Three years after the release of its debut Mer de Noms, A Perfect Circle's Thirteenth Step sees the light of day. By that time, Troy van Leeuwen and Paz Lenchantin had left and been replaced by bassist Jeordie Osborne White, formerly of Marilyn Manson, and guitarist James Iha, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins (though he doe not appear on the album). While van Leeuwen appear on part of the set, guitarist Danny Lohner helped out after he departed. Amazingly, despite the changes, the sound is still very much the creation of Billy Howerdel with the unmistakable vocal of Maynard Keenan from Tool. Produced by Howerdel and mixed by the inimitable Andy Wallace, Thirteenth Step is a moodier, tenser, and more atmospheric (if that is possible) recording than its predecessor. Written mostly by Howerdel and Keenan, the songs traverse a particular associated with surrender, loss, having the nature of a person stripped away, and turning in the twilight of those feelings toward a kind of slow transformation into something that can only be called "other." There are no easy outs and no easy answers, only hard questions throughout "Weak and Powerless," where surrender is necessary but far from desired. The title bitingly refers to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not your average recovery outing. Tracks like "Blue," "Vanishing," and "Lullaby" (one of two tracks featuring the amazing Jarboe on vocals) feature a kind of barely restrained menace caught in a trap by rock & roll vulnerability. The wide dynamic swathes that were so prominent on the band's debut are all but absent here. The squalling guitars have taken a backseat to carefully crafted melodies where atmospherics are maximized and pulled taut over the listener. While not a radical departure from Mer de Noms, there is a real progression here. However, the explosive, heavier-than-heavy rock-ism of A Perfect Circle is so well known for it is readily evidenced on cuts such as "The Outsider" and "Pet." As moods shapeshift from the sepia-toned murk of "The Package" and "The Noose," the over the top hard rock to the Baroquely scaled "The Nurse Who Loved Me" and "Gravity," with its beautiful guitar effects and crystalline bassline, the listener becomes aware of just how much water has traveled under A Perfect Circle's bridge. The Thirteenth Step is the sound of a musical and lyrical maturity that normally doesn't occur until a band's third or fourth albums. Lyrically, musically, sonically, the Thirteenth Step is proof positive that mainstream rock has plenty of life and vision left in it.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek