Maynard James Keenan’s Puscifer has taken their second step into the live stream genre following November’s stream of Existential Reckoning, filmed at the historically complex Arcosanti community in the Arizona desert. This time they performed 2015’s Money $hot in its entirety in the company of a troupe of luchadores on LA’s Mayan stage. Between the Arcosanti stream, the recent video for “Bullet Train to Iowa” and now Billy D and the Hall of Feathered Serpents, not only is Puscifer expanding the genre of the live stream but the narrative of the Billy D character, played by Keenan himself.
This isn’t to say that the story invokes a cinematic universe as complex as the hyper-franchised, cross-platform sagas like Star Wars and the MCU and the stumbling attempts taken by the more problematic DC multiverse. But it’s interesting to follow the trajectory of theatricality in rock music to the present moment’s expanded universes, from Ziggy Stardust, through the mid-90s cartoonish songcraft of Primus, with whom Puscifer and their wild wigs and absurdly psychotic sleaze certainly share DNA, to now with Billy D. The legacy of epic storytelling has continued in contemporary manifestations that cross between text, tv and traditional film. The impulse to grow and connect narrative has become a defining trait of so much entertainment in the past decade, and it is less and less confined to any particular genre. Puscifer has taken note.
Filmed mostly at LA’s Mayan Theatre and named for its Mayan/Aztec-inspired architectural features, Hall of Feathered Serpents picks up in the desert where Live from Arcosanti left off. This opening prologue is exactly as it appears in the recently released nine-minute video for “Bullet Train to Iowa:” the blond mulleted and mustached Billy D is in the desert trying to call in a ride from his girlfriend as he admits to countless liaisons with other women, pleading that he cleaned the sheets each time. Forced to walk, he suddenly finds himself in an alley behind a bar called “something like Heaven,” where a woman appears literally out of nowhere and accompanies him inside. Slave to his vices and bare-faced honesty, Billy D orders tequilas for himself and his new friend while insulting the luchadores gathered around the bar, as well as the bartenders, who assert themselves as “bartesians” who create not drinks, but experiences. They promptly give Billy D a mixological experience, mixing something called a “manstration,” which promptly causes Billy D to pass out, initiating the concert itself.
Each song of the stream is introduced by the bartenders mixing a drink of the same name. The meditative “Galileo” kicks off the performance. Bathed in amber light in a cramped space that emphasizes the Mayan/Aztec detailing of the stage, Keenan and second lead vocalist Carina Round wear Medusa luchador masks as their enchanting harmonies resonate against the minimal, polyrhythmic beat. The layering of historical reference—Mesoamerican and Greek myth coupled with Galileo’s legendary scientific stand against entrenched and factually inaccurate ideology—emphasizes and establishes the eclectic well from which Keenan draws his material.
The next two songs, “Agostina,” which incorporates an electric kalimba that adds earthy Afrorhythmic textures to the space prog as Keenan poeticizes the birth of his daughter, and “Grand Canyon,” which pays homage to geological majesty, both seem to bridge the mundane and immediate with the sublime and immense. Twists of the synthesizer’s octave knob on “Grand Canyon” even invite the trope of alien intervention into the mix. The ancient architectural motifs with these spacey tones bring to mind Erich von Däniken’s ancient aliens theory, which found new audiences in the past decade thanks to, of all places, the History channel. It isn’t hard to imagine Keenan tuning in and taking hair notes from high-coiffed and meme-ified ancient aliens “expert” Giorgio Tsoukalos. You know, ALIENS.
A shift comes at the end of the first three songs. Prefacing the performance of “Simultaneous,” which takes place in and around a wrestling ring, high-coiffed Billy D stands beneath a spotlight and speechifies humanity’s innate tendency towards self-destruction, which is clearly getting worse and is suggestive of a pattern of de-evolution. (The speech would actually sit comfortably on a DEVO album.) Yet, midway, it takes a turn to describe humanity’s more redemptive capabilities through a series of anecdotes that illustrate selfless acts of bravery and heroism. The swagger of the lead guitar riff of “Simultaneous” cuts in and opens the scene of a blacklit ring with an audience of luchadores. A costume change has put Keenan and Round in suits and black masks, with Keenan now sporting his beloved mohawk.
For the next couple songs, the ethereal moves that typify Puscifer’s catalogue become more aggressive and edgy. Keenan’s vocals on “Money $hot” bark like psychobilly vocals through a bullhorn over spasms of early industrialists like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, with Round’s voice sirening over the mix and keeping a backdrop of stability. For Billy D, this seems to be the peak of his trip, embedded and lost in a terrifying hallucination.
The high point of the performance, however, would have to be “Life of Brian,” which foregrounds the vocal immensity of Puscifer’s expanding troupe. Carina Round, Juliette Commagere and Claire Acey deliver a devastating choir, right as the camera shows the immensity of the stage. Much like the Arcosanti performance, the cinematography and scope have evolved over the course of the set, veering towards a final expository shot that makes the stage feel like it could serve as an alien runway. The final song, “Autumn,” brings the trip to a close. Billy D is seen ascending a staircase, but he doesn’t wind up in the bar called “Heaven” (or something like that), but back in the desert, deliriously stumbling towards his mysterious metal briefcase.
The one-hour “live” stream, which doesn’t have a whole lot of liveness to it, capitalizes on the theatrical energy and tricksterism that has infused Keenan’s public persona for decades. The chaotic fiction of professional wrestling highly resonates with his M.O. in more ways than one. Putting self-aware theater into the mix of anything instantly calls attention to seriousness by undermining its reality.
Puscifer, for all of the absurdist proclivities, is yet rich with the same musical pretense as Keenan’s other projects—just maybe not as complex or epic in scope. The tradeoff is this weird brand of high school pep rally skit comedy with a musical score generated by veteran musical weirdos who wandered into the wrong auditorium. This blend of emotive music doesn’t necessarily provide an appropriate score for the John Waters-y sleaze but feels more like a square peg mysteriously hovering over a round hole. Which may be the point. David Lynch has reached adjective-level status by pitting the dark and disturbing against the absurd. What Puscifer does isn’t quite Lynchian, nor is it as successfully distinct, but there is a fairly deliberate and obvious effort to situate two seemingly opposing forces in the same space.
In “Life of Brian,” Keenan sings “Metaphors just point the way/ Towards untouchable ideas.” This may not be the key to unlocking Puscifer’s code, but it certainly signals an invitation for interpretive possibilities. It’ll be interesting to see where their metaphors point next.