It’s been a delightful trip following the evolution of Maynard James Keenan’s music/art/comedy group, Puscifer. With origins (at least in the name) going back to the ‘90s, the group has straddled the line between desert-road rock, world-weary rumination and full-on innuendo-filled humor. As America became untethered during the leadership of a nearly almost permanently anointed autocratic leader, and the world came to almost total cultural and economic collapse in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, Keenan and collaborators Carina Round and Mat Mitchell dropped Existential Reckoning, an album eerily in tune with the plight of humanity as a whole. This night at the outdoor Greek Theatre would feature Puscifer performing a great set, pulling almost entirely from Existential Reckoning and seemingly dedicating the show and all its inertia toward thoroughly examining the themes and urgent paranoia/anxiety of the moment in our world.
The show played like a Talking Heads version of an industrial hellscape nightmare. A party of throwdown proportions laced throughout with DEVO’s knack for scathing social commentary in the face of imminent human self-destruction. Keenan spent the majority of the show playing (and singing through) a lipstick-clad CIA agent character called Dick Merkin. The indictment began without hesitation as Keenan and Round sang from the back of stage left to open the show on “Bread and Circus,” the ominous refrain, “Here we are in the middle of our existential reckoning / Long ago we all traded, regretfully abdicated / Our voice and our light / Self-sovereignty Charge our command and means / Trade it all for bread and circus.” Not long later, the failure of our species to meet the moment is called out directly, “Shut the fuck up / Heard it all, hеard it… / Far-right, far left, same shit / You can drop the fakе affront, pompous ass / Heard it all before.” The story imagines a tunnel through “The Underwhelming,” but not before “Grey Area 5.1” slices like a hot knife through the inability of modern people to have an established understanding of facts. Scarcely edging towards his trademark blistering howl he’s famous for on Tool’s catalog, he sings, “No more real, no more lie / This is the age of confusion / Obliterating the lines / Here in the digital paradigm / Nothing factual, nothing fictional, interchangeable / This is the age of confusion” in a subdued lower register. If that portal into the “alternative facts” era of our culture wasn’t damning enough, a few seconds later, the words “No SI override / We’re on the verge of extinction Hallucinating to survive / Here in the digital paradigm” might chill your soul as you traverse the world on the brink of collapse watching the masses gleefully stare into their phones.
The first taste of genuine optimism comes from “Theorem” as Keenan and Round sing through heavily processed effects “Seek the balance / Work the science / Through diligence / Moderate the middle,” a patently obvious plea to find equilibrium with everything rather than subscribing to ideology and using scientific, mathematic and artistic means to find ways to improve the middle ground with everything. One of the evening’s first early cuts, “Vagina Mine,” appears here, entering the arena mutated to a slower dirge almost unrecognizable from its V is for Vagina-era pluckiness. Several vignettes are played at brief intermissions featuring glitchy re-edits of Dick Merkin spinning laughable and elaborate theories on how space aliens are cloning or replacing our celebrities and causing them to make red carpet faux pas. The most hilarious of which (and perhaps unfortunately timed given the recent announcement of Justin Bieber’s tribulations suffering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome with partial facial paralysis) was that Miley Cyrus and Bieber are actually the same person and clones born of the “Tiger King.” The reckoning of our evils continues on “Apocalyptical” as Keenan almost whisper sings, “Go on, moron, ignore the evidence / Skid into Armageddon / Tango Apocalyptical / Be damned, dumb, dumb, be doomed / Damned.”
For what must have many thousand fans of older material from Puscifer (and of course, Keenan’s heavier projects, A Perfect Circle and Tool), “The Remedy” off Money Shot was one of the few entries providing pure angry catharsis taking the story of immense stupidity and calling it by it’s name, outwardly challenging it as infantile, merely nothing but the actions of entity never living a hard day in its life. “You speak like someone who has never been / Smacked in the fucking mouth / That’s OK, we have the remedy,” howls Keenan in his most outward ferocity of the whole show. From there, the path to absolution comes clearer on “Personal Prometheus,” as Keenan and Round plaintively sing, “Bеcome your own / Prometheus / Use the flame to burn the tether / From the Overseer / Take the flame to burn tenacious.” The wondrous “The Humbling River” follows, but like “Vagina Mine” earlier, this song that was so beautiful, powerful and moving, it was good enough to end the nearly four-hour mega concert Cinquanta that featured all of Failure, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer along with numerous special quests, was here reduced to a darkened dirge, using its lyrics for all its moving power, but sonically not leaving the space the sparse instrumentation of the original uses so powerfully.
After another funny Dick Merkin intermission video, Keenan returns now sporting his long-used Billy D televangelist persona, positioning himself as lost seeking the bar and then questioning the band’s bassist about a much-maligned Marjorie Taylor Greene conspiracy theory. “What’s up with all the Jewish fucking space lasers? Are you sure you’re not the bartender?” he quips in character before launching into “Bullet Train to Iowa.” In that, the narration seems to accept the path of destruction and just wishes to embrace it and “enjoy the ride.” From there, out of the story, the brief and super fun Conditions of My Parole title makes it appearance as one of the few largely unaltered older songs. The story ends appropriately on “Bedlamite” as soothingly Keenan and Round utter the reassuring refrain, “It’s gonna be alright / Everything will be alright / Raise a glass / Raise a glass to our, our heterogeneity / Our remarkable resilience through calamity.” Is it a further statement against the crapulence of the time? Or is it a mark to soothe anxiety? A reassuring ode that in spite of the failures of the moment, the human race manages to find a way to persevere even in face of the worst moments of possible destruction? Ask yourself, have you done enough? Are you doing your part to ensure that mantra becomes reality? Or are you merely confident that outcome is assured even if you just sit by acting like an end will never come?
Earlier in the evening Billy Howerdel played his first ever solo show with a full band. Howerdel ably took the reins both playing his trademark searing guitar riffs and singing in a soft cooing intonation.
All photos by Raymond Flotat