While some may not always enjoy Maynard James Keenan’s out and out weirdness, you do have to appreciate what he brings to the music scene. He’s a larger than life yet still intensely private figure, a passionate winemaker, and the core of two different but wildly successful projects: prog-rock gods Tool and alt-rock side project A Perfect Circle. But occasionally the man just needs to indulge his weirdness in a way that neither Tool nor APC will allow. For those times, there’s Puscifer, a side-side project whose sole existence is to provide a venue where Keenan’s “id, ego, and anima all come together to exchange cookie recipes” (his words, not mine).
And with album titles like V is for Vagina, tracks like “Cuntry Boner” and “Vagina Mine”, and absolutely insane live cabaret performances, it’s easy to view Puscifer as little more than a bit of light-hearted insanity to counter balance the almost suffocating seriousness of Keenan’s other projects.
So count me as surprised that the follow-up album, “Conditions of My Parole”, finds Keenan and Co. less interested in goofing off than in exploring new soundscapes in a relatively stone faced manner. Gone are the low-register growls and references to genitalia of V, replaced by a more varied audio canvas and Keenan crooning out hearfelt emotion rather than howling like a deranged televangelist. As someone less than wowed by V is for Vagina, I actually appreciate the change of pace, but those looking for more of the same goofiness and weirdness as their last effort are in for a surprise, with only the title track really indulging in outright winking and nodding, a down and dirty outlaw rocker complete with a chorus of “ooo”s and lines like “the po-po don’t give a shit.”
Some may question why Keenan needs yet another serious project and that his efforts would have been better spent working on a new Tool or APC album, but I can appreciate the differences here. The songs on Conditions rely on a mix of electronic samples, synths, and acoustic instruments (including a banjo in album closer “Tumbleweed”), instruments that really don’t fit with the ever changing rhythms and chug of Tool or the more straightforward rocking of APC.
This alternative sound pallet does allow for some unique tracks. “Horizons” mixes a backbeat heavy electronic drum beat with floating piano and plucked guitar into a beautiful enveloping piece of music. Album opener “Tiny Monsters” builds off a brooding opening synth line to create another engaging soundscape, and the sullen country twang of “Green Valley” meshes perfectly with Keenan’s delivery and a delicate female vocal line to offer something that is wholly its own beast yet very much in the conceptual wheel house of his other work. The album’s first single also benefits from the album’s synth styling, though it never quite goes anywhere after its dissonant opening notes. A few tracks, like “Telling Ghosts” and “Rapture”, seem a bit too similar to something you’d hear on an APC album, however, and while both are great tracks, they do make you question why they needed to be included here.
Ultimately, however, the project suffers from a sense of déjà entendu, and after a while the tracks seem to blend together. They’re easy to get lost in, but they don’t leave much of an imprint either, breezily sliding by as the album runs its course. There’s a lot of brooding and emotional introspection, but the songs continually hover just below the point of catharsis, never quite exploding when they perhaps should. That’s not to say that this is a bad album; it’s an engaging listen and perfect background music for a night in, but the album lacks that certain extra to make it stand out and doesn’t really offer a coherent reason to keep coming back for repeat listens. If you love Keenan’s other work with A Perfect Circle and Tool, it’s a solid album and one well worth checking out, especially for fans of the former. However, while Keenan does branch out a bit in new areas, including a few tracks that almost border on Postal Service-esque electronic spaciness, this isn’t the crossover project that’s going to sell you on his music, nor is it the goof-off novelty project that V was. It’s electronic rock by Maynard James Keenan. Nothing more; nothing less.
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