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A Perfect Circle: Thirteenth Step ****
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A PERFECT CIRCLE: Thirteenth Step
(Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune, 01.16.04)

Featuring a remarkably seamless mix of thunderous guitar riffs, ambient noise, luscious string arrangements and the kind of soaring, surprisingly accessible melodies that only intermittently graced their 2000 debut, Mer de Noms, A Perfect Circle's Thirteenth Step is a tour de force that represents one of lead singer Maynard James Keenan's richest, most uplifting achievements to date.
 
Keenan, of course, earned his reputation as alt-metal's gloomiest frontman with Tool, lending his quietly intense warble to cheerless odes like "Prison Sex" (from 1993's Undertow) and "Hooker With a Penis" (from 1996's Aenima). And though Thirteenth Step is hardly the soundtrack for a carefree stroll in the park -- its title refers to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, while its mood is unrelentingly brooding as Keenan and company fire off dark dispatches from the road to recovery -- it wisely eschews the dense, riff-heavy drudgery of Tool's last effort, 2001's coldly impersonal Lateralus. Instead, it relies on painstakingly crafted melodies laden with swirling, haunting atmospherics and lyrics that ultimately convey cautious hope.

To be sure, Thirteenth Step is a sobering account of the struggle against addiction, from the hopelessness of "Weak and Powerless" ("Someone feed the monkey while I dig in search of china/White as Dracula as I approach the bottom/Desperate and ravenous/I'm so weak and powerless over you") to the optimistic, life-affirming coda of "Gravity" ("Catch me heal me lift me back up to the sun/I choose to live, I choose to live"). Each step of the way, Keenan and former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel strike the right emotional balance: They are melancholy without being maudlin, quiet and reserved without sacrificing a bit of their trademark intensity, wounded and vulnerable yet defiant.
 
Indeed, Thirteenth Step is the most emotionally charged statement of Keenan's young career, and it is bold leap forward from A Perfect Circle's promising, if uneven, debut. Whereas Mer de Noms proved that the band could rock as hard as Tool and Nine Inch Nails, Thirteenth Step suggests a songwriting depth and maturity that was missing on that first effort. It is a delicate, beautiful work, and its unusual fusion of industrial blasts, tender acoustics and crashing power chords only makes its triumph that much more impressive. -- Rossiter Drake

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