Review Summary: This spectactualarly underated concept album provides us with some of Maynards best lyrics and vocals and cements Billy Howerdel's place as a great composer.
Upon the ending of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” DVD, I could not help but be impressed. While I am fond of many Floyd albums, I am not a particular fan of Roger Waters’ voice and therefore not really a fan of “The Wall” but this DVD was very well done and really expressed the concepts of that album to highest extent possible. Just about everything about it was entertaining and after I had finished it I started thinking of some other concept albums that would do very well if put into video format. It didn’t exactly take much thought…
Thirteenth step is a tale about many things. The lyricist and vocalist Maynard James Keenan touches on a fairly broad area of topics on “Thirteenth Step” such as love and war but at the fore front of the interpretations is the theme of addiction. I will now provide you a track by track review of this brilliant album in hopes that you will listen to this album, if not for the first then for the Xth time, for there is always something new to be discovered.
The Package- This song opens perfectly with a very quiet and clean guitar backed up by soft rim taps from the drums. Not only are the dynamics perfect here but also the notes played: catchy but not too standoffish. The initial riffs fade and so do the drums to make way for one of the biggest bass lines you will ever hear from a song that isn’t techno. The foundation is made with the soft rim taps and huge bass line to allow the quiet guitar and vocals to take the center. Lyrics here deal with a person in dire need of something. A person who is not afraid to lie to get what he needs. The music grows with Maynard’s pining for this thing he craves. This song follows standard structure until about the middle of the 7:40 mark in which the distortion finally kicks in, with a higher melody above the power chords. This is why I like A Perfect Circle more than most bands. They can create simple yet catchy melodies over head banging and crunchy distortion to create more ear candy. After a few minutes more of awesome ear pummeling the song slowly fades, perfectly coming to a conclusion with quiet guitars but the still ever present big bass and Maynard whispering “This Is Mine…. Mine…” 9.5/10
Weak And Powerless- Anyone who claims this song as bad or just plain mediocre hasn’t really spread their ears for all the awesome riffs in this song. I would love to have been a fan of these guys back in their day and listen to this song on the radio back to back next to crappy boring riffs and emo vocals. Already from the beggining we have something untraditional that too often goes underused and that is the use of chords on a bass guitar. Seriously people, did you think this was guitar? Do you think a guitar can go that low?
Anyway, after an intro consisting almost solely of probably the best bass riff ever written, the vocals and drums kick in with extreme suddenness. In the background you can hear a quiet guitar which is really hard to hear the first few times unless you’re trained to listen for that type of thing. All too quickly, but not to my disappointment, the chorus kicks and we are treated to an awesomely catchy baritone guitar part which is placed behind the vocals and an equally awesome drum beat. The lyrics here deal with someone being overcome by something to the point of pure addiction. Maynard speaks of monkeys on his back and being desperate and ravenous for the thing he craved in The Package. After another quick chorus we are treated to an interlude and bridge the likes of which hardly ever grace popular music or radio. That sweet bass line returns with another awesome drum part, placed behind a beautiful acoustic guitar and another higher playing clean electric one. This next part the bridge has some of the album’s best poetry, spoken in between awesome guitar fills. Once the last two choruses have subsided in which that same sweet baritone guitar part variates the first catchy riffs several times, we are treated to another great outro with clean acoustic guitar and quieting bass. 10/10
The Noose- This is nothing short of a classic. This is the song that got me into the brilliance of APC and later Tool. The mood here is nothing short of epic. Quiet guitar and a repeated piano note placed in front of a very quiet choir of singers begin this masterpiece followed by what feel like out of place drums in the almost NIN industrial style. After repeated listens however, one realizes that no other drum beat could fit. The vocals on Maynard’s part here are nothing short of captivating, quiet and sincere, scary and perfect. All the while quietly orchestrated guitars keep the mood. After the first chorus, a catchy guitar lick is played and the song continues in that same scary fashion, on only a little faster and more alert. Another chorus, this time with a giant and haunting bass line precedes the eruption of sound that the quiet atmosphere hinted at the whole song. Layers and layers of guitars provide an awesome effect all the while two vocal parts fight for dominance: “With your halo slippin down” and “I’m more than just a little curious. How you planning to go about making your…”. Finally the eruption subsides and we are left with a quiet outro that ends with “Your halo’s slippin’ down to choke you now…” Lyrical content here is expressed from a different point of view than that of tracks 1 and 2, another reason why this would be a good album on video. 10/10
Blue- is a faster paced song with a fairly catchy guitar line. Two guitar lines actually, but they sound more like one. The verse is fairly standard with a quiet bass and the same guitar lines backed by a simple drum beat. The chorus however isn’t exactly standard. Yet another big bass line and crying guitars provide the back ground of one of the catchier choruses I’ve heard. Upon first few listens this track is an instant hit but it unfortunately loses its touch after awhile. The guitars are consistent throughout as are the other instruments but this song leaves a bit to be desired, for me at least. Not bad but not exactly the best. The lead up here to vanishing is pretty good though at the end. Again the lyrics are expressed most likely from a different point of view. 7.5/10
