I had no idea who A Perfect Circle were the first time I heard them. I was at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 2000, to see Nine Inch Nails on their Fragility 2.0 tour. It was a long, meticulously assembled, and powerful show, even before Marilyn Manson came out to sing “Starfuckers, Inc.” and “The Beautiful People” with them.
The first band on, though, didn’t seem to be selling the same kind of angsty, industrial rage and despair as Trent Reznor and company. They were more like one of the faceless “alternative” acts that played three or four slots down the bill on radio festivals across the middle of the country every summer, back when there were radio festivals. The lead guitarist was a tall, bald-headed goon, and the other guitarist was wearing a shiny suit and a shaggy post-hair metal haircut. He looked like they’d recruited him from a wedding band. They had a female bassist, which still seemed slightly novel even after the 1990s, when every third band seemed to have a female bassist. And their singer was a weirdly retro throwback — he stalked back and forth across the stage, bottle in one hand and microphone in the other, shirtless in shiny pants, with long center-parted brown hair that fell to the middle of his back. He looked like the dude from the Black Crowes or something.
Their music was chugging, psychedelic post-grunge, sometimes sluggish and other times incantatory. The songs all sounded more or less the same, except for the ballads. To me, their best material felt like a cross between Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction, but lacking the sound of surprise that those bands’ original conceptions had carried years earlier (a decade, in Jane’s Addiction’s case). Their worst songs sounded like radio-friendly power ballads. But taken as a whole, their 40-minute set was…fine. Something to watch and listen to while waiting for Nine Inch Nails to play.
A couple of weeks after the concert, I got a copy of A Perfect Circle’s debut album, Mer De Noms, in the mail. I liked the cover art — two bright orange parentheses on a kind of blackened, rusty backdrop, with some weird squiggles running vertically down the center. It took me a minute to connect the CD to the band I’d seen at the Garden, though, and when I played it, I wondered why I’d been so lukewarm toward them that night. Mer De Noms, which turns 20 this Saturday, is one of the strongest debut albums of the 2000s. It’s a concise, punchy, focused record that delivers 11 songs and a brief coda in under 45 minutes, at a time of peak CD bloat. It’s also the only truly great record A Perfect Circle ever made.
The group’s mastermind was guitarist Billy Howerdel, the aforementioned bald-headed goon, who worked as a guitar tech for bands including Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Fishbone, and Tool. He met Maynard James Keenan in 1992, when Tool opened for Fishbone, and a few years later, Keenan invited Howerdel to move into his house. When Tool went quiet following the release of 1996’s Ænima — their label, Volcano Entertainment, sued them — the two started working on music together. They recruited second guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, formerly of Failure, bassist Paz Lenchantin, and Primus drummer Tim Alexander, and the new project made its debut with an LA club show in August 1999, followed by a performance at the inaugural Coachella Festival in October of that year. A Perfect Circle opened the main stage on the first night; Tool, their legal problems behind them, closed the main stage the following night.
After those early gigs, Alexander was out and Josh Freese was in, and they headed into the studio. Howerdel played both guitar and bass, and keyboards here and there; he also produced and engineered the record. Lenchantin only played bass on one track, but played violin on three others; similarly, Van Leeuwen only played on two songs. Alexander played drums on the album’s opening track, “The Hollow.”
Musically speaking, Mer De Noms is a really strong collection of songs. Howerdel’s ear is naturally drawn to big riffs, and most of the tunes have the same slightly off-kilter metallic feel as late Soundgarden or the Rollins Band, but the prominence of the bass seems like a nod to the post-punk psychedelia of Jane’s Addiction. There are some slightly weirder tracks, too, like “Rose,” which feels almost industrial/noise-rock in the way brief passages of acoustic guitar are repeatedly washed away by thick waves of noise and distortion.
Concision is one of the band’s strongest weapons. Without exception, these are two- to four-minute songs; Mer De Noms has no long jams, pointless interludes, ironic covers, hidden tracks, or any other dumb late-’90s alt-rock tricks. A Perfect Circle come out of the gate punching hard — the first sound you hear is Tim Alexander’s massive drums — and they never stop. The first three tracks, strong as they are, are all a buildup to the first single, “Judith,” an arena-sized anthem that takes the soaring riffs of post-grunge metal and marries them to a bottom-heavy chug, as Maynard…yells at his mom.
Keenan’s lyrics never fully become a hindrance on Mer De Noms, mostly because his vocals have a sorcerous power, almost Ronnie James Dio-esque in their theatricality, and his delivery always serves the song, not the other way around. Still, there are times when you don’t want to know what he’s singing about, like on “Magdalena,” where he’s basically deifying a black stripper. The attempt to elevate the material winds up sinking it; you may find yourself missing the knuckle-walking honesty of Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” It’s okay to just be into strippers — you don’t need to pretend it’s goddess worship.
He fared better when indulging in sacrilege. “Judith” is a deeply personal song for Keenan — it’s about his mother, who was paralyzed when he was 11 and lived in a wheelchair until he was 27. He couldn’t cope with the idea that she never lost her religious faith, and the song was his way of mocking her for it: “Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed/ He did it all for you!” But Howerdel gets the best line; he’s the guy who shouts “Fuck your god!” midway through the first verse.
The video for “Judith” was directed by David Fincher, and it’s the perfect visual companion to the song and the album. Other than playing around with film stock, and a single brief shot that seems to position the camera between Lenchantin’s bass and its strings, it’s a bare-bones depiction of the band playing the song in a warehouse-like rehearsal studio. Keenan looks like some kind of rodent, his hair obscuring his face almost completely, while Howerdel, Van Leeuwen, and Freese are barely shown. The real star of the clip is Lenchantin, who pauses mid-song to tie her hair up in a topknot, a move that is still captivating YouTube commenters 20 years later.
The second single was a little more sonically ambitious, and it didn’t quite work as well as “Judith” had. “3 Libras” sounds like a leaked demo that was unsuccessfully shopped to the Red Hot Chili Peppers; it has the same loping groove that anchors half their ballads on Californication and everything after. The guitars are mostly acoustic but mixed loud, and there are strings: Lenchantin on violin, and her brother Luciano on viola. Naturally, it was a hit on rock radio.
That’s really the only moment on Mer De Noms where the balance of hard and soft is tilted too much in the wrong direction. The album also contains songs like “Thomas” and “Sleeping Beauty” that are so heavy they sit like a boulder on your chest, but also have a hazy psychedelic touch that recalls Smashing Pumpkins. And even the other ballad-esque tracks retain enough edge that you can still headbang to them, if you want to.
A Perfect Circle seemed like more than just a side project. For one thing, it was Howerdel’s band as much as Keenan’s, and the music was more grounded and conventional than Tool’s. They were drawing a direct line from Led Zeppelin, particularly the more adventurous material on Physical Graffiti and Presence, through Soundgarden and Alice In Chains and Jane’s Addiction, with a few side trips into industrial noise and “alternative metal” on “Rose” and “Thinking Of You.” They weren’t trying to warp rock music, or break boundaries; they had good ideas, and they put them across in a simple and direct manner. That combination of power riffs and introspective lyrics was perfect at the time, and it’s what makes Mer De Noms worth revisiting 20 years later.