Words and photos by Yousef Hatlani
“It’s tough having heroes,” Lester Bangs wrote in 1976, reviewing David Bowie’s cocaine-fueled disco landmark Station to Station. “Hero-worshippers (fans) must live with the continually confirmed dread of hero-slippage and humiliating personal compromises in your standards and plain good sense about, oh, two to three weeks after the new elpee masterwork first hits our turntables.”
Maynard James Keenan—by then known only by his first name, James—had just graduated from high school the year Bangs died at age 33. If only the legendary rock critic had lived long enough to see Keenan’s often fanatical fan base, he may have been faced with something of an exception to that truism: between Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, Keenan has fashioned a catalog reliable in both quality and curiosity. It has also bred legions upon legions of fans, ranging from the analytical to the absurd—time and again acknowledged by Keenan himself as, sometimes, just a bit too much.
This dedication can and has (maybe unjustifiably) driven some people away from the realm of all things MJK; at three separate shows I attended in Portland since January 2014—with one of them just last week, the bass player soundchecked by noodling on Tool’s ‘Schism’ before descending into laughter and quickly moving on.
It seems fitting, then, that Puscifer can be seen as a reaction of sorts to the deification that led to this; an outlet for all things bizarre and ludicrous, as well as sincere and straightforward—all from the autonomous efforts of Keenan and his revolving band of contributors. On Saturday night, Portland had its taste of that imagination in full-blown technicolor, with the group stopping by the Keller Auditorium to support its third LP, Money Shot, released just last month.
The evening began with a lucha libre wrestling match. Yes, you read that correctly: there was a ring, there were masked wrestlers, there were bleachers onstage for VIP ticketholders and there was pre-recorded commentary. Although it might seem like a strange way to open a rock show, it was anything but; lucha libre masks are featured on the Money Shot album cover. They were also on backdrops throughout the show and were even worn by band members—including Keenan, who never took his off.
Following twenty minutes of pretty remarkable athletics and a quick set changeover (including a videotaped PSA from Keenan as his alter ego, Major Douche, reminding people to please, please not use their phones,) the band launched into the Money Shot cut “Simultaneous,” featuring dual lead vocals by Maynard and key contributor Carina Round—whom it would be fair to say was in as much command of the show as Keenan; they both had the same amount of space on stage, the same movements and even the same outfit.
The set leaned heavily on material from the new album—which is usually a problem for bands, but never so much in Keenan’s case, considering the audience already seemed to know every syllable of every chorus. The night was nevertheless peppered with choice cuts from Puscifer’s discography, including “Rev 22:20” and “Vagina Mine” from 2007’s V is for Vagina, as well as a placid “Horizons” and an exclamatory “Man Overboard” from 2011’s Conditions of my Parole. They also shifted from the mostly downtempo, steady mood of their songs to aggressive and explosive cuts, bringing out harder-hitting numbers like “The Undertaker” and “Toma,” also respectively from those albums.
Keenan was obviously enjoying himself throughout the show, jovial is spirits nary seen at Tool or A Perfect Circle concerts. The band, too, seemed to be having fun—completed by vocalist Round, guitarist/songwriter Mat Mitchell, drummer Jeff Friedl (who was, no kidding, dressed like the gimp on the cover of Death Grips’ The Money Store,) keyboardist Mahsa Zargaran and Ministry’s own Paul Barker on bass.
In all, Puscifer’s music places more emphasis on electronics and texture than the time-signature shifting prog rock of Tool and the alt rock experiments of A Perfect Circle. In this sense, their music is also more uniform: the songs stand out less from each other than those of the aforementioned groups. This is not really a drawback, though; Puscifer’s live show is a holistic tease of one’s light and dark sides, the screwball backdrops and masks contrasting greatly with the moody grooves and beautiful vocal harmonies of Keenan and Round.
Perhaps it is this, then, that keeps drawing fans into the creative legacy of Maynard James Keenan: despite honing an aesthetic he set out with twenty-five years ago, every Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer tour has been a marked visual departure from the last. And whether or not you land in the ‘hero-worshippers’ category Lester Bangs wrote about in 1976, it is evident that Maynard’s output has cultivated a notion of integrity and detail absent from many groups on the same barometer. Nearly forty years after Station to Station, it would have been interesting to see what Bangs would make of it all.