Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle
It was almost nerve-racking to hear the opening drum fill that welcomes you into “Judith” by A Perfect Circle. I didn’t know if I was even allowed to like this band or this song. Was A Perfect Circle the replacement for one of my favorite bands, Tool? With Maynard James Keenan singing lead vocals on this heavy alternative record was I enabling the death of another band that I loved and obsessed over? Then again, it was the year 2000! Y2K!
I remember our New Year’s party that year in Allston Mass at my friends’ house. As the countdown finished and we were done with 1999 and into 2000, I started a “We’re not dead!” chant that actually took hold as we all jumped up and down in celebration. It’s shocking that the old structure on Ashford Street didn’t fall down and crumble from the shock of a dozen people or so jumping up and down simultaneously. We all lived in what was dubbed the “student slums” of Allston at the time.
The middle school and high school days were long gone when I fell in love with Tool. Now I was 20 and nearly 21 years old and more finished with college than not. Tool had been deep in litigation with their record label, and there was little sign that a follow-up to 1996’s Aenima was on the horizon. Of course we had the internet in those days, but information wasn’t anywhere as near free-flowing as it is today with social media. There was a lot more mystery and intrigue in those days, or at least that’s the way my brain remembers it.
So, I loved the songs I was hearing, and it was almost a relief to hear Maynard singing so big, loud, and clear on these very different songs than what Tool had ever produced. Billy Howerdel is playing guitar. Josh Freese - now of the Foo Fighters - played the drums. Paz Lenchantin plays bass and sings backups. Maynard dueting with a female vocalist! Troy Van Leeuwen also adds leads. Primus drummer Tim Alexander played drums on one of the tracks too.
We’ll get to the biggest hits, but I instantly think of “Orestes.” It’s got the same Maynard tone in the lyrics, but the singing is beautiful, accented by harmonies and a moody, building soundtrack of guitar, bass and drums. It’s one of the most beautiful choruses you’ll ever hear at the end of the song when it hits it’s maximal heights. Maynard sings, “Gotta cut away, clear away, Snip away and sever this umbilical residue, Keeping me from killing you.” It instantly became my favorite song on the record after buying it.
The whole album felt like a gift, though. It came out in May 2000 and you better believe I had it on the first day. Frankly, I bet I had a leaked copy from the internet before it was even released. I was that guy. The minute the masters were sent to the factory to create CDs, digital copies of albums would find their way to the dark corners of the internet. There, I’d pick it up and check it out weeks early so that by the time it was released and I could buy my own copy, I’d already know every single song front to back.
Then, in August, as I was looking at the band’s tour calendar, I identified an opportunity. A Perfect Circle was scheduled to play Avalon, a club just over the Green Monster in Boston’s Fenway district on August 18. I just googled it and sure enough, it’s still there.
But even better, I was planning on driving home to say hello to my family. I occasionally did that during my college years. Occasionally. I love my family, of course, but I felt very independent and appreciated being able to live my own life, even if it was financially supported to a major degree in terms of tuition and rent. A Perfect Circle was playing The Agora in Cleveland on August 26th. For the first time in my life I was doubling up on a tour and seeing a band twice on one tour.
The band played very similar setlists, opening with the moody “Magdalena” first. It makes sense because there was an interesting “skit” that the band put before their set on both dates. They put a card table and some chairs on stage. I can’t remember all the details of how many people were on stage, but the characters sat there and started playing strip poker. Then as one of the female characters is about to lose and remove a piece of clothing, it ends abruptly and I think the band started playing the opening notes of “Magdalena.”
In Boston, they followed that up with “Orestes” which made me so very happy. In Cleveland, they followed it up with “The Hollow,” which was cool, but made me nervous they wouldn’t play “Orestes” again. They did, so crisis averted. Whew!
The show was incredible, including a version of “Thinking of You” with the band really letting loose and jamming it out. Maynard started gyrating all over the stage during the “thinking of you, thinking” part and rhythmically kept rubbing the front of his pants. I remember going over the lyrics again in my mind, and oh yeah, huh. Maynard James Keenan was never afraid to be one of rock and metal’s greatest shock jocks. When you can sing like that, you get away with it.
“3 Libras” is another song that sounds impossibly gorgeous on the record and just as incredible live. It’s a song that starts soft with strings before a frenetic staccato drum beat comes in only to be cut in half later for effect. The warmth and cleanliness of the vocals during the verse are stark. You feel like you’re in the room with Maynard singing, and then they put some effects on it for contrast as the action builds up. Then they disappear again as he sings “Oh well. Apparently nothing at all.” The live version delivers just as well and you can hear where the effects are turned on for the vocals.
“Judith” was easily the biggest hit from this record. It also had the most Tool-like vocal from Maynard as he sort of scream sings, “He did it all for you!” to end the song. It’s a song that doesn’t have much in the way of dynamics. The drum beat is consistent and the guitars spasm out to remind you they’re there even when they get a bit quieter every now and again.
The songs were so good beyond the hits though too. “Brena” is another phenomenal song and it’s only forgettable in that it’s surrounded by impossibly great tunes. Again and again, this record washes over you like waves, delivering over and over again.
The record was wildly successful selling more than a million copies and hitting four on the Billboard charts. It charted all over the world, hitting two in Australia and New Zealand. Worldwide tours with Nine Inch Nails certainly didn’t hurt either.
Obviously, I eventually got over the feelings of confusion about this band and gave way to the love of Maynard James Keenan, which eventually became love for Billy Howerdel’s songwriting as well. I’ve loved other records by A Perfect Circle as well.
That first record was pure magic though. The time of my life wondering if we’d ever get more records from Tool, and getting to hear one of my favorite singers again.
I’ll leave you with a beautiful cut of Orestes from a concert the band played at Red Rocks.