Playing With Fire
Maynard James Keenan has never been one to mince words. Actually, his reluctance to give them even a rough chop has, for better or worse, become part and parcel of his brand. His recent lambasting of Tool fanatics as “insufferable people” and “retards” who need to “lighten up” briefly sent him trending straight into the clickbait stratosphere, and his curt #sorrynotsorry Tweets kept him aloft. That said, it is quite clear that Keenan’s faux pas was not trying to “Trump” the new Puscifer album onto the charts; he just wishes more people got the jokes.
Keenan’s assertion regarding the humor in both Tool and Puscifer (“this one’s named dick, this one’s named vagina”) definitely checks out. While Tool has long been framed as stalwarts of the dreadfully somber prog-rock community, super-fans seem eager to ignore they are the same band that dedicated their second full-length to the late Bill Hicks, invited Jello Biafra to record a tongue-in-cheek DVD commentary for the “Parabola” video, and somehow managed to get a single called “Stinkfist” on the radio. No wonder Keenan’s frustrated.
Conversely, while Puscifer’s imagery, album titles, and outlandish stage show reek of sophomoric hijinks – don’t forget that the world got its first whiff of the band on Mr. Show with Bob and David – the music is generally pretty pensive. And as a whole, Money $hot may be the project’s most dramatic work yet, despite the trademark crass cover art (featuring a dude getting punched in the balls and a POV tequila drinking contest with a pair of off-duty luchadores). Even the titular refrain of “Grind away / Fingerbang away / Here comes the money shot” becomes an earnest castigation of failed leaders and deflated dreamers in the hands of Maynard and company.
Musically, Money $hot hits the same mid-tempo, industrial rock sweet spot as its predecessors, tapping its (faux?) snakeskin boot somewhere between 80 and 120 BPM for all but two songs. But for all its plodding, the record is consistently captivating for nearly an hour. Part of the charm is in Puscifer’s continuous improvement on the form established eight years ago with “V” is for Vagina: burbling and creaking synths atop live drums that jockey for position with loops; distorted bassas foundation for bright bells and dissonant strings; simple-yet-deadly four-chord piano progressions woven around the salty-sweet harmonic interplay between Keenan and bandmate Carina Round.
Round, who has worked with Puscifer since the “C” is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference HERE) EP, is in particularly spectacular form on Puscifer’s latest. Her vocal loops toward the end of lead single “Grand Canyon” pull the song to its emotional apex, and her contributions to “Life of Brian (Apparently You Haven’t Seen)” are equally as powerful. “Have a lovely life in your chosen hell,” Rounds sings exquisitely. Whether it’s her occasionally Ferry-esque vibrato or how her timbre acts as the perfect vocal foil for Keenan, the alt-singer-songwriter has certainly carved out a space in the band that would feel terribly vacant without her.
It’s hard to tell where Mat Mitchell’s contributions end and Josh Eustis’ begin on Money $hot, and that’s okay. There’s no sense in worrying which collaborator is tasked with synthesizer/programming/sound design duties at any given time; what matters is that the product of their combined efforts sounds stellar. Really, it’s a game of details. A four-on-the-floor-in-a-dark-barn beat just before the second verse in “Galileo” seems engineered to pull the doubtful onto their feet. The simple 707 patterns throughout “Simultaneous” provide stability for circling live drums and distorted bass. Finally, the warm saw pad that shows up for of “Agostina” is subtle – imperceptible, almost – touch that gives Keenan foundation to really dig his emotional heels into as he sings a metaphysical dirge for his new daughter.
And though Puscifer sticks to a consistent aesthetic throughout, it rarely sounds tired. Rather, it sounds like the band is finally feeling comfortable enough to challenge the legacy of Tool. Standard Tool subjects, such as megalomania, betrayal and humanity’s eventual downfall, are tackled again, but from new angles and with newfound passion. Keenan seems to bemoan modern day ignorance by superimposing the foibles of the Inquisition: “Echo his madness / His heresy feeds us all” (“Galileo”). On “The Remedy,” he builds a character at least as intolerable as the subject of “Hooker with a Penis” before delivering a tirade that is just direct enough to avoid sounding silly: “You speak like someone who has never been smacked in the fuckin’ mouth / That’s okay, we have the remedy.”
The true zenith of Money Shot is “Simultaneous,” comprised of a short story about a man—an “island within an island”—in an “oversized yellow, foam rubber cowboy hat, pink plastic Toys ‘R Us pistols (and holster), off-white dashiki shirt and tattered bell-bottom jeans,” who tells the narrator (a pitched-shifted Keenan) that “we will never know world peace until three people can simultaneously look each other straight in the eye.” Naturally, conjectures as to the sincerity of the story—as well as the identity of the man—are multiplying in comment threads everywhere. But really, but what does it matter? The story is at least as charming as a Moth Radio yarn, and the ultimate call to action (“Find a way through, around, or over”) is solid and memorable.
Never has Keenan’s branding of Puscifer as his “creative subconscious” held truer. Given his recent flub and the subsequent backlash from longtime fans, “The Arsonist” resembles a prophetic song about himself. “Burn it away, your last connection,” he and Round sing. “Your social skills resemble arson / You seem okay with this / So deleterious / Remorse for you is not an option.” Granted, the antagonist’s name turns out to be Beavis, but perhaps this is the best evidence that Maynard James Keenan turns to humor at his most confrontational and introspective. Or maybe he’s just having a bit of fun. Either way, the singer is still producing relevant and compelling material after twenty-five years in the industry, and maybe that’s worth a burned bridge or two.