Puscifer: V Is For...


CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart

Those of you cool enough to appreciate the bygone ?Mr Show? will remember a reference to this sort-of band, which evolved as a side-project for Maynard James Keenan - better known as the driving force behind Tool and A Perfect Circle. It was more or less a joke then, and it's still pretty much one now... but it continues to mutate into increasingly confusing and naughty forms.

My first true experience with this completely unhinged multimedia outing (there's also a successful clothing line featuring a mascot who looks disconcertingly like one of my cats) totally failed to clue me in to the schizophrenic nature of what is essentially a creative spit-bucket for ideas that don't quite fit into Maynard's more high-profile musical outlets. That's not a negative, mind you. The metaphor just fits. He describes it himself as ?a space with no clear or discernible goals,? which really sells the work short in my opinion. I think there's more at work here than that. Well, maybe.

That early taste of Puscifer was one most of you probably share, thanks to the soundtracks of both Underworld movies: ?Rev 22:20? in its original incarnation appeared in the first film (there have been other remixes since, including one by Charlie Clouser for Saw II), and ?The Undertaker? featured in the sequel (mixed by NIN alum Danny Lohner). Although both of those tracks resurface on this album, those expecting the same moody, ambient low-tempo industrial vibe are in for a pants-wetting.

Case in point: before walking headlong into the sonic acid bath which is Puscifer's first full-length release (bearing a title that pretty much guarantees exclusion from most big-box stores), I'd caught a version of ?Queen B? - a throaty, simplistic homage to ample-bottomed babes that plays like a heroin-addled version of Mix-A-Lot's ?Baby Got Back.? It's probably the most-played track outside the titles mentioned above (and there's a pretty goofy video to go with it) but sadly it wears out its welcome pretty quickly.

Still, it's a good way to weed out the Tool/APC purists with no sense of humor, who have quite virulently lambasted this album in online forums since its release... not to mention a certain single, the title of which I can't list here. Suffice to say it's a sweet little ballad about a randy country-western singer who services Nashville legends in a most unseemly manner.

Still, this is not exactly a novelty band. Despite Keenan's online disclaimer warning listeners about the berserk nature of this project, there is some real creative power at work here - hardly throwaway material that didn't happen to fit within the Tool or APC oeuvre. The tracks run the gamut from the spaghetti western-flavored trip-hop of ?Dozo? to the intense, ritualistic electro-vibe of ?Indigo Children,? the martial rhythms of ?Trekka? to the menacing, offbeat but remarkably hooky ?Vagina Mine.?

Most of Maynard's vocals are pitched down to a deep bass grunt that calls to mind Mike Patton's post-Faith No More projects (indeed, many of these cuts invite comparison to the eclectic, beat-heavy Peeping Tom). His voice even takes on a certain Tom Waits quality in the ? time piano-driven ?Drunk With Power.? But the liquid vocal richness that gave Tool much of its emotional impact is still present here, often built up in elaborate harmonies, looped phrases and eerie, dissonant call-backs. Ambient effects abound - the evil hand of Brian ?Lustmord? Williams is quite prevalent, as he contributes his trademark sonic darkness to several of these tracks.

The Underworld songs are here too, but in alternate versions. ?Rev 22:20? appears in significantly altered form, a sort of lounge variant entitled the ?Dry Martini Mix.? Although it nicely showcases Keenan's singing and writing strengths with its acidic blend of religious and sexual imagery, it's more of a curiosity, and not really party mix-worthy. ?The Undertaker,? however, is full of raw power and remains one of Puscifer's standout tracks.

I'm not sure where Maynard was heading with an emotional and irony-free Gospel tune ?Sour Grapes.? Color me cynical, but I kept waiting for a punchline that never arrived. It's emotionally heavy, and undeniably well-executed, but comes off like the musical equivalent of a pierced, tattooed clubber wearing a ?Jesus Is My Homeboy? t-shirt. It's interesting, but... well, it's interesting.

Hopefully I've managed to convey the crazy-quilt quality of this release, but I do have to stress that there is a thru-line here of sorts that ties it all together. Through his Puscifer persona, Maynard has channeled the same primal energy that propels every Tool track, despite sounding nothing like them. Also, where that band's creative work concerned itself largely with feelings of fear, guilt, anger, spiritual longing and emotional hunger, these songs are simpler, more urge-based and full of mischief... sometimes harmlessly naughty, other times a bit more dangerous. Sure, a few of the tracks are cute and forgettable, others odd and even ill-fitting. But the ones that ring true, ring hard.

Definitely work checking out... but preview some of the tracks first. As I mentioned, it's not comparable to anything else in Keenan's career, so tread lightly. For the adventurous listener, there are huge rewards to be found here ? including some hilarious album art. Just don't say Maynard and I didn't warn you.