Mer de Noms – A Perfect Circle

At this point, approximately fifty years into its existence, it can be fairly expected that "rock" is not going to cough up a new paradigm anytime soon. The advent of digital sampling technology and turntable manipulation, both of which slunk in through the back door of white hip-hop fandom, have not reworked the fundamental "rock" structure in any significant manner; rather, like a Latin rhythm or a horn section or a gospel choir, they have become mere affectations, a new collar on an old dog.

This is not to say that "rock" is a dead form, by any means. Though it often seems to move forward on fumes and inertia, it periodically shakes itself awake and offers something genuine and vital, a small jewel extruded from a largely undifferentiated mass of slag. Such a small jewel is the debut album from A Perfect Circle.

A Perfect Circle have risen to quick notoriety because the band’s leader, guitarist/producer Billy Howerdel, has partnered himself with Maynard James Keenan, frontman of the long-dormant (but not defunct) Tool. Tool were one of the preeminent bands of the mid-1990s, a period when pop music went through probably its most depressive phase ever. Mid-90s American music – the music of Tool, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, the Rollins Band, and to a lesser extent Nirvana and Pearl Jam – was bleak and despairing. The music seemed to serve as a purgative for the bandmembers, and the crowds often seemed to be pummeling one another in moshpits because, as Warren Zevon sang, they’d "rather feel bad than not feel anything at all."

The immediate impact of Keenan’s voice cannot be discounted; it was the thing which immediately catapulted Tool beyond their contemporaries and earned them a cult which persists to this day, five years after their last album and tour. A thick, often anguished roar, Keenan’s voice can raise goosebumps on the skin. He never resorts to the screeching or barking of so many other hard-rock singers. On incantatory songs like "Magdalena" and opening cut "The Hollow," his muezzin-like wails rise above the pulsing rhythms, mingling with Howerdel’s spiraling guitar leads to create a storm reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Middle Eastern-influenced material.

Times have changed, though. The overall atmosphere of the "rock scene" is no longer one of desperate huddling-together. Instead, we find ourselves amid a testosterone-drenched frat party, with gangsta-rapping jocks raping women in the mud as fires rage and pay-per-view cameras record it all. Therefore, it is fair to question whether an album as thoughtful as Mer de Noms will gain the hearing it deserves in the current cultural environment.

For A Perfect Circle are nothing if not thoughtful. Keenan has always been a probing lyricist, as well as one of the most compelling voices in rock. Even as he wallowed in self-loathing through most of Tool’s two-and-a-half albums, he always seemed to have a handle on something larger than himself and his immediate surroundings. Like a Beckett narrator, he raged against his own flesh and corruption only because he was all too cognizant of the greater truth which forever danced just out of reach.

On Mer de Noms, Keenan’s lyrical concerns have become even more explicitly spiritual. The general tone of self-analysis (the analyzed self always being found somehow wanting) remains, but the first single, "Judith," specifically addresses itself to questions of religious doubt, beginning with the lyrics "You’re such an inspiration for the ways that I would never, ever choose to be/Oh so many ways for me to show you how your savior has abandoned you." The only other band dealing with these subjects with any kind of regularity is the Florida band Creed, who offer a muscular stage presence if a generally weak musical blend of warmed-over grunge and Christian-greeting-card lyrics.

This is where A Perfect Circle have the clear advantage over almost every band in America right now: their music. Though they are clearly working in an area trod by many earlier groups, from Led Zeppelin (specifically on albums like Physical Graffiti and Presence) to Alice In Chains, the essential power-chord foundation of their music is bolstered by throbbing, mantralike basslines and guitar leads which create a wholly new kind of heavy psychedelic rock. They also do right by choosing economy over pretension and bloat. There are no acoustic ballads here, no orchestras, and no attempts to remake Sgt. Peppers in a metal format. The band’s songs are short and to-the-point, the longest track on the album coming in well under five minutes and the whole twelve-track album running less than 45 minutes. As stated above, "rock" hasn’t changed a whole lot since the late 60s and early 70s, and A Perfect Circle are not engaging in any kind of serious genre-twisting or paradigm alteration. Keenan and Howerdel simply have good ideas, and put them across in simple and direct manner. Mer de Noms is a concentrated dose of power-riffing, introspection and theology, and it’s one of the best albums of the year 2000.

Phil Freeman