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Thirteenth Step

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★★★★½
(982 Reviews)

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  • The modern radio era is dominated by bands that fancy themselves latter-day Sex Pistols but sound more like bad Green Day knockoffs. Into this musical climate, A Perfect Circle has injected a potent breath of fresh air with its sophomore effort, Thirteenth Step.The record doesn’t overpower the listener. It has a quietness, a subtlety that makes it nearly impossible to fully appreciate on first listen. But with each subsequent listen, its layers are uncovered, slowly and deliciously. It’s a masterpiece that comes full circle on the promise of the band’s debut, Mer de Noms.Thirteenth Step can be taken as a concept album of sorts, with each of the twelve songs exploring a different aspect of psychology and addiction. Opener “The Package” draws you in with quiet guitars and beats and Maynard James Keenan’s gorgeous vocals. He’s an addict looking for his next fix, and we’re along for the ride as the music and voice go from an urgent whisper to a desperate growl and back again. It sets the stage for the journey to come.The first single, “Weak and Powerless,” is a standout. Like much of the record, it’s clearly influenced by the new wave of the late 80’s and early 90’s — there are points at which Keenan’s voice seems to channel that of the Cure’s Robert Smith — yet strikingly original. It’s disarming, with a haunting quality that carries throughout the record.The musicianship is impressive. From band founder/guitarist Billy Howerdel to drummer Josh Freese to new bassist Jeordie White, there isn’t a weak link. White, in particular, is a revelation. His confident, driving bass lines are just the right counterpart to Freese’s rhythms; who knew that such a fine musician lurked within the former Twiggy Ramirez? The music and vocals both prove capable of holding back when appropriate, making the moments when they explode all the more powerful. The band is tight, skilled and creative.As we’ve come to expect from Keenan in APC or his other project, Tool, the lyrics are cryptic, metaphorical and beautiful. They are consistently powerful, intelligent and thought-provoking as they explore the darker subject matter.Among the quieter, more atmospheric tracks, “The Noose” stands out with its haunting guitars and poignant lyrics. The band showcases its sense of humor on Failure cover “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” with Keenan stepping into character as the sad, delusional patient. The song is stark and surpising. String instruments provide an understated, elegant sound, and Keenan conveys just the right vulnerability and pathos.There are heavier songs, too, and they are some of the best on the record. “The Outsider” is the most powerful, musically and lyrically, with Keenan’s angry vocals lashing out and tearing loose. “Pet” can be taken as a political commentary on post-9/11 America and the war on terror; the music hits just the right notes from heavy to scary to gentle, to coincide with the alternately reassuring, commanding and ironic tone of the lyrics and vocals.Perhaps the record as a whole is the recovery, the thirteenth step. It lingers in your mind and your soul, long after it closes with the oddly uplifting lines, “Heal me/lift me back up to the sun/I choose to live.”

    Posted on November 19, 2009