Formed by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan and former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, A Perfect Circle is an extension of the alt-metal-fused-with-art rock style popularized by Tool in the early to mid-'90s. While similar to Tool in intensity and melancholy, A Perfect Circle is less dark and more melodic, with a theatrical, ambient quality that incorporates occasional strings and unusual instrumentation. After the release of Ænima in 1996, Tool found themselves in the midst of an extended legal battle with former label Freeworld Entertainment. When the dust settled two years later, the band reached a 50/50 joint venture agreement for future recordings and, feeling a little burned out, decided to take some time off. It was at this point that Keenan joined up with Howerdel and Paz Lenchantin to form A Perfect Circle. Keenan had met Howerdel in 1992 when Tool opened for Fishbone. Howerdel had been Fishbone's tech at the time and had played Keenan a few of his songs. Keenan was impressed and the two talked of collaborating in the future. However, the opportunity didn't present itself until after the Freeworld settlement. With Keenan on vocals, Howerdel on guitar, and Lenchantin on bass, the trio recruited ex-Failure and Enemy member Troy Van Leeuwen on guitar and ex-Vandals and Guns N' Roses member Josh Freese on drums. The quintet rehearsed together but didn't announce the formation of a new band until performing for the first time on August 15, 1999, at a benefit concert at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Howerdel, who had been composing songs for years, as well as working with bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, became the band's chief songwriter and producer. A Perfect Circle released their debut album, Mer de Noms, in 2000. Thirteenth Step followed in 2003, and the covers album Emotive appeared in 2004.
The band had in its initial pre-debut album tours performed an audacious, entertaining medley of Ozzy Osbourne's "Diary of a Madman" and the Cure's "Lovesong" -- regularly matching one's words with the other's music and vice versa -- indicates where Mer de Noms ended up. Howerdel's earlier work with Billy Corgan makes perfect sense as a result, since the Pumpkins regularly fused the extreme theatricality of metal and goth just so, but Howerdel's work is no clone. His guitar work operates on setting the mood rather than driving everything before it, balancing sheer power with a textured approach that's quite beautiful. Nine Inch Nails-inspired touches crop up in the distorted percussion of many songs, such as "Rose," but for all the derivations everything becomes its own smart fusion, with Keenan's vocals the killer touch. His abilities in delivering on-the-edge emotional collapse had long been clear thanks to Tool -- here, with a slightly different musical bed to carry things, he often holds back from complete explosiveness, but it's still clearly him, just about to crack. His astonishing call-and-response exchange on the single "Judith" makes another high point in his career. The choice of who else to make up the band was a smart one -- Lenchantin's violin and string arrangements add even further to the air of dark, moody mystery, while Josh Freese's abilities on drums once again come to the fore. Alan Moulder adds in some fine help on mixing, polishing the glowering sheen of Mer de Noms to a hard, sharp edge.
Three years after the release of its debut Mer de Noms, A Perfect Circle's Thirteenth Step sees the light of day. By that time, Troy van Leeuwen and Paz Lenchantin had left and been replaced by bassist Jeordie Osborne White, formerly of Marilyn Manson, and guitarist James Iha, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins (though he doe not appear on the album). While van Leeuwen appear on part of the set, guitarist Danny Lohner helped out after he departed. Amazingly, despite the changes, the sound is still very much the creation of Billy Howerdel with the unmistakable vocal of Maynard Keenan from Tool. Produced by Howerdel and mixed by the inimitable Andy Wallace, Thirteenth Step is a moodier, tenser, and more atmospheric (if that is possible) recording than its predecessor. Written mostly by Howerdel and Keenan, the songs traverse a particular associated with surrender, loss, having the nature of a person stripped away, and turning in the twilight of those feelings toward a kind of slow transformation into something that can only be called "other." There are no easy outs and no easy answers, only hard questions throughout "Weak and Powerless," where surrender is necessary but far from desired. The title bitingly refers to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not your average recovery outing. Tracks like "Blue," "Vanishing," and "Lullaby" (one of two tracks featuring the amazing Jarboe on vocals) feature a kind of barely restrained menace caught in a trap by rock & roll vulnerability. The wide dynamic swathes that were so prominent on the band's debut are all but absent here. The squalling guitars have taken a backseat to carefully crafted melodies where atmospherics are maximized and pulled taut over the listener. While not a radical departure from Mer de Noms, there is a real progression here. However, the explosive, heavier-than-heavy rock-ism of A Perfect Circle is so well known for it is readily evidenced on cuts such as "The Outsider" and "Pet." As moods shapeshift from the sepia-toned murk of "The Package" and "The Noose," the over the top hard rock to the Baroquely scaled "The Nurse Who Loved Me" and "Gravity," with its beautiful guitar effects and crystalline bassline, the listener becomes aware of just how much water has traveled under A Perfect Circle's bridge. The Thirteenth Step is the sound of a musical and lyrical maturity that normally doesn't occur until a band's third or fourth albums. Lyrically, musically, sonically, the Thirteenth Step is proof positive that mainstream rock has plenty of life and vision left in it.
When Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan covered Wings' "Silly Love Songs" as a guest vocalist for the Replicants, it was amusing and well thought out. When Tool covered "No Quarter" in concert it was intense, appropriate, and staggeringly good. And when Maynard continued the tradition with the beautiful recording of Failure's "The Nurse Who Loved Me," it became apparent that Maynard had a penchant for re-recording songs that were of high quality but not necessarily anthems. But then there's the notion of recording a whole album of covers, which immediately sends off red flags that the water may be running dry and the record label is thirsty for a new release. A Perfect Circle's album of covers, eMOTIVe, falls flat and fails to raise the bar set so high by the quality of their previous two releases. Turning some of popular music's most potent songs into a soundtrack ideal for background music at your local teen-angst mall-chain clothing store, A Perfect Circle work their way through 12 songs that would almost be unrecognizable in their current arrangement if one weren't familiar with the original versions of each song. John Lennon's somber, optimistic anthem for peace, "Imagine," is changed from its original major key to a funereal minor key dirge. Marvin Gaye's perfect "What's Going On" is turned into a horrible industrial track that would be permissible on a budget-line compilation but is simply unforgivable in its inclusion here. The same could apply to the butchering of Black Flag's "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie" and a few other numbers. However, the album's sole moment of tranquility and its most effective moments lie in the band's treatment of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," and the disturbing a cappella of Joni Mitchell's "Fiddle and the Drum." eMOTIVe is a slight dent in the armor of Maynard's nearly flawless career as a frontman, and it's (hopefully) a mere detour for A Perfect Circle.