Literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” in 1973 to describe self-conscious poets whose work was feared to be too heavily modeled after the writers of the past. Maynard James Keenan doesn’t have that problem, because none of the projects he’s currently involved with could ever be confused with something that has already been done. Whether he’s free-associating with his on-again, off-again comrades in Tool or carving out a whole new musical world with Puscifer, Keenan is hell-bent on constantly shifting the paradigm of what a modern rock outfit should look and sound like. George Carlin might call them “brain droppings,” but Keenan himself has referred to the material released under the Puscifer stamp as his creative subconscious with plenty of theatrical swagger tossed in, which manifests itself whenever the band assumes control of the stage. A Puscifer show hits you like an industrial-strength stiff drink laced with its creator’s abrasive sense of humor, but the kicker in all of it is that the audience never really knows if they’re being taken for a ride.
Keenan seldom steps out of the shadows long enough to attract attention and, when he does, he’s usually veiled by a mask or some eccentric disguise. During the band’s recent stop at UB’s Center for the Arts, he arrived on stage wearing his own customized Lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) mask to coincide with the theme of the evening. He clearly revels in the absurd and having a 45-minute wrestling match open the show is as close to Martin Esslin territory as it gets. Was it entertaining? To a point, but the jury is still out on whether such a sizeable chunk of time should have been devoted to it. The fact that wrestling was also sprinkled throughout the musical portion of the evening only served to exacerbate the point.
After all, it’s the music that inspired everyone to gather in the first place, and what glorious music it is. Keenan’s genius might be Puscifer’s guiding light, but it’s the sensational musicians around him that infuse the project with the potency necessary for takeoff. Multi-instrumentalist Mat Mitchell, singer Carina Round, drummer Jeff Friedl, bassist Paul Barker and keyboardist/vocalist Mahsa Zargaran all embrace the darkness en route to honing one of the most unforgettable concert experiences you’ll ever have. Round possesses a hauntingly celestial voice that positioned itself as the perfect Yin to Keenan’s Yang during the phase in which the beautiful “Galileo” and “Agostina” transitioned into the pulverizing Act II of “Vagina Mine” and “Horizons.”
From there, the group laid out one iridescent entry after another as Keenan continued to challenge the audience to join him on whatever astral plane he was operating from at that moment. His vocal on “The Rapture (Fear is a Mind Killa Mix)” was every bit as incendiary as the record and the attitude he brought to the Tool-esque “Toma” had everyone wishing that his most popular band would finally drop their long-awaited next album. Even new tracks “Grand Canyon” and “Money Shot” were bolstered by the live setting, further demonstrating why Puscifer is beyond every other outfit on the modern rock scene. They forsake the easy and predictable in favor of the complex and spontaneous, and we the fans are better off for it.
As stellar as Tool’s later catalog is, now’s the time when all the haters should just calm down, because Puscifer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Nor should they.