The wait is finally (almost) over. Tomorrow, April 20, will mark the first official original studio album by supergroup A Perfect Circle in 15 years (since 2003’s Thirteenth Step) and first full record overall since 2004’s anti-war-themed covers album, Emotive. Since then, there has been a long hiatus, with the exception of a a few tours (including 2011 and 2017). There have been a few non-studio LP releases too, including a live collection (Stone & Echo), but little new material – namely “By and Down” on 2013 hits compilation Three Sixty. Offstage, APC band leader Billy Howerdel has kept himself busy with soundtrack scores and side project Ashes Divide (whose last release was 10 years ago now).
Guitarist/keyboardist James Iha has been busy bouncing back and forth between APC and (currently) his original legendary rock band Smashing Pumpkins. He was not involved in the recording of ETE and Greg Edwards of Failure is filling in for him for the newly launched APC tour. Between stints with those two iconic bands, Iha also released his second solo LP Look to the Sky (in 2012).
Singer Maynard James Keenan has been hard at work as well, touring with his main hard rock band Tool (seemingly every five years or so, last year included), recording with Tool (trying to, anyway, with the aim of following up 2006 LP 10,000 Days any year now) and Puscifer. He also has his wine business and released a great biography in 2016. Now, he’s back with Howerdel for Eat the Elephant, only the fourth APC studio LP to date. (Note: Howerdel handled the recording of nearly all instruments, while MJK handled all vocal duties.)
Eat the Elephant starts off with the title track and instantly, you know you are listening to a different kind of APC sound, with melodious midtempo piano phrases leading the way and underpinning MJK’s somber vocals. It balances out the unmistakable Howerdel guitar attack heard later on the record. The song itself has a bittersweet history that may surprise you. Howerdel originally recorded it (with a totally different arrangement) with longtime friend Chester Bennington for his band Linkin Park’s One More Light album. It didn’t make the cut and when Howerdel got the painful news of Bennington’s untimely death last year, he took it upon himself to finish the song with Keenan. Talk about a powerful start to an album.
MJK will always be perfectly comfortable shrouding himself in some kind of mystery in his art, but he still brings noticeable biting commentary and humor to his recordings (including song titles). See “So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish,” where he sings, “We wasted every second dime/On politicians, fancy water and guns and plastic surgery.” It’s a succinct contemporary social/part-political statement, but he then balances the negative tone out by honoring pop culture icons we lost in recent years. Carrie Fisher, Prince, Florence Henderson (“Brady’s Mom”), David Bowie (“Major Tom”), and other legends are implicitly referenced – you just have to listen closely or read the lyrics to figure them all out for yourself.
Other notable MJK moments include the delicate sadness in Kennan’s voice on the piano-driven parts of “Feathers” and the robotic, retro vocals on “Hourglass” that recall Kraftwerk. Both showcase diverse vocal techniques not always captured on one MJK-related record.
“By and Down the River” (an updated re-recording of “By and Down”) has all the elements of classic early APC: dark/haunting, ethereal melodies to start, soaring solos by Howerdel, and captivating Keenan vocals to match – every step of the way. In this respect, it’s a worthy successor to Mer de Noms fan favorite “Orestes.”
The rage of “TalkTalk” and the heavier track “The Doomed” will especially be a pleasurable listen for longtime fans, but (personal fav) “Delicious” may just be the heaviest song A Perfect Circle has ever done (guitar/bass tuning-wise) – and it prominently features acoustic guitars. Short and compact, when you combine it with the hypnotic closing tune “Get the Lead Out,” it’s the sound of a band pushing forward with its sound.
In summary, Eat the Elephant may not completely satisfy some fans (those who prefer APC’s hard rock side to keep dominating their releases) but is a beast of a record itself and a very rewarding addition to their rather brief collection – for a band that will be 20 years old in two years. It is a more vital one than the covers collection, Emotive, and even a step up from Thirteenth Step. So you could say it’s their best album since their 2000 debut, Mer de Noms. And that’s saying something. (Rating: 4 and 1/2 stars)
Catch A Perfect Circle on the road now and visit their website for all release info regarding Eat the Elephant, tour dates, and overall band news.