it’s a rather sombre two minutes as the track gently progresses, the mood is low and things are calm, yet feels uneasy. Exactly why this is the case, becomes apparent the instant ‘Hourglass’ enters the fray. Abruptly usurping the poignant mood of its predecessor, ‘Hourglass’s abrasive synthesiser work, robotic vocal processing, and heavy bass has the track sharing far more similarities with the likes of the band’s iconic ‘Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums’, or the more industrial side to Keenan’s Puscifer.
Overall, it’s easily one of the boldest offerings seen on Eat The Elephant, a final punch into stranger territory before the album is lead neatly into the penultimate ‘Feathers’, a return to the wailing guitar textures of ‘Disillusioned’ and ‘The Doomed’. Again, ‘Feathers’ sees much of the refrained side to Keenan’s roar, far less reliant on the kind of delivery that makes “fuck the doomed, you’re on your own” rip through the mix, Keenan instead croons and aches as the track continues, before Billy Howerdel once again takes to the enthralling reverb-heavy lead guitar work that he so effectively brings to light, before closing gently on a last piano section and one final whisper; “may they become, may they all be feathers.”
Taking in the broad scope and gorgeous soundscapes Eat The Elephant so lovingly embraces isn’t something that happens quickly. It takes time, attention, and a little bit of patience. At heart, the album is by no means rushing things – it’s taking every step with exactly the amount of focus it needs. Closing track ‘Get The Lead Out’ essentially acts as the epilogue to what stands as an absolutely outstanding body of work; a strange, seven minute sample-heavy track, wandering softly with no real aim or reason except to just take a moment. To breathe. Despite carrying the statement of “chit chat, chit chat, ain’t got time for that”, it starts slowly, builds gradually and with care, swelling for a moment before Keenan quietens things again. Eat The Elephant simply adores this kind of approach, allowing time to digest the “elephant”, and this ultimately results in some of the band’s most brilliant material to date. It’s been a very long fourteen years, and it’s been well worth it.
“What a radiant crescendo.”