Step Forward

I am not an intern at The End. I don't work for a street team, and I don't have an acoustic Puddle of Mudd cassingle to give you. I don't believe that the roses on Speakerboxxx—or even The Love Below— really smell like poo-poo. I not only resisted the impulse to trade in the new TV on the Radio and Fiery Furnaces discs for beer money, but I dutifully scoured the entirety of each and rather enjoyed doing so.

These caveats may not earn a sliver of your respect for what I am about to proclaim—A Perfect Circle's Thirteenth Step was my favorite album of 2003—and maybe they shouldn't. These guys are, after all, a hastily arranged supergroup of Lost Angels steakheads and session players. Head count: On guitar and bass, throwaway glam-brats from Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson; on skins, the dinosaur-old drummer-for-hire from the Vandals; composing the majority of the music, Nine Inch Nails' friggin' guitar tech; and on vocals, the musclehead dwarf from Tool. In a wig.

Miraculously, this motley crew of faux-goth, alt-rock pinups ditched the let's-write-three-minute-Tool-songs approach that made 2000 debut Mer de Noms such a nonevent and delivered a gorgeously morose, single-free concept album about addiction, self-loathing, manipulation, and, surprisingly, the refusal to surrender. (The titular "thirteenth step" is likely a sinister postscript to standard 12-step self-help programs.) Maybe NIN and Alice in Chains al­ready covered this ground in the mid-'90s; maybe APC routinely undermine their own artful flourishes by releasing videos for "Weak and Powerless" and "The Outsider" oozing with half-naked babes; maybe Step is occasionally beset by segue filler ("Crimes," "Lullaby") that dulls its dramatic thunder.

Maybe. But the first four cuts alone trump the collective output of all the players combined, with the exception of vocalist Maynard James Keenan, who has long successfully toyed with the murkiest, most uncomfortable subject matter in Tool. "The Package" establishes his narrator's insatiable appetite immed­iately; Keenan almost incoherently lusts for a new fix while disorienting, staccato percussion and power chords storm around him. Yet, it's one of the few Tool-reminiscent tracks on Step. Keenan—who has called APC the outlet for his "feminine side"—is rumored to have butted heads with guitarist Billy Howerdel while writing the material, which was ultimately adjusted to suit the frontman's operatic stylings.

The alterations fit. During "Weak and Powerless," "The Noose," and "Blue," trite soft-loud dynamics are throttled in favor of delay-heavy, tempered meditations on overdoses and the afterlife. On "Noose," Keenan exhaustedly wonders, "I'm more than just a little curious how you're planning to go about making your amends to the dead." Sounds like another in a litany of impossible processes, his side project's specialty. Hope they hang around to (fail to) show us the way for at least one more record.

A Perfect Circle play the Tacoma Dome with the Mars Volta at 8 p.m. Fri., April 9. $35.

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