Rock Album Review: Puscifer’s “Existential Reckoning” — Amusing Ourselves to Death

By Scott McLennan

Existential Reckoning confronts today’s lethal inanity in blistering fashion, via songs that posit dire consequences for a country that wants to be entertained more than it wants to be informed.

Puscifer, Existential Reckoning

Over the course of its years of recordings and performances, the techno-rock ensemble Puscifer has succeeded in combining serious musical experimentation with subversive, satirical humor. But Puscifer’s new record, Existential Reckoning, arrives at a time and in a culture that barely resembles the ones the group has been skewering since its 2007 debut album.

What has not changed is Puscifer’s creative core, which consists of vocalist Maynard James Keenan, multi-instrumentalist Mat Mitchell, and singer-keyboardist Carina Round. Keenan injects a bit more zeal into this project than was heard on his recent outings with Tool and A Perfect Circle. He and Round beautifully blend their vocals on the new album, generating appropriately haunting and haunted effects. Mitchell matches their ethereal sounds with an array of barbed and lacerating guitar tones accented with other striking musical counterpoints.

Over the course of the three full-length albums that led up to Existential Reckoning, Puscifer has constructed a distinctively paradoxical sound that reflects the sparse surroundings of the group’s home base in the Arizona desert but also embraces the electronic and digital trappings that evoke a world that is more futuristic than it is rustic.

But the real world has caught up to Puscifer’s mix-and-match craziness. The characters that populated the loose, nonlinear narratives of the  group’s earlier albums — dramatized in performances and videos  — seem almost quaint compared to what we now have to deal with. When it comes to shredding norms and decency, Puscifer’s hillbilly hustler Billy D and military blowhard Major Douche have nothing on the current occupant of the White House. The creepy-crawly absurdities that Puscifer once led us to believe were hidden in America’s underbelly have not only slithered out into the open, they have claimed center stage in our political and social discourse. As Philip Roth concluded years ago, American reality is crazier than any fiction he or anyone else could make up.

Existential Reckoning confronts today’s lethal inanity in blistering fashion, via songs that posit dire consequences for a country that wants to be entertained more than it wants to be informed. On the one hand, this is a Covid record and a Trump record. But Puscifer reaches beyond the alarming headlines, going on to critique the spiritual and intellectual decay we find ourselves wallowing in.

Sounds like heavy stuff, right? But this is Puscifer, which excels at making things seem very un-heavy (not light, just un-heavy). Part of the record’s charm is its extensive use of the ’80s-era Fairlight digital synthesizer (think back to those first few Peter Gabriel albums), an eccentricity that gives the project a cohesive comic tone and quirky personality.

The dozen tracks proffer an easy flow, starting with “Bread and Circus,” which sets off a series of laments, this one concerning our willingness to hand over our freedoms in exchange for a steady supply of cheap comfort and trite amusement. The temperature rises on “Apocalyptical,” with Keenan and Round proclaiming that there is considerable peril in ignoring the evidence of a coming crisis (sound familiar?). Denial is deadly.

But the song that gets even closer to explaining how we ended up in this bind is “Grey Area 5.1,” where Puscifer raises the specter of the “digital paradigm.” It is an attack on a monolithic technology ‘business” that garners huge profits by specializing in making the factual and fictional indistinguishable. Truth is obliterated by relativity — because it can’t make as much money. The record bounces between these grand explorations of social breakdown and exercises in personal reflections, including the psychedelic “Bullet Train to Iowa” and the sweeping call to self-awakening,“Personal Prometheus.”

The penultimate track, “Fake Affront” gives us Puscifer going as punk rock as it ever has, the band delivering a raucous message of STFU to … well, you decide. The closing track, “Bedlamite,” begins with a fairly sour outlook on those who peddle salvation, but somewhat surprisingly ends up sounding a note of optimism. The lyric “It’s going to be all right, everything will be all right” comes off as sincere — hope is within reach. Given how dangerously nutso the world has become, Existential Reckoning is solid from start to finish.

The album will be released on  Oct. 30. That day, Puscifer is livestreaming a performance of Existential Reckoning in its entirety from Arcosanti, AZ. Details on watching the performance are available here.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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