Friday, March 12, 2010
Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer at the Grand Ballroom: The curveball that could
Photo: Isaac Brekken
I've been a fan of Tool for a really long time. Like most, I came on board in '93, when "Sober" hit Headbanger's Ball. I lost track of the band for a while during college, but when I checked back in with them in the early aughts, I was pretty blown away by what had emerged in the interim, specifically Lateralus, an absolute classic of the dark-and-epic-rock mode. I grappled with 10,000 Days when it first came out, but I've since come to accept it as mostly awesome, and I can't wait till the band reactivates.
It almost goes without saying that Maynard James Keenan's voice is one of Tool's key features for me. I'm sure this is true for the great majority of fans. There's just something alchemical in the way his sinuous chant mingles with the band's crisp roboprog riffs.
Even so, I cannot say I had terribly high hopes for last night's Grand Ballroom show by Keenan's latest side project, Puscifer. (Check out my friend and colleague David Fear's excellent Q&A with Keenan to get up to speed, and note also that Puscifer performs again on Saturday at the Apollo.) Prior to the gig, my exposure to Puscifer was minimal, just a few press releases over the past few years and some promo CDs that I'd never brought myself to engage with. Why? Simply, it was the humor that did it. As any music fan knows, humor can be the ultimate moodkiller. It's not that humor doesn't belong in music; it's that when humor exists as part of whatever artist's palette, it too often overwhelms any other element that might be present. It's alienating, mainly because if you don't happen to find a particular artist's brand of humor funny, you're likely to be turned off the entire endeavor. Everyone has an example of this. For me it's Zappa. I know there's some substance there, but I find his pervasive comedic element completely insufferable: smug and cheesy and dated and just the ultimate turn-off. Maybe one day I'll go there, but so far, the funny-stuff armor has kept me far away. (It goes both ways, of course: Such accusations could certainly be leveled at two of my favorite bands, Ween and Cheer-Accident, but the difference for me in both cases is the almost sadistic mingling of light and dark.)
Anyway, so in sum, I heard some years back that Keenan had a side project called Puscifer; I learned that the band's debut album was entitled "V" Is for Vagina; and I checked out the asinine cartoon cover art. In short, I snap-judged the hell out of the thing, deciding that this sort of goofing off was just not what I wanted from Keenan. After all, don't we, as fans, have the right to decide what to consume and what to pass on? Sure, perhaps I had typecast Keenan, deciding that I'd turn to him for dark and sumptuous, not silly and irreverent, but this is not an uncommon move. We all do the same thing: We want X mood or vibe from X artist and we don't want curveballs, even if said artist is "challenging" or whatever. I believe I'd be just as initially dismissive of the idea of a comedic project from, say, Cecil Taylor. (Or, for that matter, a dramatic project from, say, Aziz Ansari.)
As for last night's show, let me say two things definitively.
One: The humor aspect was indeed pervasive and often unfunny. The entire performance, a sort of multimedia revue complete with costumes, video interludes and dramatic "business," was structured around a fictional airline called Vagina Air, a conceit that provided a platform for all sorts of stale jokes about post-9/11 air-travel paranoia and the like.
Two: The music was so fantastically cool that it was nearly impossible to care. In other words, I really underestimated Keenan. Amid all the silliness, there were these incredible songs: jauntier, groovier, hammier, simpler and in many ways catchier than Tool--I'd describe it industrial-, cabaret- and metal-tinged art pop--but still very driving and still perfect vehicles for Keenan's voice. And oh, that voice... Like the rest of the cast (there were seven or so people onstage), Keenan spent the entire show in a pilot's outfit, complete with shades. He sang mostly from behind a video screen--see above--which projected his face as a sort of fish-eye caricature. But none of this detracted from his performance. I'm not kidding: He sounded absolutely stunning, yielding perhaps the most just-like-the-record live vocal sound I've ever heard in my life. I'd seen Tool a few years back but the mix was terrible and Keenan was largely inaudible. At this Puscifer show, the sound was PERFECT and you could hear every contour, every warble, that haunting sing-song you'd heard so many times on albums. Laal (also a huge Tool fan) and I kept turning to each other with mouths agape, one or the other of us exclaiming, "I seriously cannot believe how good he sounds."
And the material, though unfamiliar, was an excellent vehicle for Keenan's gifts. Most of it was swaggery and driving, pitched right between the sinister and the playful. But some of it was downright balladic, with a distinctly loungey feel, with Keenan coming off like a histrionic though entirely sincere Vegas crooner. The music and the presentation had a gimmicky element, but crucially, Keenan played it straight and sang his ass off. (To be fair, the band ruled, especially the really solid, crushing drummer and an excellent female vocalist--Carina Round--who served as an excellent foil for Maynard.)
The stunning quality of his performance had the really remarkable effect of legitimizing everything around it. Gradually, all the cheesy video interludes came to seem delightful; the theatrical hubbub going on simultaneous to the music began to come off like a charming complement to the already vaguely Broadway-ish material. (Former Primus drummer Tim Alexander played the role of a flight attendant, while opening acts Neil Hamburger (!) and Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival sat in faux airplane seats at center stage, chatting, drinking and reading the paper during the majority of the performance.) Overall it was like watching a performer jump the shark, but doing so in such a professional and expertly choreographed fashion that the joke was on you for trying to put them in an aesthetic box in the first place. You actually felt like you were being forced to accept an aspect of Maynard James Keenan that you weren't ready for and you couldn't help but be won over.
Think about this for a second: When was the last time an artist actually won you over with a complete curveball? That's a mixed metaphor, but you know what I'm saying: It's a pretty profound thing when you see something so cool that you lay down your bias then and there, conceding, "You know what, you're right. This is in fact awesome." Again, as I said above, an unfunny attempt at humor may be the most profound turn-off in art, but I left this show completely convinced that Puscifer is every bit as legitimate an outlet for Keenan's singular gifts as Tool. Strong words, but I'm serious.
It seems like such a simple concept, this notion of being challenged, but I really don't think it is. Even with dark or abrasive art, we usually want a certain thing and we get that certain thing and we're happy. We say we want a challenge, but we want it on our terms, deciding when we want it and from whom. Whatever your feelings on Puscifer, the project poses an aesthetic challenge to Keenan die-hards (and there are many far more rabid than myself), and moreover, it actually rewards the effort. It's not a curveball for curveball's sake--it's a very fruitful outlet for a guy who just happens to display really schizophrenic artistic tendencies.
Now I'm going to have to dive into Keenan's other other band, A Perfect Circle, which I've barely heard. I can only hope I'm initially completely repelled by what I discover.