The Comeback Trail Double-Header

So a couple of weeks ago, on the storied twentieth of April, two bands associated with marijuana usage 1 decided to release their first recorded statements since the Bush administration. Each caused their own ruckus, in their own way, and the two records have very little in common with each other, but nonetheless I am moved here to talk about A Perfect Circle’s Eat the Elephant and Sleep’s The Sciences.

Eat the Elephant was the more high-profile – A Perfect Circle, after all, had actual bona-fide on-the-radio hits right around the time rock radio ceased to be a going concern. They had been thought long gone, dropped down the oubliette of other rock-star side projects, when Maynard James Keenan, their singer, possibly to deflect the constant Tool-related questions 2, made rumblings about taking a break from Puscifer records/wine-making to work on some APC material. Soon the band’s only other constant member, erstwhile guitar tech Billy Howerdel, confirmed these plans, and the band hopped back into action.

A Perfect Circle was always an interesting – for a certain degree of remove attached to the word “interesting” – notion. Where Tool were self-consciously artsy 3, A Perfect Circle seemed like a way to apply the same ideas to what was then all over the radio. They revealed Keenan to be something of a dab hand at a pop song 4, and capable of writing tunes and lyrics that worked in the sort of rock-forward direct approach preferred by Howerdel. Howerdel, who wrote all of the songs, had worked for Billy Corgan, and while it might not be fair to reduce his set of influences that far, it doesn’t not sound like an alternate-universe Smashing Pumpkins, especially on the first record (see the then-ubiquitous “Judith”). Their first record, Mer de Noms, arrived, was extremely likable music, sold a bajillion copies, and was nigh-inescapable.

On their second record (and my favorite of their records, such as it is), The Thirteenth Step, they introduced the idea of making things much more dour, and brought in a bunch of new-wave-ish influences 5 to make their music moodier and darker, more sculptural than the straightforward blasting of Mer de Noms. It’s the second record that gave me real hope for their continued existence – it includes probably the best Failure cover ever recorded (“The Nurse Who Loved Me”) 6, and the use of guest musicians landed them their finest-ever moment, “The Noose”, which features vocals by former-Swan Jarboe and guitar from Nine Inch Nails’ Danny Lohner, and ended with at least one blogger thinking that Jarboe and Keenan should work together more 7. The record had legs, but didn’t sell nearly as well as the first one.

It was followed up by a covers album, where the band reworked “When the Levee Breaks” and “Imagine” into turgid, lightless exercises in Making a Point. It is not the most flattering version of the band’s sound, which meant that, when they hung it all up after the cycle for eMotive ended, it wasn’t very hard to say goodbye to them and assume the band had run its course.

They went their separate ways, with Keenan releasing a handful of records, with a revolving cast of collaborators, as Puscifer 8, and Howerdel more-or-less immediately making a record as Ashes Divide (which was never followed up), with the only stirring being the release of a greatest-hits record 9 several years later.

Eat the Elephant, then, veritably sped from announcement to release (the populous only really heard about it six or so months ago). It was made by the band’s usual MO, with Howerdel working up instrumental ideas and Keenan writing lyrics and melodies for them in a long distance back-and-forth, and the two eventually coming together to finish the songs and release the album. This time they allowed for an outside producer for the first time, radio-rock dude Dave Sardy 10, which is the first time a record hasn’t been produced by Howerdel.

The process itself – writing songs cross-country and then rewriting them and fiddling with them and retouching them and then fiddling with them some more and then massaging them into some sort of highly-fiddled-with shape – seems tortuous, and the results are…less than inspiring. Eat the Elephant is not a bad record as such – the singing is particularly good, the playing sounds ok, and it generally seems to represent the band, such as it is – but it doesn’t really go anywhere when it’s over.

Some of the songs, especially the opening one-two punch of the title track and “Disillusioned”, sound pretty cool, but aren’t very memorable when they’re over. Some of them (“Hourglass”, for example) sound like they might have been good ideas that just died in the process (or for some other, unknowable reason). For the first time in the band’s career, however, they have also managed songs that are just dreadful (“So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” and “Get the Lead Out”). All told, the band would have been better off either spending more time assembling the simulacrum of the record, or less time on them and just recorded something more straightforward.

It’s not their fault that they suffer from the comparison made real by their choice of release date, but as far as comeback albums go, it’s hard not to recommend that every band try to learn something from Sleep.

Sleep were absolute titans of the stoner-metal scene right around the turn of the century. They made one relatively minor album (Volume 1) followed by one very good, trouble-free release (Holy Mountain), followed by one of the most storied 11 releases in history with their third album, Dopesmoker, a once-in-a-lifetime, all-time-great heavy metal album that for a long time did not get to be heard in the way the band intended. An hour-plus long single track, it was originally rejected by their label, and released promotionally in a remixed form 12. It was then released in an unauthorized form as Jerusalem by Tee Pee records 13, and more-or-less contemporaneously as a single-track bootleg. Eventually it saw what amounts to the actual version of the album with a remaster by the fine folks at Southern Lord, which version is the de facto “good version”, due to it 1) sounding good and 2) being actually available to people to listen to.

