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another step up...another perfect circle
on 18 September 2003
A Perfect Circle are now undeniably a supergroup after recent changes to their line-up, bringing ex-Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie and ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha into the fold. The musical core remains largely the same, however, with the songwriting led by founder Billy Howerdel, the distinctive vocals of Tools' Maynard James Keenan, and Vandals drummer Josh Freeze. So after a platinum selling debut Mer de Noms in 2000, where was this even more powerful ensemble possibly setting its sights three years later?
The first single "Weak and Powerless" sounds much like the band we remember, clearly more restrained and developed in sound, with a structural element that they previously shunned, and yet accessible in its clear genius. However, this is a misleading introduction to the album, which is a great distance away from the debut. Fans expecting a repeat of such beautifully crafted songs, light in tone but dark in subject, will be initally disappointed. However, with a little time and effort, they will discover and even greater sound within this new CD, as A Perfect Circle evolve in leaps and bounds.
A "conceptual exploration of the darker side of the human psyche" they said. The change is immediately clear from the opener "The Package" which lasts almost eight minutes in duration. This prog rock design is almost the antithesis of their previous chart hits, but is the perfect introduction to the new album. Instrumentally stripped down and essentially a vocal exercise, what follows is a series of highly understated songs carefully surrounded by a spine-tingling mixture of soft and heavy instrumentation.
Thirteenth Step can be accused of occassionally being a little grandiose in its complexity, but the painstaking care that went into the crafting of each tune is undeniably clear. The heaviness of the dark subject matter of Mer de Noms has now filtered through to the musical sound, while remaining low in volume. The result can be somewhat frustrating as the song appears to be slowly building up...but without any discernible climax. The result often works best on heavier tracks such as "Pet", "The Outsider" and the brilliantly dark, slow but incessent sound of "The Noose". The persistent vocals throughout the album evoke a trance-like state of strange beauty.
Howerdel has rightly suggested that the album is best listened to through headphones, due to the quiet sound levels used to allow certain sections to suddenly break through from nothing before dying away once again. Indeed, unlike Mer de Noms, one should really play the new album with the sole intention of exploring the music, for it is not easily accessible and requires the listener's focused attention, in a similar way to Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral.
It's utterly refreshing to find a band who have created such a unique sound that while Thirteenth Step at first appears to launch in an utterly different direction to their debut, it still retains a distinctly "A Perfect Circle" element. So with this blend of Maynard's angelic yet tragic vocals, Howerdel's understated yet complex songwriting, interwoven softer and heavier riffs, and a supergroup featuring some of the most talented musicians today, A Perfect Circle are looking to become a visionary and hugely influential band.
KEY TRACKS: The Noose, Weak and Powerless, The Outsider