Let’s face it – when (or if) Tool get around to releasing a new album, there’s no chance of it living up to expectations. In the years since 10,000 Days was released, the hype train has been running on overdrive, and the only real logical endpoint of that is the album is either never going to come, or it’ll be Tool’s own equivalent of Chinese Democracy. Plus, it hasn’t seemed too high on Maynard James Keenan’s list of priorities; since 2006, he’s released three Puscifer albums, and with most of his efforts lately focused on A Perfect Circle, those hopes of a new Tool album look more and more like a pipe-dream, particularly when there’s no tangible evidence that any progress is actually being made. Still, A Perfect Circle have usually been something to get excited about, and with Eat The Elephant being their first lot of original recorded music since 2003, it’s encouraging to see Keenan returning to at least one well that’s remained dry for far too long.
As well as that, Eat The Elephant is definitely new territory to explore, at least in terms of A Perfect Circle. It’s dominated by soft tones and meticulous arrangements, steering closer to something you’d find in jazz or classical music than prog or metal, as well as the delicate, poised atmosphere of an album with some big expectations it wants to meet. And while it does take its time for the swell to reach its maximum potential, Eat The Elephant does end up as an impressively textured and grand listen, though perhaps one that could be a little more accurate in how it hits it target. There’s no denying the craft that’s gone into this album, but it’s not the portentous, cinematic masterpiece that A Perfect Circle clearly wanted, and amidst all the technical admiration, it can’t be reciprocated for the final product itself.
In all honesty, that comes across as much more damning than it really should, given that Eat The Elephant is indeed a very good album, primarily in the shifts in focus that have been made. Gone is Billy Howerdel’s raging guitar work that characterised a track like Judith, and it finds itself replaced by a far more piano-centric sound looking for greater atmosphere. It arguably works best on the beautiful title track with its jazz-like arrangement of piano, drums and bass, but in the wide, bombastic crashes of strings on The Doomed, the power that’s unleashed is much greater, and coupled with the lockstep percussion and robotic vocal effects of Hourglass, it makes all the more clear how diverse of an album this can be. So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish is an even greater step away in that regard, as a bright, flashy pop song with roots in the ‘80s most gaudy synthpop acts.
But for all the delicacy and circumstance, Eat The Elephant ensures that Keenan and Howerdel’s premonitions of the end times remain in full view. Of course there are screeds against the US government in terms of views on gun control (TalkTalk) and just the general incompetence of the higher-ups (The Contrarian) delivered in the supple miasma of an album that’s well aware of the potential devastation its heralding, with the creep towards the abyss picking up on Disillusioned’s jaded views on technological advancement and the recent deaths of so many prominent figures on So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish. There’s a certain lack of clarity in the mindset A Perfect Circle are presenting here, pressing toward bleakness that it can convincingly sell.
All of that will most likely be enough to sell many on Eat The Elephant, and that’s understandable; as a novel take on what A Perfect Circle have become known for, it’s an incredibly well-crafted effort. But it doesn’t particularly stem beyond that, and particularly in its more languid, abstract moments, the softness doesn’t help keep this sturdy. Particularly towards the end, a track like Get The Lead Out completely falls apart, with an industrial beat, plucked strings and thin, repeated vocal lines that see the album as a whole dragging itself across the finish line. That’s the most prominent example, but really, the lack of clear characterisation beyond ethereal, vaguely jazzy passages does hurt Eat The Elephant. Beyond pretty instrumentation and a workable lyrical bent, not a lot really sticks, and Eat The Elephant feels as though it could’ve been so much more with a more stable foundation. What’s here is definitely good, but lowkey, tentative pieces don’t exactly benefit what A Perfect Circle are trying to do.
It’s far easier to find Eat The Elephant’s strengths when each individual piece is viewed in a vacuum – it’s a beautifully crafted album; the content has a lot of merit in the direction it takes; and in terms of transposing a heavier style to something like this, it’s an impressive piece of work. But those pieces don’t click together as well as they should, and it’s hard to totally recommend this album given the magnitude of that issue alone. Still, those individual elements really can be something, and the leap that A Perfect Circle have made between albums has been done staggeringly well from a technical standpoint. It’s enough to ensure that while Eat The Elephant won’t be for everyone, those who’ll find enjoyment in it the most will be spinning this one for a long time to come.
For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Gary Numan
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Eat The Elephant’ by A Perfect Circle is out now on BMG Rights Management.