Thursday, March 25, 2010

Concert Review: Puscifer

On March 15, I had the unique experience of attending a Puscifer show (I hesitate to use the word concert for reasons that will become clear) at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. Puscifer, in case you're not aware, is the most recent project from Tool and A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan, or, as he describes it in one of the video segments that appears during his live show, "the latest in a seemingly endless string of bad ideas."

While its true that Maynard's creative energy does seem endless, after attending one of their live shows it's hard to describe it as a bad idea. It would also be inaccurate to describe Keenan's latest band as a side project, both because it isn't a band nor is it on the side. Rather, Puscifer, which Maynard himself calls a troupe rather than a band, is basically a multi-media catchall for his various endeavors. While music is still the centerpiece, a Puscifer concert also encompasses both live and pre-recoded skits as well as some fairly avant garde interaction between the performers and the audience.

And that's just the concert itself. Puscifer the project also brings in elements from Keenan's other passion, wine making -- the Puscifer online store has a real world mirror site at Keenan's Arizona winery complete with winery exclusives, while concertgoers can buy a mega package deal that doesn't just include a behind the scenes meet and greet with Keenan but an actual wine tasting lesson from the singer himself.

Puscifer, then, can really be seen as less of a band and more of a brand, as it's the umbrella for everything non-Tool Keenan does these days. Fittingly, his road show -- which the singer has unapologetically termed cabaret -- consists of a rotating group of players: everyone from Primus drummer Tim Alexander to Nine Inch Nails' Danny Lohner to Milla Jovovich shows up as part of his team of musicians, comedians and performers such as opening act Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival which live in a nebulous space somewhere between the two. Their satirical take on Christian rock sets the perfect stage for a show that is long on carefully calculated religious subversion and somewhat short on subtlety.

That's not to say that Puscifer's message is less than heartfelt, as Keenan has been delivering variations on this theme for over a decade; but after such a long time it does seem to be included at times mainly because it is an expected part of the package rather than a current passion. If elements like the entire band dressing in priest outfits or a "pope" wandering the aisles giving communion to fans seem a bit familiar and even tired at times, it doesn't change the fact that a large portion of the crowd was still eating it up, no doubt just as Keenan planned.

And those elements were also more than balanced by some of Puscifer's more progressive ideas, specifically the stage presentation. Both Maynard and his current singing partner Carina Round were situated at the back of the stage, with a large black and white television screen placed strategically in front of the their faces. This in turn was attached to a camera perched on their microphone, meaning that from the crowd's perspective, their faces were replaced by somewhat oversized and distorted HD broadcasts of... their faces. It seemed an interesting artistic commentary on the nature of live performance and media manipulation of images -- or maybe it was just something weird to do -- but whatever the purpose, I personally thought the result was very cool.

Perhaps cooler, though, was the front of the stage, where the band had set out an entire living room furniture set complete with couch, love seat, comfy chair and coffee table. During solos or other portions of the show that didn't require all the performers to be active, band members would leave their instruments and plop themselves down on these chairs where they would alternately engage in reading novels, drinking wine and fiddling with their laptops. And these weren't just props; as you can see from Maynard's twitter feed, he often tweets during shows, including some aimed at specific audience members who may be following his feed live.

The overall effect, then, was a strange combination of interaction and inaction; the relaxed vibe created by seeing the band members just hanging around onstage was completely at odds with many of the songs being played but seemed to subconsciously overpower the music, as most audience members remained in their seats, mellowly nodding along to the music instead of jumping to their feet as one might normally expect at such a concert. Indeed, Maynard himself seemed slightly taken aback by the unintended consequence of the living room lounge, as he eventually reminded the crowd that they could, in fact, stand up if they felt like it (a comment that was instantly taken as a command by the audience, who rose in unison and remained standing for the remainder of the show).

You'll notice that one aspect of the concert has been conspicuously absent from my review so far: you know, the music. That's not because the music was bad or uninteresting; on the contrary, Maynard and his troupe were musically impeccable throughout the show and the songs themselves, though not always to my taste (the heavy electronica vibe gets a bit too heavy for me at times), were at the very least intriguing if not always pleasant. But while the actual performance was excellent, in some ways the music was almost beside the point; fans of Puscifer's songs would certainly not be let down, but for anyone new to Puscifer, it seems likely that any positive or negative opinion would be based not on the music so much as on the show as a whole. If you like the multi-media combination of sound, video and performance art, then by extension you'd like the music; and if the didn't like the show, you almost certainly wouldn't like the music.

Because with Puscifer, the live show isn't so much a concert as a fully integrated life experience, like living inside a long form music video. If you're just interested in the songs, well, I suggest you stay home and listen to an iPod or their streaming playlist at But if you're in the mood for a little experimental art, then their live show may be for you.

My Grades: The technical performance by the band gets an A+ for being sharp as razor wire, though the actual songs only rate a B for me on the whole. The show as performance art, though, also rates an A assuming you aren't offended by the sexual and anti-religious imagery. If you are, you really, really need to avoid this show.

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