A Perfect Circle

Mer de Noms (Virgin)

A Perfect Circle

Mer de Noms

(Virgin)

If Jesus Christ reemerged as a rock singer, he couldn't sound much better than Maynard James Keenan. Best known for his vocal work with the Los Angeles art-metal posse Tool, Keenan possesses a voice that murmurs sweetly one moment and explodes with psychotic fury the next. In an alternapop world that often celebrates mediocrity, Keenan's primal howl is a refreshing, exceptional study in musical excellence.

Keenan's mystique has grown to mythic proportions since Tool's 1993 arrival -- indeed countless contemporary rockers cite Tool as a prime influence. Unfortunately, Tool conceives records at a snail's pace. (They've released only two CDs in seven years.) So when guitarist Billy Howerdel (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins) played Keenan some of his songs, the singer enthusiastically volunteered to form a side project. The result is A Perfect Circle, a quintet including ace session drummer Josh Freese, bassist Paz Lenchantin and co-guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. However, the group's anxiously anticipated debut album is a botched experiment. A peculiar fusion of prog-rock proficiency and goth melodiousness, Mer de Noms is a record that veritably screams, "Love me for my brains!" Like Yes, the Cure, and other art-rockers before them, A Perfect Circle's musical vision and grandiose lyricism are blunted by corny concepts and soulless, meandering melodies. In fact, on several occasions Keenan and company flirt with Spinal Tap-like self-importance. Yikes!

Surprisingly Keenan shoulders a good deal of the blame for the album's mediocrity. His remarkable vocals are buried in the mix, and the few lyrics that can be discerned don't add up to much. The songs make countless allusions to God, betrayal, angst, and many other classic rock themes, but there's nothing concrete for listeners to glom onto. The lyrics aren't printed in the CD jacket, which makes one think Keenan's poetics are even lamer than initially thought.

Yet as disappointing as Mer de Noms is, some transcendent moments here nearly compensate for the group's lack of direction. The album opens with the wondrously melodic "The Hollow," where Keenan's messianic vocals and Freese's brute percussion flourishes combine for a truly fantastic performance. On "Judith" and "Thinking of You," Howerdel and Van Leeuwen launch pummeling guitar assaults that complement Keenan's heroic voice. If Keenan and company would just drop the Tolkien-style theatrics and concentrate on composing concise, relevant songs, A Perfect Circle could be the Official Band of the Apocalypse. And wouldn't that look cool on a résumé?

 
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