Review by Sheldon Hubbard
Whatever Maynard James Keenan and his Puscifer cohorts are harboring in their exquisite, albeit sometimes strange heads, they’ve certainly found a glimmering ebb and flow on their latest album, Existential Reckoning. Many of Maynard’s previous releases/collabs under the Puscifer name have reflected a soundscape reminiscent of a fusion between coarse industrial, sparkly nu-metal hues, and even elements of bluegrass. What Keenan, Mat Mitchell, and Carina Round (amongst other collaborators) have manifested here can act as much as an eye-opening societal commentary as it can an entrancing synth rock masterpiece.
Puscifer is no stranger to the use of electronic sounds, but this record in particular really places you under their perspective lens. When writing “Apocalyptical” they used ‘old’ electronics such as the Fairlight CMI IIx (the second version of an Australian Synthesizer/Sampler workstation series from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s used by artists such as Queen, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, and many others) and the NED Synclavier II (a competing 1980 digital workstation that relied on FM synthesis and was used by artists such as The Cure, Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa, Depeche Mode, and many others). Their use of these electronics adds something familiar sounding to the ear, but also conjures the setting for quite the futuristic journey.
Hearing the first track, “Bread And Circus” really gives the impression that you just hit START in an NES video game and are going through the necessary TUTORIAL portion. Although, this is certainly not a tutorial stage you should skip out on. From the blackened borders, you hear Maynard chime, “Here we are in the middle of... our existential... reckoning…” instantly pressing the main objective moving forward. The volume increases and the more it does, the more cosmic and chromatic the track becomes. Leading you into their first single from the record, “Apocalyptical." A track that grooves further with the showcase of the album’s electronic aspect, but purveys pragmatic use of arena sounding drums and grinding guitar.
The lyrics provide an Orwellian narrative that is guided by the conducive back and forth of Maynard and Round throughout the production. It bends and folds its way from your ears out through your eyes. Lending another perspective take on what it's like to witness this existence pressed forward by dizzying digital dystopia. Look at lyrics like - Concessions, fireworks / Pageantry and glitter / Gladiators and jesters, just entertainers / Bread and circus; - if anything else, it flips it right onto the screen for ya’. People who trade their humanity for supreme indulgence of any kind, can find themselves wasting away from within their mind. Jump forward to “UPgrade” and you are eerily beckoned at the end to - Stop / Upgrade / Please stop… / Stop / Do not / Stop, repeat / Stop / Shut down… - getting a glimpse into what feels like a virtual overload. Only to bring you to the utterances a couple tracks over in “Personal Prometheus” - Listen closely (Listen closely, listen closely)... / For the echo (For the echo, for the echo) / Of your genesis (Of your genesis, your genesis, your genesis) / Your inception (Your formation) / Your stigmata from Prometheus (Prometheus, Prometheus, Prometheus)... - it bullets you toward a sensational cosmic renewal. Slinging you to a soft stop by the time you’ve reached the end of the album on “Bedlamite,” where you have our songsters ringing - It's gonna be alright / It's gonna be alright... / It's gonna be alright / Everything will be alright… - keeping you centered in the radiance of trudging forward toward something more. Especially after a year where outlook has been shaky, but many seemed to really cling to the adage, “this too shall pass.”
Cycling through this electro-magnetic, meditative listening experience, it really rubber bands your sense of what it means to suspend your disbelief. You come to find that what the lyrics are saying may have more to do with your surroundings than you may have initially believed. What Puscifer has put together here exhausts the concept of reality being stranger than fiction. Bringing this soundscape to life in the midst of a global pandemic, surrounded by onslaughts of civil unrest, and hordes of other horrible world happenings lends quite the hand to sniffing out the plot points of this digital dystopia we humans have found ourselves in. Existential Reckoning is exemplary proof of how sound can lay witness to the times. Don’t sit this one out.