A Perfect Circle successfully avoided the sophomore slump with 2003’s Thirteenth Step. Keeping in line with the progressive + art rock influences of the band’s debut, Mer De Noms, the album had a much better synergy between Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel than previous material. Three of the singles, “Weak And Powerless”, “Blue”, and “The Outsider”, helped the album eventually go Platinum.
Intriguingly, Thirteenth Step is an ambitious concept album that references the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. It doesn’t necessarily need to be digested in that fashion, but it certainly adds to the experience.
Right away, you know this is going to be a different experience than Mer De Noms. Album opener “The Package”, which clocks in at almost eight minutes, sets the tone immediately with its ominous atmosphere and buildup – eventually coalescing into an unexpected alt-metal climax. Being the album opener, conclusions can easily be drawn from its lyrical content that it’s about addiction.
Many of the album’s tracks have a similar buildup, despite not being nearly as long. Take “The Noose”, for instance. Its guitar soundscapes, while subdued, wisely don’t dominate Maynard’s vocals – or the excellent drum work. A song about hitting rock bottom and trying to recover from it, it’s arguably the centerpiece of Thirteenth Step, and it will likely give you the chills. Of course, that’s what music like this is supposed to do.
When A Perfect Circle opts for a more alt-metal approach, it also proves effective. “The Outsider” and “Pet” are just two examples of this, with the former being a solid lead-in to APC’s sonic evolution as a whole. It also pushes the upper registers of Maynard James Keenan’s voice in impressive fashion. Meanwhile, “Pet” is an exercise in metallic + melodic tension, with a strong guitar solo that adds to the kind of dynamics you’d expect from a Howerdel project (you can also hear this in his Ashes Divide project).
Notably, the more stripped-down tracks work just as well. “Vanishing” and “A Stranger” are sequenced well, which is a huge plus. The latter’s atmospheric and acoustic motifs show tremendous restraint (which is something Thirteenth Step excels at as a whole), while “Vanishing” is a vehicle for Maynard’s vocal abilities.
For good measure, there’s also a neat cover of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me” tacked on, and interestingly it doesn’t distract from the theme of Thirteenth Step. There’s also the haunting “Blue”, which might well be the most emotionally touching song on the album, in that it’s about the denial of addiction. Certainly, it’s relatable even now with the opiod epidemic. Chilling stuff, but effective as well.
At its core, Thirteenth Step is an album that balances the scales between being a great mainstream rock album, and something that aspires to be highly artistic. Much more than just a series of singles strung together, it’s a highly effective slice of music that, when it all coalesces, proves how emotionally gratifying a great rock album can be.