Since Tool exploded onto the scene in 1992, Maynard James Keenan has been a powerful force in the fieldof challenging and expressive music. To call A Perfect Circle his ’side-project’ would be to commit a grave fallacy though, as A Perfect Circle can only be viewed as a band in the classical sense of the word. Despite this, Maynard and Billy Howerdrel certainly emerged as the creative force behind the unit on their debut, ‘Mer des Noms’ which was a perfectly compact selection of biting and at times beautiful music, which pushed the band into a small genre of their own, with their transecndental melodies and spacious instrumentation. Since Tool’s 2001 masterpiece ‘Lateralus’my expectations for ‘Thirteenth Step’ have been running at fever pitch, and now its finally here it delivers in style. Many people seem to look on A Perfect Circle as a kind of second rate tool,or a mellower alternative to switch to as mood dictates. This is most certainly not so. On ‘Thirteenth Step’ the band moves even farther toward carving a musical niche entirely their own. Indeed, much of the material here is drastically original, and the album holds together as a sprawling statement rather than a disparate collection of songs.At first I was rather taken aback by the fact that thealbum seemed to abandon the ruthless consistency of quality that characterised ‘Mer Des Noms’. the band have progressed to a musical space that is extremely dreamy and elegant, with heaviness used very sparingly, and each instrument contributing in almost equal measure to the whole. Opener ‘The Package’ is over seven minutes long, which I certainly did not expect, and it epitomises the album extremely well, combining ethereal lyrics and delicate guitars with Maynard’s powerful vocals caressing us gently, then exploding into life as the song jumps in a heavy direction. The lead single ‘Weak and Powerless’ is actually one of the weaker full songs here, which is saying something, as its a very accomplished track, with a deceptively catchy vocal hook.My standout tracks are ‘The Noose’, which seems to see Maynard attack organised religion yet again, and ‘The Outsider’ whose lyrics are violent and impulsive, with Maynard intoning ‘disconnect and self distruct one moment at a time…..everyone will have his day to die’. As one of the heaviest songs present here, ‘Pet’ is also a definite highlight, with crunching guitars and somewhat worrying lyrics.At the risk of undermining my authoritarian stance when it comes to music, I’d never heard of Failure before tracking down the original authors of ‘The Nurse who Loved me’, but I must admit the version on’Thirteenth Step’ is superb, and is something of a departure for the band, being a quirky and almost comic number which is jam packed with hooks .I like it a lot, and will investigate failure as a result (which islikely what Maynard and Billy intended).This review has become gargantuan, So I should round up by saying that Josh Freeses’ drums are absolutely killer throughout this record, Billy’s guitars are sweepingly original and tasteful, and the production as a whole is stunning, with incredible textures and vivid soundscapes combining effortlessly. My only gripe with the record is that songs like ‘Crimes’, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Vanishing’ feel underdeveloped, despite being beautiful and dreamy. I do believe they add to the album’s overall impact though.A Perfect Circle are one of the most relevant, original and vital bands on planet earth right now, and this opus only serves to consolidate their postition as forerunners in a movement of intelligent and techical rock music that transcends the demands of the mainstream.Hugely recommended.