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A Perfect Circle, ‘Thirteenth Step’ (Virgin)

Some hard-rock records sound like incorrigible monsters, stomping through city streets at random, tearing at the jugulars of unsuspecting tourists. A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step is not one of those records. This is more like music a diabolical Dr. Jekyll would enjoy during long nights in the bowels of his laboratory; this is what you listen to when mixing chemicals over a Bunsen burner and plotting a destruction to be named later. It’s not inherently combustible, and it’s more cerebral than aggressive. And if that sounds like a nice way of saying thatThirteenth Step doesn’t rock, so be it.

A Perfect Circle is Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s platinum-selling side project, and it remains unclear why this project is necessary. Tool are arguably the most important metal band of the past ten years, a plausible demonstration of what would happen if Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi joined Rush and immediately made Neil Peart convince Geddy Lee to quit singing. Tool songs are massive and twisted and crushing, and they somehow make turgidity feel dynamic. A Perfect Circle make music in the same exact vein, but less effectively. Which is not to say these songs are bad–they’re better (or at least smarter) than most of the junk your average hard-rock band dumps into the marketplace every 16 months. However, it’s not clear why Keenan needs an entirely different band to play them. If he had saved the best cuts from this record and subbed them in for the inevitable filler on the next Tool album, he’d have another Physical Graffiti on his hands. Instead, we get this, a derivative effort that makes Keenan sound less talented than he actually is.

A Perfect Circle’s ever-shifting lineup currently includes ex-Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez (now calling himself Jeordie White–apparently Manson made him turn in his moniker when he left the band). One might suspect that Ramirez’s presence would move A Perfect Circle in a glammier direction, but this is not the case; Thirteenth Step is a sardonic meditation on 12-step programs and, according to the press release, “a conceptual exploration of the darker side of the human psyche.” The album opens with “The Package,” which starts to evoke Radiohead’s “There There” before drowning in a cauldron of molten stoner sludge. “The Package” clocks in at almost eight minutes and feels way longer; people who own more than one black-light poster will probably play it a lot.

The tracks on Thirteenth Step have menacing titles like “Weak and Powerless” and “The Noose,” and there’s a haunting/haunted quality to the music. Something about Keenan’s delivery reminds me of Annie Lennox; I would love to hear him sing “Here Comes the Rain Again.” But here’s the problem: A Perfect Circle only write one kind of song. That’s true of a lot of good rock bands–AC/DC and Helmet, for example, and Tool, too. But it’s not clear why we need two bands doing what one band already does pretty well.

Granted, there are a few things on Thirteenth Step that break that mold, or at least bruise it. Former Vandals (and, momentarily, Guns N’ Roses) drummer Josh Freese sprinkles a little jazz percussion on “Vanishing” and–for about 12 seconds, but they’re really cool seconds–on “The Outsider.” There’s also a weird, staunchly un-Tool-like track called “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” which almost sounds like something ’70s producer Bob Ezrin would have come up with for Pink Floyd or Alice Cooper and which may be the best track on the album. Too bad most of the material here sounds more like “A Stranger,” a faux-prog-rock goose chase that would only be the second-best cut on the second-worst Yes album. This record doesn’t suck. But it couldn’t feel less essential.