Vanishing- Often over looked by most people I’ve spoken to is this song on track 5 called Vanishing. I’ve met some that don’t even consider it as a song and pass it by simply because it is obscure. Quiet whispers start the song. “Disappear. Disappear. Higher, higher into the air.” The rest of the instruments kick in and a very mysterious and ethereal sound envelops the listener, or at least the listener who doesn’t have cotton in their ears. The music here is perfect. As another reviewer has stated, no instrument is dominant here. Each is essential. The bass ever present and the very well done high hat work from the drums keeping the beat going as haunting guitars keep the melody, along with an occasional entrance here from Maynard. The song ends, but it takes a lot longer than expected which is fine as it adds to the art rock and interest until the very end where the only thing left is a quiet and clean guitar, hardly audible. Lyrical content here is unknown, but it is mostly likely a feeling of elation and a high of the drug spoken of in track 1 and 2. This is a great song to get lost in. 10/10
A Stranger- is a rather short track, all acoustic and no drums. A mystical synthesizer with perfect tone accompanies the guitar and Maynard’s quiet vocals. Strings are added for an even more mystical effect. An occasional bass note is added here and there for drama, and the song ends all too quickly with whining strings and a few more acoustic notes. Lyrical content here is most likely about the drug addict pondering his situation. Wish there was more to say but a it is a slow tempo song clocking in at 3:11 so not much more to say. Short and Sweet. 9/10
The Outsider- For all of you bored with the softer tracks, this is a welcome addition. The song begins with a clean guitar and continues on with a stable drum beat and another big bass line. The pre chorus meets us with some distortion for the first time since Blue. The distorted riff here is catchy and with just the right amount of gain. All the while a mysterious and quieter guitar soars above the other instruments and Maynard. The Syncopated bridge here is quite cool and adds drama to this already hectic song. Lyrical content deals with someone consoling another about not committing suicide. A quieter interlude serves as the calm before the storm in which full blown distortion roars while Maynard angrily croons. This song is one of the more driven on the album and serves extremely well after those quieter tracks. 9.5/10
Crimes- One of two songs that make me hesitate giving this album a perfect score. However it does help with the flow of the album. All this is is Maynard counting over a really loud drum beat and a bass line that isn’t that interesting. The guitar here is kinda cool but that’s about it. I have no idea about the lyrics. FILLER 0/0
The Nurse Who Loved Me- this song once again shows the band experimenting with strings and odd synthesizers. It is a cover of a Failure song and is quite interesting. Some marimba work is placed in the background. Some of the higher and more soaring string parts here would do well if put into a cartoon. The vocals here are pretty solid and quiet, fitting with the mood perfectly. This song is slower tempo once again so not much to say about it in 4:04 apart that it needs some time to get used to but once you are used to it it’s a welcome song to the mood of Thirteenth Step. This getting used to only happens when one realizes the brilliance of the ending and how it blends perfectly with the first notes of Pet. 7/10
Pet- Easily the hardest and probably the most cohesive of the tracks on this album is Pet. It begins with hard hitting and violent guitars, once again using a big distorted riff with a soaring simple and catchy higher guitar layered over it. Drums here are extra solid and the bass does a fine job with the root notes. The best part about this track is the swing in dynamics. After the initial wall of sound that is the intro, the song seems to freeze and come to a quiet and slower part that perfectly sets mood. After a quick vocal line we are thrusted right back into the violent intro motif. In and out of quiet and violent parts we go, just like a roller coaster. Maynard’s vocals here are at his prime usually soft but in the hard parts almost screaming with anger. The bridge and interlude here are exceptionally perfect, just like weak and powerless with some of the best poetry on the album. The quiet bridge ends with the violent explosion once more, only this time with sweet wah wah peddle from the higher lead guitar. After this part we are treated to one of the only guitar solos on the album and it leaves nothing to be desired. The song ends as it should, hard and loud. Lyrics here are most likely written from the standpoint of the drug or addictive habit but they are also about politics and APC provide for us a great anti-war song. 10/10
Lullaby- While not quite as bad as crimes, this song does interrupt the flow a bit whereas Crimes helped it along. It probably would have been better for us to be plunged right into the brilliance of Gravity. Not much happens in this song but another drum beat and some quiet and high pitched singing. FILLER 0/0
Gravity- A clean guitar and some cymbal work from the drums gets this song started followed by a healthy and solid bass line. Vocals commence during the verse along with some sweet yet quiet guitar riffage until we are immersed in one of the most perfect choruses I have heard. Quiet, mysterious, and scary, it never fails to impress me no matter how many times I listen. This song is driven mostly by bass line but the guitar parts are nothing to ignore as they are interesting and provide great ear candy. The bridge and interlude is exactly as it should be: ethereal and evil sounding with squalling guitars fallowed by a big crescendo from all the instruments. This crescendo amounts to yet another chorus in which the emotion of the album reaches its pinnacle. Lyrics here deal with the person who is addicted finally coming to his senses saying “Catch Me, Heal Me, Lift Me back up to the Sun. I choose to Live… I choose to Live…”. The quiet guitars and cymbals and whispers that end this song are soothing and perfect. In fact this song serves as probably the best ending to an album to grace my ears, only rivaled by Garden of Light on In the Absence of Truth. The pure emotion and majesty poured into this song is astounding and will not fail to impress anyone who has an ear for art. 10/10
… Thirteenth Step would be awesome if was put into Video format like The Wall. Not only are the lyrics sung by a capable singer but the music serves perfectly as its delivery device. Everything about this album would perfectly rival The Wall and I hope it happens. Nevertheless, Thirteenth Step is a great album on its own and is a must own for anyone who likes art rock or any conceptual albums.