Review Summary: An album of both magnificent beauty and raw ugliness
Maynard James Keenan might literally be the man of a million endeavors. It seems like every time you turn around, Mr. Keenan has his hands in something new, whether it be music, visual/performance arts, wine, etc. The drive this man possesses is breathtaking at times, but at the same time you wonder how he can be constantly be so creative. After Tool, A Perfect Circle is Keenan's most well-known project. Keenan formed A Perfect Circle with former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, former Failure/ future Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, and well-known session drummer Josh Freese. The group released their first album Mer De Noms (French- Sea of Names) in 2000.
Mer De Noms opens on a romantic note: "The Hollow" is lush and spacey, with a soaring chorus and lyrics from Keenan that address lust in primal form. Befitting the album title, there are several songs on Mer De Noms that are named after people, beginning with "Magdalena". "Magdalena" is actually the original surname of the Christian religious figure Mary Magdalene, and the song lyrics speak of temptation, both sexual and religious. The verses of "Magdalena" are droning with almost monotone vocals from Maynard, until the driving choruses kick in. The opening guitar line of "Magdalena" reminds me a lot of U2 actually. Speaking of religion, the most well-known track on Mer De Noms is probably the single "Judith". Named after Maynard's mother, the mid-tempo track features a chugging main guitar riff and Keenan's emotionally charged vocals, including the well-known scream of "*** your God! Your Lord, Your Christ". The lyrics are Maynard at his angriest, as they question how his mother could still believe in God after she suffered a stroke and was left wheelchair-bound.
Not all of Mer De Noms is angry though. Several songs, like "Orestes" and "3 Libras" are softer in nature musically. Other songs, like "Rose" and "Thomas", start out soft but soon get heavier. "Thomas" in particular is almost sludge in nature, as it lumbers along at a crawl. "Renholder" is basically an interlude, but it's Middle Eastern sound is extremely potent. "Over" features an xylophone of all instruments along with piano and Maynard's soft vocals, and is a beautiful album closer.
The various members of A Perfect Circle contribute in equal ways to the atmosphere of Mer De Noms. Maynard James Keenan carries the record with his unique and powerful voice. The law firm of Howerdel & Van Leeuwen brings riffs to the table, but also know when to pull back and let the atmospheric stuff fly. Speaking of the guitars, they in particular are produced in such a way to feel warm and organic. In an era where everything is over-processed, the guitar riffs on Mer De Noms give off a warm and pleasant vibe. Josh Freese is a great drummer, and he gives Mer De Noms enough variety in rhythms to shake it up a bit. There's nothing that races along at a million miles an hour, but that's not the point of Mer De Noms. This is an album of mostly slow to midtempo numbers, but nothing sounds completely the same. Mer De Noms as a whole is bass-heavy, in both the guitars and bass guitars, which Howerdel plays on Mer De Noms. The bass-heavy sound only enhances the overall listening experience.
Mer De Noms is an album of both magnificent beauty and raw ugliness. The gamut of emotions that is spanned on Mer De Noms is breath-taking, as A Perfect Circle shifts from romantic lust one minute (The Hollow) to angry religious questioning the next (Judith). Yes, the album is carried by Maynard James Keenan and his vocals, but without the other members, Mer De Noms would not be as special as it truly is. A brilliant debut album, Mer De Noms is the alternative metal genre at it's best, and proves that A Perfect Circle as a supergroup is much better than most supergroups that have come and gone.