Let’s get one thing out of the way before this review starts: Puscifer is not a side project. It’s a sprawling, multifaceted, genre-defying, borderline-synaesthetic outlet of artistic expression, the brainchild of Tool vocalist/winemaker Maynard James Keenan and musical mastermind Mat Mitchell — and at this point, they’ve been grinding the axe for nigh unto a decade (closer to twenty years, if you count their brief appearance on Mr. Show way back when), and it absolutely shows. The collective has been refining the elements of what their sound, their mission, and their performance entails, for that entire span of time and 2015’s Money Shot — the album, the tour, the experience — is the next step along the journey within the minds of this collective of visionaries. As with everything released during their career thus far, don’t let the smirk-inspiring record title (nor its positively comedic artwork) lead you into dismissing them outright. If anything, it’s a bit of a relief to know that the men and women of Puscifer have a sense of humor to match the seriousness with which they take their production, both for the live show and the music itself.
The first two major Puscifer tours had clearly-defined opening acts which kicked off the evening and helped to set the tone for the show to follow, despite the fact that said performers would usually end up joining the main act in partial, or full, capacity later. For their Money Shot tour, however, the “lucha libre”-style masked-wrestling quartet known only as Luchafer both began the evening and were fully involved in Puscifer’s set as well. The first half hour of the show saw the four wrestlers facing off in the wrestling ring that took up the largest chunk of the stage; their grunts and shouts peppered the otherwise still air, whose silence was shattered each time a wrestler hurled their opponent into the stage, as the crashing springs were immediately followed by cheers and roars from the crowd. It was amazingly impressive to see so much physical work at play, and for such a long period of time; mere moments after being smashed into the center of the mat, a wrestler would be hoisting themselves up and instantly trapping his or her opponent in a headlock, or climbing the turnbuckles to prepare for a back or front flip. For an extremely entertaining finish, the referee discarded their uniform and, dressed in a black costume closely resembling comic book villain Venom, overtook all four luchadores — individually, and as a group, repeatedly.
Rather than the usual restless downtime that splits up an evening’s acts, however, the lights immediately fell throughout the Fox Theater as the screens beside the stage shimmered to life, upon which Keenan appeared (in the guise of one Major Douche) and addressed the crowd, insisting that they keep their cameras off and phones out of the way during the performance. The character of Billy D, also played by Keenan, was next to be broadcast, and slurred his way through a thoroughly existential, rambling speech (undercut by his constant pouring of shots and snorting of cocaine) while drummer Jeff Freidl faded into view beneath soft blue light. As D’s speech abruptly ended, the rest of the band was slowly lit with dim light, and picked up the initial notes of “Simultaneous”, their singers’ voices barely audible above the crowd, who now cheered feverishly as their heroes materialized onstage.
With a single “hello” quickly thrown at the crowd between songs, the mass of musicians wasted no time in tearing into their set, which began with a three-hit combo of songs from Money Shot before Luchafer (who had been wandering around the band and gesticulating violently at one another) were invited back into the ring for another ferocious battle; these sudden skirmish split up the set into chunks, each containing a group of songs that flowed together marvelously, despite being culled from all 3 albums and some of their extra EP work. This also helped to bring a greater focus towards the sonic changes that Puscifer had made to their older pieces; with many being nearly ten years old, a live roster spanning dozens of artists, and the confines of the studio no longer holding them back, the most fascinating part of Puscifer’s live show is how their music transforms with each subsequent tour.
Co-vocalist Carina Round, who had taken up the opening slot on Puscifer’s Conditions Of My Parole tour in 2011, now was elevated to the role of second in command (or third, counting Mitchell), playing twin and other half to Keenan rather than backup or any form of second fiddle, and rose to the occasion magnificently. Her dulcet tones drove the melody of “Vagina Mine” to delightful new territory (with newly-recruited bassist Paul Barker, formerly from Ministry, lending his own dark meddling to the piece), and she was in total command for “Rev. 22:20”, whose snarling guitars had given way for haunting synths and undulating rhythms beneath Round’s powerful voice. Newcomer Mahsa Zargaran had also settled comfortably into her role as extremely-animated keyboardist, and her movements and shouts all but belied the skill with which she added layer after layer of sound to the mix.
One of the most exciting additions to Puscifer’s set was the positively malevolent “Breathe”, a thundering, churning mass of sound accented by the slowly-growing projection of a fiercely-grimacing luchador on the screen behind the band. While definitely possessed of the same slow-burn fury that its album cut bears, the darkness and rage was infinitely more palpable in the live setting, accented by Keenan’s hellish roar of “don’t forget to breathe” over the steadily-rising tide of sonic dissonance. After a short bit to calm things down a notch (during which Round and Keenan unleashed a pair of robotic roosters upon each other in an onstage cockfight), the intensity of the set was kicked into high gear for its climax. The one-two blast of “Toma” and “Telling Ghosts” immediately plowed into the three loudest songs of Puscifer’s repertoire — “Man Overboard”, “The Undertaker” and the newly-penned “Money Shot”. A brief encore break (wherein the band did not actually leave the stage) was offered by Keenan, who introduced the band and wrestlers alike, and the show came to a close beneath the gentle notes of “The Humbling River” and “Autumn”.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Puscifer each time that they have come to the Bay Area on a club tour, and each experience has been unique — even with multiple shows from the same tour. Watching their songs twist and evolve, taking on new forms of life both sonically and visually, is always an astonishing experience. While I felt that the set was not as elaborately designed as their 2011/2012 tours for Conditions Of My Parole, the energetic movements, constant focus, and esteemed musicianship of the artists onstage has reached an all-time high. Slower, gentler songs are accompanied with an appropriately stoic presence; the larger, meatier rockers saw Round and Keenan fully in the fray, thrashing and leaping about — and often while playing off of the antics of Luchafer, who amplified the experience with their own movements.
A word to the wise: This ain’t no side project, and it’s going to be here for a while. Do yourself the greatest of favors, and absolutely do not miss Puscifer the next time they come to town.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro.