Still led by founding guitarist Billy Howerdel (Ashes Divide) and vocalist Maynard James Keenan, Los Angeles outfit A Perfect Circle has always been viewed as the latter’s most accessible project—and for good reason. Keenan and company aim for a softer and less experimental bite than either of his two other major channels Puscifer and Tool. They, nonetheless, instill their insatiably fetching and emotive work with enough inventive nuances and unpredictable dynamics to elevate it into the realm of sophisticated splendor. Nowhere is this truer than on their newest record, Eat the Elephant, a remarkably atmospheric, graceful, charming, and poetically introspective (and socially conscious) sequence that serves as both a fitting return for the group and one of the best records MJK has ever made.
Eat the Elephant is the first new and original APC album since 2003’s Thirteenth Step. Additionally, it finds Howerdel performing nearly all of the instruments. According to band lore, he recently reunited with Keenan after “being cryogenically frozen as part of an experimental partnership between the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Dairy Queen”; sardonic humor aside—including the album’s title being both a jab at current politics and a possible nod to the indefinitely delayed new Tool album as, you know, the elephant in the room—Howerdel justly sees this latest collection as their “finest work to date.” Packed with gorgeously chilling arrangements and MJK’s skill at delivering “circumspect, yet optimistic, look[s] at the world's current state of affairs” with riled delicacy, it’s a ceaselessly gripping journey.
The aforementioned penchant for sobering elegance is demonstrated from the opening title track. A blend of modest percussion and tasteful piano chords soon complement stirring laments. “Where to begin eludes me / Without you to remind me.” Keenan sings. Shortly after, subtle strings add even more lush classiness, culminating in an outstanding example of overwhelming poignancy with relatively few components. In fact, it feels as closely connected to A Perfect Circle’s prior output as it does to the eclectic and sparse beauty of bands like Anathema, Lunatic Soul, and Nosound.
Fortunately, this direction also yields several subsequent gems. Take, for instance, the majority of "The Contrarian," which magnificently ethereal and temperamental. Likewise, “By and Down the River” successfully fuses textbook alternative rock techniques with warmly serene bookends. Meanwhile, closer “Get the Lead Out” is a creative and macabre exercise in moody repetition. Easily the best piece here, however, is “So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish.” A hypnotic political call-to-action, its symphonic majesty is matched by the catchy conviction with which Keenan proclaims lines like “This fireworks display / Mind and body blown away / What a radiate crescendo.” It’s utterly captivating.
Naturally, there’s an abundance of harsher and more arresting moments as well. In addition to the irresistible melodic, textural, and philosophical gravity of lead singles “Disillusioned” and “TalkTalk,” there’s the gothic charm of “DLB” (a piano instrumental) and the robotic horror of “Hourglass.” Oddly enough, both tracks evoke the industrial peculiarity of classic Nine Inch Nails and Porcupine Tree circa In Absentia. For sure, there are shades of Keenan’s darker and more bizarre proclivities throughout Eat the Elephant, making it a fine exercise in delightful dissonance.
Considering how long it’s been gestating, it’s downright remarkable that Eat the Elephant is so richly surprising, dependable, and multifaceted (in every way possible). Certainly, A Perfect Circle’s more expected elements still satisfy from start to finish. Still, it’s the emphasis on classical stimuli, atmospheric coatings, and heartrending intellectualism that truly makes the record exceptional. To put it bluntly, Eat the Elephant is a near masterpiece that further cements A Perfect Circle as equal to Keenan’s other outlets.