War is hell. Yet a lot of rock songs about war and why we don't need it aren't hellish enough. On the better half of this eccentric concept album, A Perfect Circle -- Tool singer Maynard James Keenan's goth-prog band with guitarist Billy Howerdel -- revisit classic protest hits, jacking up the terror by throwing out iconic arrangements and performing heretical surgery on the melodies. The original utopian calm of John Lennon's "Imagine" is twisted into torture-chamber agony; Keenan sings Lennon's Anglican-hymn-like tune as if it were a relic of the Spanish Inquisition, with grave, minor-key harmonies over soured piano. Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?," made famous by Elvis Costello as an outraged gallop, is slowed to a confrontational dirge, as if to emphasize there's nothing funny in the question. Old punk classics get slapped around too. Fear's "Let's Have a War," dressed in venal, fuzzed guitar and an anxious drum-and-bass rhythm, sounds like creeping plague, not a battle cry. "Annihilation," a 1982 torpedo by Crucifix, is little more than sinister toy piano and Keenan's conspiratorial whisper, a reminder that most wars are planned in the hushed half-light of caves and boardrooms. Oddly, the two Circle originals here are conventionally heavy and angry, while Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is mistakenly recast as an outtake from Radiohead's Kid A. And Devo songs should be left to Devo: If there's any poetic rage hidden in "Freedom of Choice," you won't find it in the lead-balloon reading here.
(Posted: Nov 11, 2004)