Puscifer’s first appearance was in a 1995 sketch from Mr. Show, or, at least that’s how I like to think about it. In that sketch about Ronnie Dobbs (David Cross), the name of the band itself was a part of the joke. And while Maynard James Keenan is very much a member of Puscifer, his Tool compatriot Adam Jones really isn’t (some artwork aside). But given the rotating cast over the years and the humor that has remained a constant throughout the life of Puscifer, why not let “Ronnie Dobbs” stand as their first song?
Regardless, that song will not appear on the list that follows, which represents my attempt to build a perfect album of ten Puscifer songs. Now, I’m not necessarily claiming these are their best ten songs, since the flow of the playlist has also been a factor in its construction, but if you want to take it that way, that’s fine. We can have a debate about it.
If you’re not familiar with Puscifer, I think it’s fair to take Maynard James Keenan as a point of reference/entry point to the band. One of the interesting things to me, however, is the difference between Maynard’s work with Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. I enjoy all three, but I don’t think there is any guarantee that others will as well. I can’t say I tend to mix their songs up in the same playlist. So, what is Puscifer?
Let’s start off with “Momma Sed,” which also happens to be the only track on my list from Puscifer’s first full-length album, “V” is for Vagina (2007). It’s not that it’s a bad album by any means, but in terms of picking ten songs from the band that will flow together to create my own fictional album, “Momma Sed” is the one that works the best with what Puscifer went on to do later. And what might be my favorite song from this era—“Cunty Boner”—really wouldn’t fit in well with the others I have chosen. Of course it also wasn’t even on “V” is for Vagina…but more on that later.
“Momma Sed” always struck me as one of the better tracks from “V” but it became one of my favorite songs period in the aftermath of being unexpectedly dumped circa 2012. Here I had been imagining a future of a certain kind with a woman I loved, and this was stripped away from me in the course of an afternoon. It doesn’t matter if in retrospect I can see how she was probably right.
Changes come (Changes come)
Keep your dignity (Keep your dignity)
Take the high road (Take the high road)
Take it like a man (Take it like a man)
Momma said like the rain (This, too, shall pass)
Like a kidney stone (This, too, shall pass)
It’s just a broken heart, son
This pain will pass away
I find this inspirational. One of my friends said it’s harsh. Regardless, the beat driving the verses of “Momma Sed” gives the feeling of persevering through life’s travails, and the refrain (a version of which is quoted above) brings a catharsis that only grows with each repetition. And then you’ve got Maynard James Keenan harmonizing and doing backing vocals for himself as the song progresses, which is beautiful. Of course when it came to touring, Keenan would have to bring in other voices (generally women), which is an element that has become integral to Puscifer’s sound over the years.
Jumping to 2015’s Money Shot (which I hold to be Puscifer’s best album to date (as I write this weeks prior to the release of Existential Reckoning), the second track on my list is “Galileo.” The thumping bass rhythms that form its opening bars lead to soaring, almost ethereal vocals that spark in me what I am tempted to characterize as almost a feeling of transcendence. But it isn’t quite. This is grounded and protracted, like the tribulations of the man who reached for the stars and ended in banishment.
Feed on the senseless center
In the heliocentric model is a de-centering of humanity. We hold no special place in creation. This is the heresy, cutting against centuries if not millennia of established dogma. Fauna and flora provided for us to use, and the heavens moving above in perfect circles—images of eternity. In that de-centering one can find the fuel for modernity, with its tragedies both personal and historic. Galileo serves as a symbol for this.
Echo his madness
His heresy feeds us all
“The Humbling River”
This tension between the sacred and the profane runs through Puscifer’s work and is evident in a different register in “The Humbling River,” from their 2009 “C” Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference Here).
Angel, angel, what have I done?
I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire
I’ve conquered country, crown, and throne
Why can’t I cross this river?
Pay no mind to the battles you’ve won
It’ll take a lot more than rage and muscle
Open your heart and hands, my son
Or you’ll never make it over the river
The song is one of Puscifer’s mellower tracks, and much like with “Galileo,” there is something both somber and uplifting about it. “C” Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference Here) marked Carina Round’s recording debut as a member of the band, though at this point it is hard to believe that Puscifer ever existed without her.
As with many Puscifer tracks that would follow, Round and Keenan sing in unison on “The Humbling River,” and here I find the effect to be particularly striking. The masculine and the feminine are in harmony, and we can relate that to the apparent message of the song, with the river as symbol for the flow of time. Constantly changing, the river is perhaps life itself, and one cannot make it through solely through grit and determination, nor alone.
The track begins minimalistically, with Maynard’s vocal standing starkly alone. With each verse, the instrumentation thickens, until Carina Round’s voice joins Keenan’s precisely as the theme turns in the direction of how the river cannot be crossed alone.
The hands of the many must join as one
And together we’ll cross the river
The symbol of water continues on “Man Overboard” from 2011’s Conditions of My Parole.
Blood sky every mornin’
Shoulda seen the warnin’
Captain to the Seaman
Man your battle stations
Poseidon’s on a mission
‘Bout to turn it up to eleven
Here rather than a river, we are presented with the metaphor of a raging sea. Poseidon’s on a mission to wreck our plans. Brace yourself. But mostly this song is on my list because it rocks. Beginning with a similar kind of minimalism to “The Humbling River,” “Man Overboard” presents not so much a slow melodic build as a raging one.
The opening beat of the song is already off-kilter. The ship begins lurching. And then the industrial style drum beats hit with a countervailing rhythm. It’s as though one is indeed at sail on a stormy sea. Towards the middle of the track, we hit the eye of the storm—back to the minimal beat of the opening.
The vocals are all Maynard, or two Maynards, as one of the distinctive things about Puscifer (in contrast to Tool and A Perfect Circle) is the layering of vocal tracks that defines their sound from the beginning, even when Maynard is the only singer.
“Man Overboard” also exemplifies why Puscifer is often labeled as an industrial band. As much as I do not tend to find the characterization to be apt (and I’m a fan of industrial music), it is true that there has been an element of the style evident throughout the band’s tenure (if not really in their inaugural Mr. Show appearance). The early tracks of the “V” era that don’t appear in my perfect ten, such as “DoZo” and “Queen Bee” show this much more than perhaps any song on my list. But it is foregrounded in “Man Overboard” while at the same time the song gives us Puscifer’s more mature sound.
Drum machines and vocal distortion mix with melodic lines and rhythms that feel organic—nature as a machine, perhaps a roiling one, like the rhythms of the ocean in a storm so epic that one cannot help but invoke the gods.
“Telling Ghosts” (also from Conditions of My Parole), in contrast, hits early with a harsh refrain that is punctuated by quiet verses. Though there are a few ambient chords to set a mood in its opening bars, this is not a slow build so much as a punch in the face.
One of the strengths of the song, in my opinion, lies in a move that one finds Puscifer making often: the small differences between each repetition. For example, if you pay attention to the structure of the song, it seems fair to say that the second time the refrain hits, vocals are absent. Or, if you prefer, you expect the refrain to hit at that moment about two minutes in, but don’t quite get it, since the words are withheld. This builds even further expectation as we enter into the second verse, where additional elements are added to the instrumentation that occurred with the first verse, and Carina Round’s vocals begin to come to the fore. All of this ratchets up the tension, so that when the refrain hits properly for what is only the second time (three minutes in) you almost can’t help but want to yell along even if you’ve never heard the song before.
The more you take, the more you need
The more you suck, the more you bleed
The dead know better, so listen to the letter
The more you suck, the more you bleed
But the verses of “Telling Ghosts” are really what stand out to me about the song. There is a haunting beauty to them, particularly when Keenan and Round are singing in harmony. Plus the third verse is also the bridge, which is pretty cool, as it brings us back around to close on the opening refrain. But it is also in these verses that I tend to find more meaning to dig into lyrically.
Echoes and specters and ghosts of none the wiser
Apparitions each, bad decisions brush on by
Envious in the ever after
Electric fuzzy haze of regrets and dreams denied
These are our mundane ghosts—bad decisions, regrets and dreams denied. They haunt us, hanging eternally over every moment, in the ever after. It’s always after the moment when things could have been otherwise, and the envy is for that moment of opportunity. But of course now is such a moment, and these specters of the past can never be satisfied.
In the autumn of 2015, I saw Puscifer live for the second time as they toured for Money Shot. The ticket didn’t list an opening act of any kind, and I hadn’t encountered any information about this prior to the show. I also had not sought such information out, really, but given how little I saw after I attended the event in Manhattan and did look, I have to wonder if Maynard’s message to the crowd was effective.
“Don’t be a dummy,” he said, through the character of a fictional Sheriff on one of the videos that presaged the show. The implication was that only dummies got on their phones at concerts and tried to record poor quality footage to share with others on the internet. Or, I should rather say this wasn’t implied but stated forthrightly. Turn off your phone. Be here now. Carina Round has lost her python.
The first time I saw the band some years prior, at the Apollo Theater, things were taken a step further. They’d confiscate your phone. I saw it happen to some dummy a few rows up from me and laughed. There were video clips then as well, some of which made it onto 2013’s What is…, and all of which were entertaining as they punctuated the show with moments of sketch comedy, harkening back to the Mr. Show sketch where Maynard first used the name.
So I didn’t know what to expect in 2015, but what I got was Lucha libre, and it was glorious. It’s the only concert I’ve ever been to where the opening act was wrestling. Of course, there was a direct tie-in with the video for “The Remedy,” which was released around the same time. And I realized I’d somehow previously missed those luchadors who show up at the very end of the video for “Grand Canyon.”
The ethos of “The Remedy” is very in line with that message at the concert about not using your phone. Don’t be a dummy.
You speak like someone who has never been
Smacked in the f*cking mouth
That’s okay, we have the remedy
You speak like someone who has never been
Knocked the f*ck on out
But we have your remedy
It’s the entitlement, really, that Puscifer take issue with through these lyrics, which occur only as “The Remedy” comes to its climax, which segues into a denouement before ending with a second climax, this time with added layers of sound.
It doesn’t really matter who the target of these words is in any specific way. There is a politics at play here, of course, but one that meaningfully cuts across party lines and outside of that space many tend to circumscribe as “political.” It’s mostly a critique of the internet—of those who set out to cause offense, and those who are too easy to take it (note that I don’t mean about the same thing). To speak without filter, to attempt to shuck off responsibility for oneself…it’s a disease. But we have the remedy—a metaphorical smack in the mouth to remind you that you’re not the center of the world. Fundamentally no one cares about your bullsh*t.
Yes, we’re being condescending
Yes, that means were talking down to you
With all that racket from your lips a-flapping
We assumed you didn’t notice
The video for “The Arsonist” features Donald Trump getting his ass kicked in a scene that I’d say was inspired by The Powerpuff Girls. It’s awesome. But the song was clearly not inspired by Trump in particular, or at least not in his political dimension. Rather it is more generally about a certain kind of person—the kind who can’t seem but to cause drama and mayhem, whose social skills resemble arson.
Continuing in the vein of “The Remedy,” “The Arsonist” shows a real lack of sympathy for people who embody negative forces in the world. Perhaps there are root causes. Perhaps daddy didn’t love you. But it’s not only that this doesn’t justify you in setting fire to things, it’s that our relationships with others are veritably the house that we live in, and you’re burning it down around you.
Choking on the smoke from the fire you’ve started
Choking on the ash from the bridges you’ve burned
In these lines, as repeated by Maynard and Carina Round as the song culminates, we do ultimately hear a note of compassion. This is a sad story even if it isn’t one to be sympathetic to. It’s like how you feel seeing a child who’s thrown a tantrum, broken his favorite toy, and won’t be getting another one. It’s sad, but it’s his own fault. There is no fire left to play with once everything is ash.
We also get a Beavis and Butthead reference.
“Apocalyptical” (from the forthcoming Existential Reckoning) was released in May 2020 along with a video that directly references the coronavirus and pandemic that had taken hold in the immediately preceding months. I proceeded, being under lockdown in Brooklyn at the time, to watch that video about 17 times in a row. It was perfect, in that place and time, tapping into a zeitgeist of fear and annoyance that was pervading our day to day reality. Also, there was the struggle to find toilet paper.
The song was not, however, written with reactions to COVID-19 in mind. It couldn’t have been if it was in fact laid down for the first time in September 2019. But this doesn’t keep its lyrics from feeling perfect for that/this moment.
Go on, moron, ignore the evidence
Skid in, tango
They won’t believe you until it’s far too late
The sad thing is that it didn’t take the pandemic for this sentiment to be relevant. For years there have been prominent voices denying scientific evidence. “Apocalyptical” could just as well be about global warming. Or it could be about any number of more banal instances of denial. There is a reason for the myth of Cassandra—it taps into something deeply human, both in terms of being able to predict the future and in terms of being powerless to change it.
With this track, Carina Round practically becomes the lead singer of Puscifer, though perhaps it would be better to say that her voice and Maynard’s carry equal weight. Together they give us something haunting as they chastise those who are dancing us backwards into the end of the world. You see it and you just want to scream, to warn of the fire set to consume us all.
They won’t believe you until it’s far too late.
Don’t worry, I wouldn’t leave you with that note of despair and neither would Puscifer. Let’s cleanse our palates with the band’s most hopeful song: “Grand Canyon” (Money Shot).
To me, this track hits like a kind of prayer. It’s sublime on its own, but this effect is only enhanced by the official video, which features shots of the Grand Canyon and various forms of life beyond the human. This is our moment of transcendence; a recognition that creation is bigger than each of us and our petty worries. It will even outlive humanity, and it is beautiful. Deus sive natura.
Grand Holy Mother,
And my deadly slumber, to
Stand fearless on the edge of forever
The construction of the song is magnificent as well. The caesura a little over three and half minutes in makes the back of my head tingle nearly every time and when the beat hit again in concert I almost cried. You should probably just listen to it for yourself.
We return to “C” Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference Here) to close out this fictional Puscifer album with “Polar Bear,” a song that has been and perhaps remains my favorite from everything that the band has produced.
I’m not sure if I identify as the speaker or the supposed recipient of the lyrics. Perhaps it is sometimes one way and sometimes the other, whether I am the polar bear seeking to disappear into the white or the friend offering reassurance.
The world is cold and at least sometimes it feels the only way to cope is by embracing that coldness by retreating to your old icicle island. The thing to know, friend, is that then I do not want warmth, but this is not necessarily to rebut companionship. Sometimes the best you can do is to be there, not because you can’t figure out how to do more but because there is nothing more to be done.
I know that look of fear
I’m well aware
No need to brave it all alone
I’ll be there
I’ll be there
The bars of “Polar Bear” are stark, resonating with the poetry of its lyrics. And then it ends mid-phrase, but rather than feeling like something has been withheld, I feel a sense of calm. This is a fragment, but it is not broken, and it is with this sentiment that I bring my fictional Puscifer album to a close.
Remixes, The Berger Barns, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”
The first single that Puscifer released, “Cuntry Boner” was not present on their first album, but what has been present since their beginnings is a tendency for the band to play with multiple styles. Over the years they have released several remix albums and performed differing versions of their own songs. None of these are included in my perfect ten above but many are among my favorite Puscifer songs, most notably those that formed the set of the fictional band The Berger Barns who opened for Puscifer the first time I saw them live.
Of course this was really Puscifer under the guise of an anarcho-punk-country band, which was hilarious. But beyond the pure joy that is “Cuntry Boner” The Berger Barns performed versions of “Sour Grapes” (Legend of the Mix) and “Trekka” (Spaghetti Mix) that bear little resemblance to the original songs. Nonetheless, these vaulted towards the top of my favorite Puscifer song list and I highly recommend you check them out.
Additionally, the band put out several cover songs on Donkey Punch the Night in 2013, including a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There is a rumor that additional versions of the song were recorded but could not be released due to objections from the Queen estate. I do not know for sure if this is true. What I do know is that the released version, though a straightforward cover, is impressive. But what’s even better is the video, featuring Dina Martina, which I’ve watched more times than I can count. I’ll leave you on that note. Enjoy the egg!