14 years have passed since A Perfect Circle has released an album. Finally, however, scheduled for an April 20th, 2018 release date comes their highly-anticipated fourth studio album entitled, ‘Eat the Elephant’ via BMG. On this latest effort, the maturation of the band over the last several years is apparent as the minor-chord, melancholic masters have clearly brought a newly awakened sharpness and depth to their craft. Lyrically, the cynicism is front and center and, for the most part, aimed lethally at the misguided ways of present-day mankind. ‘Eat the Elephant’ exhibits many familiar APC elements while also incorporating a slew of modern stylistic influences that many fans may find surprising or even polarizing. At this stage in their career, however, this seasoned and acclaimed group of musicians appear entirely comfortable and confident in creating songs that are unapologetically a distinct shift in their trademark sound – as each successive album ideally should be. This is not an attempt to remake or capitalize upon APC’s earlier musical successes, but rather a natural, creative evolution – 14 years in the making.
APC was originally formed in 1999 by guitarist, Billy Howerdel (Ashes Divide), and lead vocalist, Maynard James Keenan (Tool, Puscifer). The two became friends while Howerdel was working as a guitar tech for Tool in the 90’s, and once Keenan heard Howerdel’s demos, he offered to be the band’s vocalist. In the group, Howerdel is the predominant creative force, providing the majority of the instrumental songwriting. Keenan, whose process typically involves allowing Howerdel to come up with instrumental melodies first, will then listen to the demos and create lyrical stories and vocal melodies to accompany them.
Since co-founding APC, Keenan has grown into a prominent name in music while simultaneously fronting the monumental prog-metal band, Tool, and experimental rock act, Puscifer. In between working as one of the most prolific musicians in the business, Keenan is also a notable Arizona winemaker and owner of Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars.
‘Eat the Elephant’ was produced by veteran producer, D. Sardy, Howerdel, and Keenan. The album was recorded at Sunset Sound, Hillside Manor, Rancho Studios, Puscifer Entertainment, The Bunker, Ollywood, and Backstage. Although Howerdel performs most of the instruments in-studio, the APC live lineup includes James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) on guitars/keyboards, Matt Mc Junkins (Thirty Seconds to Mars, Ashes Divide, Puscifer) on bass/keyboards, and Jeff Friedl (Eagles of Death Metal, The Beta Machine) on drums/percussion.
As far as production quality goes, ‘Eat the Elephant’ emanates with a modern, top of the line, big budget sound. No element is left unpolished or neglected. It all rings through with a clarity and richness that serves to demonstrate the amazing capabilities of today’s studio technology. Keenan, whose vocals in the past have often felt somewhat drowned in the mix, are as crisp and out front as ever, allowing his lyrical message to take a definitive forefront this time around. To put this production in cinematic terms, ‘Eat the Elephant’ is rock music’s summer blockbuster release.
The band’s previous albums, ‘Mer de Noms,’ ‘Thirteenth Step,’ and ‘eMOTIVe’ have shared a common thread of melancholy and bleakness, while often focusing lyrically on topics like addiction, sadness, and anger. The overall sound embodied these dark themes through the use of heavy, alt-metal riffing and atmospheric effects that were commonplace during the early 2000’s and largely influenced by Tool’s sound. Today, in an era where pop and electronic music has in many ways taken the forefront from where traditional guitar-driven rock has left a gap, it should come as no surprise that APC’s sound has changed to embrace the current musical landscape.
Track one, “Eat the Elephant” fits perfectly into the modern sound mold with its piano-led, atmospheric, Radiohead-style moods. Released as the second single, “Disillusioned” takes a sound that is strikingly familiar for APC but elevated to a higher sonic dimension. Howerdel’s signature haunting guitar leads creep and crawl through the track, which contains an equal amount of beautifully composed piano lines. The dynamic shifts from powerful alt-rock to soft minimalism are executed masterfully in a way that force the listener to receive and reflect upon the lyrical message in a way that is truly moving. Keenan’s vocals are exquisite here as he bluntly points the finger at today’s epidemic of technology addiction.
“The Doomed,” released as the first single, features gruffer vocals and utilizes a similar format to “Disillusioned” but in a bit more guitar-driven way. Newest single, “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” whose title is a nod to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sees the dark cloud of melancholy part briefly for this four and a half minutes of clear skies in a major key. The opening moments are reminiscent of something you’d expect as a coming of age film’s music montage from indie rock band du jour, then progresses into Coldplay meets Simon & Garfunkel with “hip, hip hooray,” tongue-in-cheek lyricism. It’s a whimsically creative track that will certainly polarize some. “TalkTalk,” the second single to be released, brings back some of that familiar APC rage via a climactic build up of Depeche Mode-like verse and bridge into explosive “Get the fuck outta my way!” chorus.
The second half of the LP delves into more sonic variety with such notable tracks as the hard-rocking, post-grunge “Delicious.” Keenan conjures additional grit during the riff-heavy chorus, displaying even more vocal versatility. Experimentalism is kicked up several notches on the indie electronica-influenced, “Hourglass.” Keenan alternates between heavily-effected vocal styles that shift between a singing Transformer and a rapping Ric Ocasek. The song’s blend of concepts are broad but executed well enough to achieve a successful concoction overall. “Feathers” is sure to please the Keenan fanboys and girls as he soulfully croons his way through one of his best pure vocal performances of the record on this soft, melancholic ballad of sorts. Howerdel adds an impressive guitar solo here as well.
Perhaps the most unexpected track of all comes from album closer, “Get the Lead Out.” Trap artist, UZ provides vinyl scratches on this Purity Ring-style, heavily atmospheric, synth-pop offering. Vocals come more in the form of loops and speed-altered samples. For followers of Keenan’s work in Puscifer, a track like this won’t come as a great shock or seem out of the ordinary, but it’s definitely new territory for APC.
For an album 14 years in the making, ‘Eat the Elephant’ is a solid slab of modern rock musicality that displays a veteran level of craftsmanship and creativity, with a healthy open-mindedness for infusing new ideas. It’s certainly not ‘Mer de Noms’ or ‘Thirteenth Step’ – nor should it be. Although APC’s past sound still faintly echoes through the hallways of this new school sound, ‘Eat the Elephant’ showcases a reawakened and reimagined version of what fans have come to love of the band – and they’ve managed to do it well.