Review Summary: After their unremittingly bleak debut album, APC's sophomore effort comes together as a surprisingly positive and inspiring release, which really feels like more than the sum of its parts.
The overriding feeling that one is left with after a full listen of Thirteenth Step is, astonishingly for a Maynard James Keenan related project, one of hope. APC's 2000 debut album, Mer De Noms, was just as sonically bleak as the cover art implied, and so one would be forgiven that assuming this 2003 follow up would be no less oppressive and uncomfortable. And for the most part, that assessment would be right on the money. APC are, after all, an 'alternative metal' band, or however you want to label it, and consequently there's always going to be some anger and resentment lurking wherever they go. But Thirteenth Step really does feel like a significant turning point in both the band and the lead singer's philosophy and outlook, and it's a new way of looking at things which provides us an unexpected breath of fresh air.
But I should clarify a few things before I get carried away in the positivity exhibited at the end of the album. For the majority of it's twelve tracks, Thirteenth Step is, both lyrically and instrumentally, unremittingly bleak. The opening song, The Package, is a markedly more experimental affair than what we were treated to on the band's first release, featuring some incredibly unusual and unnerving vocal melodies by everybody's favourite Tool vocalist, Maynard. And the man arguably most famous for simply screaming for 20 seconds straight is, once again, on fine form here. At the time of Thirteenth Step's release, this was probably the man's best vocal performance until Tool's 10,000 Days three years later. There are plenty of standout singalong moments, with the climax of The Outsider resulting in a particularly cathartic condemnation. And so the main tickbox for a lot of Tool fanboys who were tuning in to APC only to hear more of their beloved figurehead was, indeed, resoundingly ticked; Maynard continued his hot streak here.
Maynard's vocal performance wasn't really the thing that people were expecting to change here, though. Whilst Mer De Noms was universally praised for it's thick atmosphere and quasi-poetic lyrics, Thirteenth Step would simply have been branded as a 'Mer De Noms 1.5' if it had tried to replicate this. Luckily, APC were too smart a band to fall into this trap, and their sophomore effort really does have the kind of musical diversity that led to their first release being perhaps a little too single-minded. There's the (undeniably generic, but still fun) metal-lite of Weak and Powerless, the meditative Blue featuring an astonishingly good lyrical turn in the chorus, and the outright shock of the soothing tones of cover The Nurse Who Loved Me. Whilst Mer De Noms was a very long tunnel that took an unwavering course with no light at the end, Thirteenth Step is a more varied album, with twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes, just as the album seems like it might be about to fall into the 'every track sounds the same' trap.
Naturally, though, not everything about the album is quite so peachy. (yes, peachy.) Amusingly, the key failing of the album is the exact same criticism that's been levelled at most Tool releases; filler tracks. Admittedly, they serve more as genuinely interesting ambient interludes here than the pretentious pseudo-symbolism of Maynard's bigger band's efforts, but one can't help but feel that the album is getting a little bogged down in atmosphere by the third or so mostly-instrumental piece. They are all interesting enough as curios for the first few spins of the album, but after that they start to become, simply, an obstacle to truly enjoying a full listen.
Nonetheless, all of these factors, both good and bad, feel like they absolutely have to culminate in something special at the end of Thirteenth Step. It's an album that feels like it's constantly building; even the calming interludes serve only to increase the underlying tension that paves the whole road to the final track of the album. And that closing number, Gravity, feels strangely monumental for being 'just' a simple alternative metal track. Sure, it's in an odd time (7/4 = prog wankery, right?) but it doesn't really do anything too differently to the eleven preceding tracks. And yet I can't help but feel that Gravity itself, and the album as a whole, really come together to feel like something far more brilliant, far more significant, than the sum of their parts. After a full, gruelling and intense listen, Gravity acts as the light at the end of the tunnel which Mer De Noms was not quite able to give us. The final line of the album sees Maynard calmly declaring that he 'chooses to live.' And for all of the suicide, the violence, the horror and the murder that is probably depicted in the cryptic lyrics of most of Thirteenth Step, the overall feeling one comes away with echoes Maynard's closing statement. And for a simple alternative metal album to feel so inspiring, so full-bodied, I think APC deserve a round of applause here.