Sunday, February 10, 2013

Puscifer - Conditions of My Parole - 2011

Don't.Judge.Albums.By.Their.Cover.  Well, at least not in this case.  The sound that blares from the speakers when listening to Conditions of My Parole is truly unexpected.  This is one of those records that I was just absolutely imagining would be lame.  Since the early 90's I've been an ardent follower of Puscifer ringleader Maynard James Keenan and his various bands: starting with the muscular metal prog group Tool, then to the more artsy A Perfect Circle, and now with the very hard to describe Puscifer.  Give me a second to explain why then that I would expect this album to be so crummy.  The first Puscifer LP totally underwhelmed me.  Not awful, but certainly not an "album;" more a pastiche of dance and goofery.  Strange singles welded together into an unwieldy mess.  According to Maynard the plan of Puscifer is to release songs a few chunks at a time as they are completed.  Thankfully Conditions of My Parole is quite the opposite from this in every conceivable way.  Said Maynard as to why Conditions came out as such a cohesive album was that the current line-up was "on a roll."

The album art is shockingly blunt, stupid, and brilliant all at once.  The costumed Maynard in a prison orange jump suit with Sharpied on numbers is comically cheap.  Music is beautiful, punishing, and crafted with care and complexity.  Near every song has this level of sonic effort.  Most of the tracks start out either with a simple beat or acoustic singing/guitar and grow more complex as the song builds.  Far from monotonous, it is done in a way that each song has its own clear identity. Lyrically it's a semi-linear blend of story, emotion, and poetic odes.  Maynard's vocals rarely sounded better and supported throughout by Carina Round; a brilliant vocalist in her own right.  Their duets are the peak reason to call this one of the great albums of 2012.

Stand-out track "Green Valley" begins with Maynard and Carina trading sweetly chanted lines over a calm, acoustic strum.  "You're a stranger until she says that you can stay.  You're a stranger until she says you're journey's over."  A beatific ode to a river or perhaps something more?  It patiently crescendos building to multi-layered guitar effects.  Then, something that sounds like a tuned down sledgehammer enters, followed with piston drums accompanied by Carina's angelic "ahhs" echoing around Maynard's vocals.  It's a complex composition that seems effortless.  If you are looking to listen to a Tool album, you've come to the wrong place.  It's fair to mention that listening to this song might have you bursting into a crab dance once that hellish riff kicks in.  I can't back that up in any way with a useful description.  VVers advice is to go see Puscifer in concert to better understand.

Coming to this as a Tool fan could cloud your expectations very easily.  You might be hoping for Tool's particular brand of soul crushing riffage and howling.  Puscifer doesn't go that way, but it's not something to cry over.  This is due to tracks like "Man Overboard," "Telling Ghosts," and several others where the thunder really gets cranked up.  Instead of getting hit with Tool's heavy, sonic wizardry you get sweet chanting, pounding drum rolls, and crunchy chords.  Yes, it has many layers of effects at times, but it always seems very deliberate.  Not just noodling in the studio.  You also are gifted with a fair punctuation of Maynard's signature growl.  Put this together and get a significant evolution from the earlier Puscifer cannon.

Lyrics on "Man Overboard" are foreboding where "turn it up to 11" could be Maynard's goofy side surfacing to reference Spinal Tap in this heavy music.  "Poseidon is on a mission" to destroy us!  The cacophonous noise doesn't kick in until the end of the track where lyrics "brace yourself for 12 ... all hands on deck." Aquatic references in this song could be a continuation of Tool's epic Aenima which has lyrics suggesting that California will (hopefully) get sucked into the ocean following a giant earthquake; thus turning Arizona into "Arizona Bay." Joy.

The musicality of "Horizons" is elegant.  "Dust devils swept you away.  My recollections are all that's left of you."  Little twinkles of beats and studio flourishes hinge onto the end of each section of this unusual little tune.  All of it sits comfortably on gentle piano notes.  Harmonizing between Maynard and Carina is crisply executed so that it can barely be noticed that there are two people singing.  They synch together perfectly adding a lush power to many tunes.

The album ends on a sweet yet melancholy note with the reflections in "Oceans" and "Tumbleweed."  The last song which rounds out the album features a poignant vocal solo by Carina accompanied by a twangy banjo.  Even in these calmer tracks, there are still undertones of something off-kilter and ominous, which I like.

Having been to Jerome, Arizona where the Puscifer folks do their "thing" (wine making, music, satanic rituals?) makes it easier to grasp the foundations of their musical influences.  It seems like this album is just Maynard making music - with his friends who help him make wine - while hanging around an old mining town on the side of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere.  These friends however happen to also be musically deft and turn in a solid effort on this phenomenal album.  I should also mention that the whole clan appears at their live shows, which these VVers were lucky enough to catch at the Lyric in Baltimore last year.  This very theatrical performance features Maynard in pre-recorded skits of his various personalities (one favorite standout of these is his police officer doppleganger who not so kindly warns the crowd to shut off cell phones and holster cameras).  These goofy skits are intertwined throughout a very earnest performance. It starts with Maynard pulling out his retro, chrome trailer by hand with Carina riding within.  He alone physically brings out every piece of stage scenery; a novel approach.  A stage set of an Arizona desert during sundown transitioning to a starry night prompts them to light a campfire. Performing these tracks energizes Maynard to go off on a few soliloquies of the philosophy of what Puscifer music is all about.  All the many unique, theatric elements melded with their propulsive music made for a stunning show.

Word is they are playing Lollapolooza Chile and Brazil, and although Chicago's line-up is not yet released, hopes are high that they might be playing there.  Since these VVers are going to be in Chicago just around the same time... hope, hope!

Puscifer is also set to release their new EP Donkey Punch the Night February 19th ...  seems like the folk in Jerome have been busy wine and music makin'... hell yeah.

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