While all of this was happening, the band went their separate ways, with guitarist Matt Pike forming the mighty High on Fire, and Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius (the drummer at the time) comprising the almost-as-good-as-Sleep heavy band Om.

I suppose there’s another way that the two bands in this piece can be compared, it’s that Sleep left the world as underheralded geniuses, and reformed as a supergroup. They’re joined on drums by the outstanding Jason Roeder, who is also the drummer for Neurosis 14 and the record is produced by Neurosis’s samples-and-synthesizer maestro, Noah Landis 15. And so it came to pass that, with zero leadup or fanfare, Sleep released The Sciences on 4/20.

It is true that A Perfect Circle could have learned something from the seamless resumption that Sleep displays here, but it is also true that almost everyone could learn something from this one. Stitching together a couple of songs that were originally written at the time of Dopesmoker 16 with a few new pieces, the thing is as mighty a collection of riffs as could exist.

Ultimately, the record succeeds by enhancing the features of Sleep that already were there – it’s an unabashed slab of Sabbath-worshipping riffs welded together with Cisneros’s weeded-out lyrics 17 , and propelled by Roeder’s phenomenal drum performance. All rock music is better when it’s the sound of a set of people interacting with each other in a specific idiom, but heavy music is especially dependent on the interplay of the members themselves 18, and The Sciences is the sound of a set of people making music that only that set of people could possibly make. The fact that a couple of the songs predate one of the now-members’ involvement does not seem to change the fact that the three of them together have made an amazing artistic statement.

Anyway, this is running over into the fawning 19, and we all have places to be. So, is A Perfect Circle’s Eat the Elephant a worthy comeback, and does it have a place in their oeuvre? Eh. Maybe. It might grow on me. Their fans seem to like it well enough, and it certainly isn’t a crass retread or anything, so I guess it has its merits, I’m just not hearing them. The Sciences, however, is not only a worthy addition to the discography of Sleep, but might actually be their best record. It’s well and truly above and beyond anything anyone could have expected out of a Sleep record in 2018, that’s for sure. It might be the best record I’ve heard so far this year.

  1.  one very explicitly and one only by circumstance and/or fanbase 
  2.  Tool would have, for my own purposes here, been more thematic, and will almost certainly be revisited if their next album ever actually proves itself to exist. 
  3.  my feelings on Tool are thorny enough to warrant two different footnotes, and while at the time I thought they were an absolute godhead of weirdo-metal, I am now able to more-or-less identify them as the sort of gateway drug to weirdo-metal. They were proggy as hell, but satisfyingly heavy, and their music isn’t quite as good as I thought it was contemporaneously, but it’s still fun, and a lot of it – especially their second full-length record, Aenima – holds up pretty well. 
  4.  a sad teenager may very well be moping to “3 Libras” even now. 
  5.  a thing that was happening a lot at the time. 
  6.  incidentally, everyone should go listen to Failure’s records. They’re very good. 
  7.  some of you in the audience are probably pointing out that I’d probably say that about Jarboe and anyone, to which I say: fair. 
  8.  a band that was born as a Mr. Show sketch, in which Keenan appears. 
  9.  always a strange idea for a band with only three records, especially in 2013, even if it wasn’t exactly bad. 
  10.  Sardy is also a film scorer – he did Monster Trucks and End of Watch, among other things – and the producer of LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver, which implies that he’s pretty good at working with people who usually – and probably should, on balance – produce themselves. He also, weirdly, worked with Sleep, see below.  
  11.  and, frankly, most botched 
  12. the remixing was handled by Dave Sardy, as mentioned above. The bands are connected again! 
  13. this is the version that I first heard 
  14.  one of the only heavy bands in history that’s better than Sleep 
  15. it remains the case that any album with multiple members of Neurosis on it is a very good album. 
  16.  “Sonic Titan” was a bonus track on the final, band-approved reissue of the record in 2003, and “Antarcticans Thawed” was a contemporaneous contribution. 
  17.  I’m not a lyrics person, as I mention here frequently, but Cisneros is a good lyricist – his koan-like chanting and mystic searching in Om is part of what elevates that band to genuine greatness – and his work with Sleep is self-aware and funny without being silly or overly-winking in a way that most stoner bands never really bother with. There’s a reason that Sleep is being fawned over in this space and I’ve never really said much about, say, The Sword.  
  18.  whether this is because heavy music is, due to circumstance and/or history, especially prone to weird, overtweaked production nonsense or because the fact that it works so gutterally requires complete honesty and directness is beyond the scope of this footnote, but I suspect that both factors play their part. 
  19.  this is why I don’t really review records in this space 

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