Review Summary: Thirteenth Step is a spastic album, with moments of brilliance followed by moments of ineptitude, repetitiveness, and Maynard's typical fault of being overambitious.
Thirteenth Step is the step downwards for Maynard James Keenan. He entered what could be considered his prime at the turn of century, releasing both Lateralus and Mer De Noms, considered by many the definitive albums for his respective bands, Tool and A Perfect Circle. In 2003, he returned with A Perfect Circle and Thirteenth Step. The album is particularly unoriginal, a story of the 13 steps of depression and predominantly drug addiction. The concept is a mesh of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Failure’s Fantastic Planet. In fact, the band even covers Failure’s The Nurse Who Loved Me
, therefore even further bringing out the obvious inspirations for the album. Regardless, A Perfect Circle found possibly more fame than Tool received in the gothic scene exploding during the time period and showcases a few gems from the band.
Where Tool is the complex, heavy and distorted band that jumps along the borderline of metal, A Perfect Circle is a much lighter and melodic affair, making some critics throw out the term “Tool-lite” or a similar name. However, that really is very far from the truth. Even when A Perfect Circle gets heavy, such as in Pet
, it is a distinctly different sound from Tool. Billy Howerdel, lead guitarist of the band, creates much of the unique sound with his recognizable tone and style of playing. Some call it innovative, but it’s not anything groundbreaking. His lead parts often rely on chromatic series and dissonant color tones to create great lead guitars and unique harmonies. However, the backing instrumentals are even more solid, allowing Howerdel to create all these lead parts. The ever changing bass players and rhythm guitarists of the band never fail too badly, and the change is hardly noticeable. James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame plays rhythm guitar on this album and melds together with Howerdel possibly better than anyone else in A Perfect Circle’s short history.
Thirteenth Step is a very spastic album. It has moments of brilliance followed by moments of bland repetitiveness. The Package
, the opener and longest APC song ever, slowly builds with ethnic percussion that later explodes into simple, heavy riffs. Maynard, as on every song, stands out as the premiere feature in the song, fittingly singing with a very tribal and ethnic tone and later going into a Gollum-esque whisper of “mine.” However, the album then follows with the lead single Weak and Powerless
. It was probably the best pick for a single, a simple radio-friendly song, but it pails in comparison to most of the album. It follows a typical song structure but unlike most APC songs, it goes nowhere and builds to nothing. Worse than that, the album contains two tracks of pure filler. Crimes
, a track of boring instrumentals and Maynard counting in a whisper, is a complete waste of time. Lullaby
, which builds off of the melodic ideas of Pet, features a high pitched voice singing the melodic theme. Haunting, yes, but not particularly interesting.
, the idea it builds off of comes from the standout track on the album, Pet
. The heaviest song on the album for sure and lyrically somewhat out of place, the song is an attack on politics and war. The band masters their use of contrast, taking an extremely heavy chorus and contrasting it with a tranquil, quiet chorus. Maynard does step into his Tool ego in the final chorus, putting a raspy tinge on his voice, but the entire melodic quality of the song differs heavily from anything Tool ever produced. Often called Thirteenth Step’s Judith
stands out as the climatic point and high point of the album. A Perfect Circle still returns to what made Mer De Noms so great, the melodic and more flowing songs. Gravity
, the album’s closer, is a mesh of clean guitar lines and a terribly haunting bassline. It puts a positive spin on the depression concept, ending with the lines “I choose to live.” Maynard’s melancholic voice sits on top of everything perfectly, sticking to his lower range. The highlight of the song comes in an instrumental interlude, sounding akin to a Mortal Kombat theme. It is dark, has a mystical quality about it, and although quiet and serene it contains a sort of intensity.
Furthermore, The Outsider
possibly describes A Perfect Circle’s typical sound in one song. It grooves in 6/8, a time signature the band seems to love and fall into a comfort zone with. It showcases an extremely deep and full bass tone and drives forward into a climatic with great melodic suspensions on Howerdel’s typical strange guitar playing. It follows with a heavier breakdown and a monotonous Maynard, which shows off the band’s ability to create heavier, more atmospheric music. It also shows off the much more melodic style in a bridge that builds slowly into a reprise of the chorus. Guitar and bass melodies swell all around the soundscape. The song is extremely atmospheric and angry and builds perfectly to a great climax. Unfortunately, the album is stricken with filler and boring songs which heavily detract from the album. The band’s cover of The Nurse Who Loved Me
is certainly an interesting take. Maynard made sure the song sounded nothing like the original, just as he did on eMOTIVe. However, eMOTIVe did the same exact thing. It failed in the quality of the song in an attempt to create a whole new persona of the song. Thirteenth Step, although having a vague concept and musically progresses much like an overall album, it feels too much like a collection of songs due to the rollercoaster ride of quality. If the band took the time to write a song in place of Crimes
and improve Weak and Powerless
and The Nurse Who Loved Me
, Thirteenth Step could easily sit up with any of Maynard’s greatest projects.