Do you ever find yourself bored with the mediocrity and sterile façade of music shoved down your throat by the mainstream music industry? Ever wonder why the industry seems so reluctant to deliver on anything with soulful and world-conscious content? Why is it so hard to find anything that speaks to honest, analysis of real-world emotional and intellectual problems? And what’s more, why is it doubly hard to find anything of real substance in the realm of hard rock? Well if these questions plague your mind and diminish your enthusiasm for the state of music, A Perfect Circle just demonstrated how they are the antidote to dyspeptic banality. Reuniting after years of inactivity, the five-piece band played an intimate show (relatively speaking) sold-out to the rafters at Hollywood’s Avalon. This, the second of a three-night stand was to be them playing the entirety of their luminous gem, Thirteenth Step.
It’s been nearly seven years since mxdwn first reviewed this album, and just a little less since we ranked it as the number three album of that year, behind only The White Stripes’ Elephant and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And while the general purpose of this mini-tour is for the band is to get used to each other again, the music has lost none of its luster. The album was performed in sequence from front to back. For this reunion, the lineup is Billy Howerdel (guitars), Maynard James Keenan (vocals), James Iha (guitars/keyboards), Josh Freese (drums) and Matt McJunkins (bass). The group was assembled in the atypical fashion of three members in the back row—from left to right Keenan, Iha and Freese—with McJunkins and Howerdel and front left and right respectively.
Howerdel began with the opening lightly plucked notes to “The Package.” McJunkins and Freese join in starting to craft the song’s nuanced, patient crescendo. Keenan echoes out the song’s sinister refrain, “Lie and smile to get what’s mine” before the band let’s loose with the explosive latter half. Keenan growls, “Give this to me / Mine, mine, mine / Take, what’s mine.” The crowd is elated. Is it a finger-pointing indictment of an unsavory character, or a self-deprecating assessment from the speaker? More importantly, what does it make you wonder about your own motives and desires?
The most straightforward track “Weak and Powerless” is next, the song rocking in a steadier tempo. “The Noose” follows and is a shining exemplum of the band’s nimble precision. As with many other tracks on this night, Iha and Howerdel take turns layering complementary melodies and artful dissonance. As the song evolves into its frightening/enrapturing chorus “With your halo slipping down” Freese starts to hammer out the rhythms—sparse and concise as they are—like it’s a stadium rock anthem. The whole crowd completes the previous lyric’s latter half as the song elegantly comes to silence, “to choke you now.”
McJunkins does solid justice to the post-rock delay-ridden bass line that anchors the beautiful “Blue.” “Blue” is a curiosity and successful in the best way a four-minute song could hope to be. It’s over just as it completely grabs hold of your attention, and immediately beckons you to play it again. The band displays more of their stellar chemistry on “Vanishing,” assembling a fluid series of atmospheric notes to evoke the song’s subject matter of disappearance, a promise of evanescent evaporation. Or perhaps worry? Keenan leans forward and waves his arms in almost joking, spooky fashion. McJunkins and Freese leave temporarily for “A Stranger,” allowing Howerdel and Iha to quietly frame the song’s angelic backdrop. Keenan delicately coos, “You’re a stranger so what do I care? / You vanish today, not the first time I hear / All the lights / What am I to do with all this silence?” offering another rumination, this time nimbly straddling the pondering of obsession and the need to expunge it.
The crowd’s anticipation grows to a fever pitch as one of the album’s strongest songs comes next, “The Outsider.” One of the heaviest songs of the album, the song is a menacing and frightening look at total collapse. The song’s guitarwork winds and weaves the song’s mounting pressure as Keenan howls, “Disconnect and self destruct one bullet at a time / What’s your hurry? Everyone will have his day to die / If you choose to pull the trigger / should your drama prove sincere / do it somewhere far away from here.” Does it resonate with your own emotional experience? Does it make you question your own thoughts on someone who is troubled?
The band pauses before the decrescendo of “Crimes” and Keenan humorously explains the band’s need to get used to each other again, acting as if they barely remember how to play the songs. It’s worth noting that the band can visibly be seen making adjustments throughout the entire set. Howerdel’s rig in particular appears to be faltering in numerous ways, but the band never misses stride or even seems phased. Three of the best come last, “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” “Pet” and “Gravity.” The band’s cover of Failure’s classic “The Nurse Who Loved Me” is the only derivation from the album’s arrangement. It shifts from whimsical love song into ominous exploration. The crowd is loving every minute of it. “Pet” attacks the worst tenants of the Bush-era political philosophy (“Lay your head down child / I won’t let the boogie men come”) and almost sonically plays as disturbing as who its demonizing. And then it all comes to an optimistic, sedate finale on “Gravity.” It’s a colorful and warming finale, an easy dawn after a long dark night sort of feeling. “I am surrendering to gravity and the unknown / catch me, heal me / Lift me back up to the sun / I chose to live,” is the refrain that closes the piece. It’s a solemn promise of faithful commitment and trust. In ones self? In the world around us?
The band takes a long encore break and shows much of their approachable humor. Introducing each other, donning a new nickname “Mr. Masturbator Maynard Keenan” and even allowing Iha to do a mini-stand-up routine while the guitar techs fixed Howerdel’s guitar rig. The biggest news of the night is that former member Troy Van Leeuwen (and current member of Queens of the Stone Age) joins the band for the first encore of “3 Libras.” He fits lock-step in with the band in temporarily taking Iha’s place. They then close off the evening with their darker cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” from eMOTIVe.
When the term “supergroup” gets tossed around, it typically is in reference to a small cluster of extremely famous musicians joining up to collaborate for a brief amount of time. No one in music lives up to that title in meaningful outcome like A Perfect Circle. There’s really only one complaint for this show–that it wasn’t longer. The band delivered on what they promised though, and delivered quite possibly the most technically air-tight and discernible performance in Los Angeles since Portishead did their rehearsal show prior to Coachella two years ago. If legitimate substance and polished skill is what you crave, this is the band you need to hear.
All photos by Raymond Flotat