By Scott McLennan
Puscifer pulled off a great show of rock ’n’ roll farce, and that is saying something considering that the daily news feels ever more like scripted buffoonery.
Puscifer, at the House of Blues in Boston on June 28.
Puscifer, the theatrical rock ensemble led by Maynard James Keenan with singer Carina Round and multi-instrumentalist Mat Mitchell, assisted by drummer Gunner Olsen on this tour, confronted the angst and turmoil of our convulsing nation back in the fall of 2000 in the excellent Existential Reckoning album (Arts Fuse review).
They are still at it, and this live show offers all of the songs from the recording, now packaged as a sardonic treatise on junk culture, a disengaged citizenry, the death grip of technology on our lives, and the threatening rise of frauds and the followers who support them.
But Puscifer doesn’t blame Trump for our current predicament. The band doesn’t blame anyone on the ideological right or left. No, the troupe looks up at the stars and blames the aliens. That’s how Keenan, who also fronts the bands Tool and A Perfect Circle, and this crew rise above the day-to-day noise to create a distinctively satiric racket of its own.
The dramatic story line of the concert follows the antics of a trio of secret agents portrayed by a heavily madeup Keenan, Round, and Mitchell. They are tracking down space creatures, who themselves are in pursuit of a recurring Puscifer character — Billy D, a hard-drinking lout. Other agents and visiting aliens make entrances and exits throughout the show, sometimes doing some dancing, other times just being bizarre.
The more effectively comical routines revolved around Keenan (seen on video) as Agent Dick Merkin, who is debriefing us about how red-carpet celebrities are, in reality, the products of an alien cloning program. Merkin does not spare Keenan in the conspiracy plot, explaining that the front man for Tool is actually a gender-reassigned version of Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams, who according to the agent, never really died — yeah, this all gets pretty tangled and weird.
The concert, though, was ostensibly just that — a performance that first and foremost presented the music without the out-0f-this-world narrative necessarily driving the action.
This iteration of Puscifer leans heavily on vintage synthesizer gear and tones. The angular, wiry sounds evocative of ’80s pop was further enhanced with the use of lots of neon lighting in the stage design and video imagery. The overall visual impression evoked the first golden age of video games. By creating its future-shock message with sights and sounds reminiscent of pop culture from 40 years ago, the band left the provocative impression that maybe we should have seen all of this mess coming.
The Existential Reckoning songs were powerful live. Keenan and Round worked the stage in with arch aplomb — prowling and racing, occasionally scaling some towering scaffold to deliver blistering lines about seeing through the king’s new clothes (from “The Underwhelming”) or to exclaim that there are no facts, there are no fictions, everything is interchangeable (from “Grey Area”).
Mitchell remained fairly stoic throughout, playing guitar and manning the keyboards situated around the stage.
The show’s furious pacing slowed down toward the end when Puscifer stacked a few electro-ballads, including “Personal Prometheus” and “A Singularity.” But that section provided a chance for the band to draw on some of its older material, including a brooding “Indigo Children” and a reading of “The Humbling River” that, for a moment, suspended all the paranoid artifice. A beautiful song was let alone to work its magic.
Other popular tunes from earlier albums that made the setlist included “The Remedy” from Money Shot and the title track from the Conditions of My Parole album, plus that record’s “Man Overboard.” The latter two were performed during an encore segment in which Keenan emerged dressed as the Billy D character, furiously fighting off aliens attempting to probe him in an intimate area that nobody wants invaded.
When the chaos died down, Keenan and Round delivered a contemplative “Bedlamite,” winding down the nearly two-hour show the same way Puscifer closes Existential Reckoning, with a hopeful message suggesting that everything will turn out all right.
Experimental hip-hop trio Moodie Black opened the show with a 30-minute audio-visual maelstrom. Vocalist Kristen Martinez’s voice was often buried in the mix, but the frenetic energy generated on stage was palpable.
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.