Review Summary: It has its flaws, but Mer De Noms is the kind of album rock needed right now; an album that not only challenges itself and the listener, but creates feeling and atmosphere beyond the scope of most artists today.
A Perfect Circle, unlike Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, or Marilyn Manson (the bands its members throughout the years have hailed from) will probably not go down in history for any significant contribution to rock music. Their albums exist unto themselves, self-contained units that seem to drift outside of today’s music culture, an intriguing individualism of sound that makes it more enjoyable to listen to than the post-grunge crop that seem content to rip each other off today. Apparently, this interested the world as well. On the strength of the caustic “Judith” and the soaring “3 Libras,” as well as an aggressive street campaign, the album sold 200,000 copies its first week and later sold platinum. However, unlike the moody strains of their follow-up, The Thirteenth Step, this is first and foremost a hard rock album. Anybody expecting any progressive stuff just because of singer Maynard James Keenan’s presence will be disappointed. There is a Tool-like interlude at the end, “Over,” and “Judith” shows Keenan at a level of vicious resentment that echoes Aenima, but aside from that this is fairly straightforward hard rock music.
Except it really isn’t. It’s undeniably hard rock, but there are little flourishes and touches that make it genuinely great. It’s visceral and cerebral at the same time. There are moments of true inspiration on this record, many of which have to do with Keenan’s godlike vocals, but the musicians get in a few shining moments. The tambourine flourishes and the industrial dissonance of “Rose,” the brooding bass line of “Magdalena,” even the lovely minimalist chord progression of “Over”- they all serve as a stunning, orchestral-sounding template to the absolutely amazing vocals of Keenan.
Keenan’s lyrics are no less cryptic here than they are on his Tool releases, but they demonstrate more than the cynicism, anger and bleakness that composed most of Tool’s lyrics at that point. He sings primarily about love on this one. Betrayal of love, sexual love, maternal love, the ending of love, the difficulty of love enduring, but it all seems to spiral back to the same central theme. It’s far too vague to be considered a concept album, but still interesting stuff. The more obvious touches (“Judith”) and the more indecipherable (“Rose”) are musical and vocal tour de forces, but lyrically they don’t fascinate and enthrall so much as the spaces in between mystery and bluntness. That’s not to say they’re bad, because they’re great; “Thinking Of You” takes crude subject matter stated crudely and turns it into a warped electronic journey that climaxes in a haunting, dramatic bridge. But the best songs lyrically are ones like “Orestes” and “Brena,” which have discernable meanings but are excitingly vague. Billy Howerdel, the guitarist, wrote some of the lyrics, and it’s hard to tell what influence he had on the end product, but for better or for worse, what we end up with is great.
Little needs to be said about Keenan’s vocals. He almost never hides behind filters and effects as he occasionally does in Tool, and everything he touches turns into gold. Little things, like “I can almost hear you scream” on “Orestes,” show a mastery over his elegant, haunting voice that few singers can aspire to, much less claim. His soft, fragile voice, used only for an eerie effect in Tool songs like “Sober” and “Schism,” is turned into a vessel of beauty this time around. Over the course of the album it reflects nearly every conceivable emotion and makes them sound sincere. Nobody really expected anything less than a stellar job, but kudos to Keenan for taking it seriously and putting in an amazing vocal performance.
Instrumentally, the album is also great. Acoustic guitars and strings are all too common today in hard rock music, but here they seem like natural extensions of the music and not employed just to be maudlin. The sheer variety in style coming from the band is quite astounding. “Judith” is a nearly metal masterpiece, with its thunderous main riff, but “Thinking Of You” and “Rose” employ high-pitched, wailing guitar effects that lend a sinister air to the proceedings. “3 Libras,” despite being somewhat overrated, features a mature and confident band that knows how to be tastefully soft. Howerdel is nothing short of great on this album, and it’s unsurprising that he always knows the right sound to come from his guitar, as he was a guitar tech for Tool. But to write as good melodies as this is uncommon, making his performance even better. The bass would have a larger presence on The Thirteenth Step, but it’s not neglected here; it anchors the ethereal guitar line on “Orestes” and provides a strong rhythmic foundation for “Sleeping Beauty” and “Thinking Of You.” The drums are fairly good. We don’t see as many great fills from session drummer Josh Freese, but he keeps a good beat. He rarely has the opportunity to display any great skill, but his organic precision on “Magdalena” and “3 Libras” is more valuable than virtuosity.
So what do you get when you combine all these separate elements? Nothing, until you factor in Howerdel’s solid songwriting. Bands like Dream Theater can have all the skill in the world, but they still don’t know how to put together a concise and interesting song. Howerdel is not intimidated by the great material he has to work with and manages to shape it into impressive songs that follow natural musical patterns. It may be fairly typical song structure and arrangement, but he makes it work. Only on songs like “Thomas,” which really have no good musical ideas involved at all, does he falter, but overall the band knows how to put together a great song and as a result, a great album. It may play occasionally to convention, but the music is emotional, even amazing, and Keenan’s aching voice helps it to fly high above the band’s contemporaries. Mer de Noms is not a masterpiece, but it’s more than solid. It’s inspiring. And in a world of corporate-sponsored punk rockers and plastic divas providing us with our music, that’s all we could want.