Review Summary: the perfect autumn CD. bittersweet and easily digested. too bad it needs more spice to make it memorable. more time in the oven could have made this the tastiest Halloween treat ever.
To be frank, the Supergroup’s credibility as an artistic unit has always been a bit shaky, in my book (Lets be frank, Asia
should have been the best band of all time judging by individual musicians and look how THAT turned out…) but the nineties and new millennium have, without question, been terrible to the Supergroup. Don’t believe me? Let’s run down the list:
: One of the great poetic singers of the grunge era matched with the most varied, politically charged, and original backing band in all of rock and roll makes… generic radio friendly singles-albums about nothing at all.
: any band with Slash should make my face melt on a second by second basis. Any band with Scott Weiland should have all the rebellious fury of a rabid pit bull. Other than Slither
these guys are tame puppies.
Don’t even get me started on Alter Bridge, Army of Anyone
, or Hellyeah
There is, however, one group from the era that truly stands out as having created unique, distinct, and on its own excellent music. That group is A Perfect Circle
. Always the brainchild of noted guitar tech Billy Howerdel and (in)famous Tool
frontman Maynard James Keenan, APC became known, primarily, as a hard alternative-rock band that Maynard used as a conduit for ideas that did not mesh with Tool
’s heavier, more progressive sound. Which is not to say APC is not hard, or progressive; quite the contrary, this is some hard stuff when it wants to be, and certainly some of the most complex music ever put into a radio friendly rock CD, but on band debut Mer De Noms especially, this is rather straightforward, simply structured music, focusing more on atmosphere and mood than music theory.
And it’s all the better for it, I say. This is one hell of a disc: not only a great melodic rock disc, but one that twists and turns and captivates its listener, as well as holds up to repeat listening while the entire time is easily split up into singles and segments for playlists and mixtapes.
Right off the bat, especially on opener The Hollow
Maynard is front and center. He’s almost never silent, and his voice is mixed to the top and is always crisp and clear, nearly operatic. Supposedly founder Howerdel wanted a female vocalist originally, and that much is clear in the music: Maynard’s layered harmonies and choruses almost always register in the higher octaves, so if you were expecting Maynard’s more gruff and growly work such as that found on Undertow, you’re out of luck once again. It’s mostly clean and bright work here with only select sections of violent singing used primarily for juxtaposition between lyrical content and vocal style (see the almost guttural chorus on Thinking Of You
That’s really the focus of the disc, and APC’s style in general: the juxtaposition of light and dark, of heavy and light, of beauty and ugly. Several songs on the disc, for example feature accentuated clean acoustic guitar parts juxtaposed with distorted and atonal synthesizers, which create a dense and lush, almost forest-like soundscape that invites the listener to get lost in the numerous facets of its design. The end result is something that really resonates in a similar way to the work of Radiohead, but via a completely different process and atmosphere: this music is not stripped and its vocals are not subdued, but it still creates the whirlpool of emotional sound effect that Yorke and his ilk pioneered. If there is a disc seemingly designed t convert the alternative rock set to the heavier side of guitar music, this is it. Sadly, many of the more interesting songs featuring this dynamic (Rose
, or the instrumental Renholder
, ect.) are far too brief for their own good. The entire disc’s length is a hair under 45 minutes with songs averaging in at about three minutes: plenty long to establish the gorgeous atmospherics and memorable choruses, but not quite long enough to really indulge the listener in those sonic palettes that the group so painstakingly created. Shame, really.
Something needs to be said about the sound of the instruments: put simply they’re tuned and mixed perfectly. The guitar is sticky sweet but never overpowering, the keyboards accentuate without becoming cheesy, the bass stays down where it needs to and takes center stage where it’s strongest, and the drums are complex but not too aggressive. Possibly best of all are the sparse but simply gorgeous string interludes courtesy of the lovely Paz Lenchantin, the group’s female bassist. (side note: mainstream bands need more great female members that actually PLAY an INSTRUMENT like Paz, or D’arcy Wrtezky)
Lyrically, the album is also heads and shoulders over the post-grunge crowd it shares shelf space with. The lyrical matter may be less literary or theoretical than those found in Tool
, but are no less intelligent or philosophical. And by no means are they any less dark! This is one grim disc, but it’s not so much angry as gently self-loathing, lovingly so. Unlike the hoards of cookie cutter pop punk bands in love with their self destructive tendencies, however, this album comes by it’s negativity tenderly and earnestly (See the softy spoken ‘you don’t see me’s on centerpiece ballad 3 Libras
), even more so than most of the lyrical content on the average NIN disc. The content is also varied: reaching so far as the depraved lust of Magdelena
(yours truly’s favorite track), to the sweeping biblical allusions of Judith
. Sadly, that very same varied nature rpoves to be a strike against the band as well: Other than a general mood there’s no real coherence to the stories on the individual songs, which becomes glaringly befuddling when almost every song is sung in the first person. It’s as if the disc is a chest of assorted ancient letters, aged and written gorgeously, but each between different persons with no names attached (perhaps that’s the literal Sea of Names in the title.). All this is only compounded by songs that are almost all a tad too short for their own good (or else not concisely idealized enough) and all in the same laid back regular time signature.
Overall, this is a great disc, really. The production is immaculate, the lyrics and singing are outstanding (par for the course for Maynard), and the music is bittersweet in the best way: easily digested, but not easily forgotten. Still, it doesn’t quite feel finished on a conceptual level. The songs never strongly enough establish their own voices, and seem arranged in an arbitrary fashion, making it far too easily tog et bogged down by the sameness that permeates the CD. It’s like fine caviar: great to eat, but when it’s spread on everything it loses its appeal. Sadly, that makes this disc less than a must-buy, unless you’re one of Maynard’s fans.
Still, especially for its time, Mer De Noms is an outstanding example of what great radio friendly melodic rock music CAN be: soulful and catchy at once. It’s also proof that great musicians from different bands can create great work: by niting and creating work notably different that what they’d made before. Even though they’re broken up now, I still love A Perfect Circle
based on the merit of their fine work, and I honestly believe the rock world was better off with them.