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Monday, November 14, 2016

A Perfect Circle -- Mer de Noms


Side-bands can be tricky propositions. Off the top of my head, I can't think of one side-band of a band I love that I enjoy anywhere close to the original band. Conversely, there are some side-bands of bands I am not overly fond of, that I really love. I have never been a huge Tool fan, but I love A Perfect Circle. I'm not sure if A Perfect Circle counts as a "side-band," though. Maynard James Keenan is the frontman for both A Perfect Circle and Tool, but A Perfect Circle started far later, and Keenan seems to devote more time to Tool, but then again, both bands have only released two respective albums of original material in the last sixteen years. When A Perfect Circle guitarist, Billy Howerdel, showed Keenan his music, Keenan didn't just offer to sing on the tracks. He made A Perfect Circle as much his band as Howerdel's, even determining creative direction. So maybe A Perfect Circle shouldn't be considered a "side-band"--just one of several bands that Maynard James Keenan fronts.
With that out of the way, A Perfect Circle is a hard-rock band fronted by Maynard James Keenan, and their debut album, Mer de Noms, is really, really good. The songs have an arty edge, combining some atmospheric guitar-playing with heavier riffs. There's an almost Greek, sort of mythological feel to some of the guitar tones and scales, which supports the soon-to-be-discussed album lyrics well. The band also employs some violin, courtesy of bassist, Paz Lenchantin, who actually only plays bass on one track (Howerdel handles the rest), and that adds a lot to the fullness, and complexity of A Perfect Circle's sound.
While Howerdel wrote and performed most of this music, all of the lead vocals and lyric writing is contributed to Keenan. He takes full advantage of A Perfect Circle's shorter song lengths to paint concise images with each of these songs. I initially had a problem with "Judith," a song where Keenan seems to be mocking his crippled mother's faith. He sings, "You never even thought to question why," and while I don't know Maynard's mother, I serious doubt she never questioned. Questioning is a key element to my faith. If it wasn't there, I'm not sure if my faith would still be. However, hearing Maynard explain his motivation behind the song, as well as looking at this album as a literal circle, I feel much different about "Judith" today.
Did I just say that I think of this album as a circle? Well, intentional by the band or not, it is! If you take "3 Libras" as the middle, and "Over" as a sort of ending aside (where Keenan just repeats variations of "Been over this before" as the lone lyrics), Mer de Noms' front and back halves reflect each other. "The Hollow," track one, describes a hole of needs that must be filled. The "Breña" of track 11 fills them. Track two and track 11 appear to describe the same woman. Track three and 9 both seem otherworldly. Track four, "Judith," as mentioned above, seems a denunciation of faith, while track eight, "Thomas," begs for the rebirth of it (and seems inspired by the Biblical Thomas). The powerful "Orestes" seems to be based upon the agonizing mental buildup to the mythological murder of Clytemnestra by her son, whose name is the title of the song. As an awesome sidenote, we read the story of Orestes in multiple college classes, but the most memorable retelling came in the form of the 1962 Michalis Cacoyannis art film, Electra, which we watched in Mythological Film. That was one of the most fun courses I've taken, and that movie is...something. Anyway, "Orestes" is mirrored by track seven, "Sleeping Beauty," where instead of agonizing over how to kill a woman, the narrator is agonizing over how to heal her.
Whether you agree with my circle theory or not, it is inarguable that Mer de Noms is a bit top heavy, with the darker opening-half holding just a bit more weight than the more uplifting second prove it, all the singles are taken from the first half. Speaking of, I haven't detailed my favorite track here, number six, "3 Libras." It is a breathtaking song, with a beautiful guitar line by Howerdel, a gorgeous string arrangement by Lenchantin, fluid drums by secret weapon, Josh Freeze, and one of the most incredible, soaring vocal performances Keenan has put to tape. The song also has the distinct, and bizarre honor of being my favorite late-night talk show performance of all time, and on, of all people, Jay Leno's show. I bought this album based on this incredible performance, with a mystic, candle-filled stage backdrop, a furthering of my then huge nerd-crush on the violin-toting Paz Lenchantin (I put a picture of her on my bedroom wall after this), and the ethereal sounds coming out of the Tonight Show speakers.

There's also the added bonus of Leno's "Thank you, guy," to Keenan after the song, and Keenan's subtle double-take as he clearly thinks, "Did you just Terrance and Phillip me?"

2000 Virgin
1. The Hollow 2:58
2. Magdalena 4:06
3. Rose 3:26
4. Judith 4:07
5. Orestes 4:48
6. 3 Libras 3:39
7. Sleeping Beauty 4:10
8. Thomas 3:29
9. Renholdër 2:24
10. Thinking of You 4:34
11. Breña 4:24
12. Over 2:21

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