When it was announced that Maynard James Keenan and his Puscifer would include the Riviera Theatre as one of the stops on its all-too-brief summer tour, a certain segment of the Western New York music-loving population felt the hair on its arms stand straight up.
Keenan is rightly regarded as one of the more deviant and defiantly brilliant artists to have populated the modern rock landscape over the past 20-plus years. Known first and foremost as the vocalist fronting the heavy progressive icons Tool, Keenan has long indulged in side projects, among them A Perfect Circle and the band that transformed the Riviera Theatre into a space where equally heady and hilarious performance art ruled the night on Wednesday.
The sold-out venue was packed with folks in Tool and A Perfect Circle regalia -- understandable, since both of those bands introduced heavy, dense music, metal, if you must -- to a swooning and the gorgeous arc of melodic invention so long missing from heavier forms.
Puscifer has always occupied its own beautifully bizarre space in the Keenan oeuvre, though. Embracing forms as diverse as techno, art-rock, metal, a twisted take on industrial, R&B, and even folk, the band stands alone as a confrontational fusion ensemble. It is both transcendently beautiful and aggressively nasty.
Puscifer's is a multimedia show. The six-person band appearing in costume -- as flight attendants, with Keenan as their false-mustachioed pilot -- flanked by twin large video screens, with two smaller monitors tiered below them. Keenan and co-vocalist Carina Round -- who opened the show with a powerful six-song set of her own dark-hued alt-rock and alt-folk songs -- stood on platforms behind the drum riser, their faces magnified and distorted by video monitors that obscured them while simultaneously making them appear to be bizarre creatures with massive heads and tiny bodies. All the while, they were dressed as a aviator shades: bedecked pilot and his sexy head stewardess, mind you.
Puscifer is often referred to as a novelty or comedy act, and the costumes and between-tune barter did nothing to disabuse that. Keenan berated the audience as unpatriotic hippies, for instance. But the music? It's breath-takingly beautiful and startlingly unique, for the most part. When it isn't, it's inventively dark and disturbing.
The slamming post-rock fusion of songs from the band's debut -- "Vagina Mine" and "Dozo" being perhaps the most viscerally impactful -- brought the crowd members to their feet, where they stayed throughout the show. It was the material from the brilliant sophomore Puscifer effort, "Conditions of my Parole," that struck the deepest, most resonant tonalities, however.
Most disturbing, and probably most powerful as well, was a stunning take on "The Rapture." This is a song that, over an ominous and foreboding distorted bass groove, directly addresses those who propound the concept of a "rapture," in which God will return to to rescue the "saved" and leave the rest to rot.
"The rapture, my a--," Keenan sneered through the magnifying video monitor on Wednesday. "You better hope it takes you/before I do." In your face, and unapologetic, but here's the rub -- all of this is delivered via gorgeously sonorous singing, carrying rather brilliant melodies, often in two-part with on-stage foil Round, and sometimes with the help of band members Mat Mitchel, Joesh Eustis, Matt McJunkins and Jeff Friedl.
When Kennan and Round delivered the elegiac "Horizons," or the creepily beautiful "Tiny Monsters," the embracing of contradictions -- sacred and profane, pretty and ugly -- that is Pusicfer's modus operandi was most stirringly displayed. Not for everyone, certainly. But for the initiated, Wednesday's gig was manna from -- well, from somewhere.