Puscifer balances its darkness with levity

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      Around the end of last decade, Maynard James Keenan was juggling three projects: famed art-metal band Tool, alt-rock supergroup A Perfect Circle, and a nascent multimedia collective called Puscifer. Since that time, neither Tool nor A Perfect Circle has released a new album, while Puscifer has flourished into a productive outlet for goofy sketch comedy and darkly dramatic electro-rock. With the newly released third full-length, Money Shot, Keenan says that Puscifer has officially matured.

      “Most everything that’s going to be recognized culturally, it’s going to take a minimum of seven years for you to wrap your head around,” the frontman observes, speaking on the line from a hotel room in Ohio. “So here we are, doing much better with this thing seven years in.”

      If anybody knows about the importance of age and long-term maturation, it’s Keenan. In addition to having been a rock star since the early ’90s, the 51-year-old Arizona resident owns and operates Merkin Vineyards and the winery Caduceus Cellars. And while songwriting and winemaking rely on entirely separate skill sets, Keenan considers these pursuits to be parts of the same creative drive. “Everything we’re doing is a form of art, a kind of expression,” he contends. “Wine-making is an art form.”

      The same can be said for Puscifer’s various visual pursuits, which include theatrical live performances, inventive videos, and wacky artwork. Much of the imagery surrounding Money Shot features lucha libre wrestlers, while the cover art puts a whole new spin on the idea of a “money shot” by depicting someone getting punched squarely in the nuts. Keenan describes these visuals as part of an elaborate story line, explaining, “There will be films and maybe a short documentary to maybe connect some of those dots.”

      Puscifer’s comedic elements serve to contrast the tone of the moody music, which combines atmospheric alt-rock with rhythmically complex trip-hop. Keenan credits close collaborator Mat Mitchell with helping him to craft the sound of the LP.

      “He writes everything,” Keenan says of Mitchell. “Almost every instrument, besides the drums, you hear on this new record and most of the previous records, he played it all. He’s the engineer, he’s the mixer, he’s the producer. I hand him ideas for songs. I might have something on acoustic guitar that I’ve dicked around with, and here’s a rhythm or here’s a melody—but for the most part I’m describing him things and he’s coming up with pieces.”

      Comparing Puscifer to Depeche Mode, Keenan adds, “He’s like the Martin Gore of the project; I’m just Dave Gahan, dancing around.”

      This musical partnership shines on Money Shot opener “Galileo”, which simmers with syncopated drum-machine undulations, heavy fuzz-bass licks, and hymnlike vocal incantations, while “Grand Canyon” captures the majesty of the natural world with its smouldering drones and choral-style harmonies from backup singer Carina Round. “Money Shot” captures Puscifer’s alt-metal inclinations at their most aggressive, while “The Remedy” rides a knotty 5/4 groove and features the sinisterly snarled refrain, “You speak like someone who has never been smacked in the fucking mouth/That’s okay, we have the remedy.”

      Regarding the inspiration for such lyrics, Keenan reflects, “There’s a lot of people out there that have forgotten how to be courteous and respect their elders. Respect other people’s space. Be accountable for their actions. Lack of self-discipline. The list goes on.”

      Still, as unnerving as Money Shot often is, it has hints of levity. “Life of Brian (Apparently You Haven’t Seen)” is a critique of fanaticism that, despite the track’s eerie sound, takes its name from a Monty Python comedy film from 1979. “The Arsonist”, on the other hand, offers fiery apocalypse imagery, but also references the ’90s TV series Beavis and Butt-Head.

      This blend of humour and earnestness reflects Puscifer’s multifaceted artistic vision, showing that the project has matured into a fine vintage. “I see as much light as I see darkness in the new songs,” Keenan says. “I mean, we did mention Beavis. There’s a bunch of other little breadcrumbs throughout the songs. I think it’s joined at the hip. Shakespeare couldn’t be Shakespeare without blending the comedy with the tragedy.”

      Puscifer plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday (December 2).