Raise a Glass to Puscifer’s Existential Reckoning

Maynard James Keenan dances in triplicate in Puscifer's Apocalyptical video

There is something familiar to the sound of Puscifer’s new album, Existential Reckoning, and I don’t mean because it is new music from a band I am intimately familiar with. Rather, I surmise it has to do firstly with Mat Mitchell’s use of a  Fairlight CM IIx—a synthesizer widely used in the ‘80s.

Existential Reckoning certainly has an analog feel to it. But the feeling I am trying to describe goes beyond such a simple explanation. It is in vocals as well as the instrumentation. Maynard’s lines are reminiscent of his recent work with A Perfect Circle in many lines, but the punctuation of Carina Round’s contributions leaves even these feeling different, along with the fact that Existential Reckoning is heavily electronic—something that could not be said when it comes to A Perfect Circle.

It is also significantly smoother than Puscifer’s past recordings. The album has an almost ambient feel to it, as opposed to an industrial one, although certain passages do put me in mind of KMFDM at the same time, but less and slower.

Indeed, no direct comparisons ultimately feel appropriate when it comes to Existential Reckoning, which I would contend marks it as a standout album. I could proliferate references to various acts, from The Dismemberment Plan to Laurie Anderson, but as much as I find myself thinking of these artists it is only ever for a moment, as Puscifer proceeds into novel territory at the same time as they play sounds that give me a vague sense of nostalgia.

The press release accompanying the album frames it as a search for Billy D. Berger, who went missing in 2016, and is quite amusing as it presents Mat Mitchell, Carina Round, and Maynard Keenan and agents creating this music in their search for the missing drunkard. There are also references to alien abduction.

A drawing of a man in a robe and sunglasses with an alien on each side, along with some symbols, on the cover of Puscifer's Existential Reckoning

While in main this feels like good ol’ Pusciferian humor, the year 2016 stands out to me—the year Trump was elected. It’s hard to avoid the thought that Existential Reckoning is a deeply political record, although it is not a screed with any particular agenda behind it so much as a lamentation with regard to the situation we’ve all come to find ourselves in.

It takes aim at cultural tendencies that are broader than “politics” in the sense people often use the term. This is not a record, in other words, about Democrats and Republicans. This is about all of us and the pervading sense of crisis. It’s about our reckoning with the modern/digital world, the idiots who populate it, the degradation of the line between truth and falsity, and so on.

It’s about the “Bread and Circus” that “sustains” us, but without meaningful substance, and the tango “Apocalyptical” as we dance backward into the void.

You are broken so you have broken free

Now you see right through the king’s new clothing

What freedom is to be found through “The Underwhelming”? It’s interesting to hear the track in the context of the greater album (and the same goes for “Apocalyptical,” which immediately precedes it as Track 2). Existential Reckoning flows quite well between one track and the next, even as “Theorem” gives us a sound that barely resembles anything the band has done before, with Carina Round taking the lead, singing in a robotic voice that spreads over the underlying bass line and ambient sounds.

As whole, I would characterize Existential Reckoning as providing these layers of sound that build on top of one another. (Take it up to 11!) This is not something new when it comes to Puscifer’s music per se, but what is distinctive on this new album is the veritable lack of silence—there is no space even between notes for the most part, much less anything like the powerful caesura that marks “Grand Canyon.”

This all seems perfectly in line with the time and place we find ourselves in. If I have any criticism of Existential Reckoning, it would be that it almost feels too in line with the zeitgeist it enters into. Everything seems a bit nebulous and ill-defined (about the world I mean). The borders are all fuzzy—of reality, of the self, of relationships with others…what Maynard describes on “UPGrade” as “morbid despair.”

The weakest track on the album, in my opinion, may be “Fake Affront,” which feels in its theme to be too much of a repetition of “The Remedy” and also feels a bit unoriginal in its sound. Now, perhaps this is intentional, playing along with its refrain of “heard it all before,” and perhaps the track will continue to grow on me over time, particularly if I can manage to pin down just what it is the riffs remind me of and discover that it is all quite clever.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I enjoy the song more now than I did on my first listen (which was still quite a bit), and I do love the way that Carina Round sings “shut the f*ck up” to punctuate the rhythms of the song. Nonetheless, it feels slightly out of place on Existential Reckoning even if it is made to flow well from the preceding “Postulous” and into the following “Bedlamite.”

It is this last track on the album that has quickly become my favorite. Perhaps it is just because I enjoy Maynard crooning to me that everything will be alright—it’s terribly soothing. And I want to believe it as I sit here less than a week away from the 2020 election, in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight, and a great amount of anxiety about the state of the world.

But at least there is Puscifer, and this Existential Reckoning is a gift. I hope that Agents Mitchell, Round, and Keenan found Billy D. and that he and Hildy are back together again. I can’t wait to hear some new tracks from The Berger Barns to celebrate the occasion, as we “raise a glass to our heterogeneity; our remarkable resilience to calamity.” And I hope that we are in store to these and other remixes from Puscifer in the near future. These new songs are ripe for it.

To purchase Existential Reckoning, visit pusciferdotcom and buy some merch while you’re there!

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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