A Perfect Circle is a side-project supergroup that wryly defies both of these enduring rock & roll clichés. Firstly, for all the alt-rock luminaries involved (the current APC lineup includes Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan, former Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White a.k.a. Twiggy Ramirez, ex–Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and first-call session drummer Josh Freese), the founding creative core of the band is a relatively unknown former Tool/Nine Inch Nails guitar tech, Billy Howerdel. And though the band is often portrayed as a Tool trickle-down, the success of its 2000 debut, Mer de Noms, immediately placed A Perfect Circle as a peer rather than a pretender.
Most of the songs that became Mer de Noms had been fermenting for years in Howerdel’s head, and on his computer, until circumstances and schedules allowed him to gather a clutch of his L.A. musician buddies together long enough to realize his brainchild. With Keenan’s signature studio-stroked musings aboard, Mer de Noms is undeniably sister-listening to Tool’s lurking art-metal, yet the album, while not short on epic bombast, is ethereal and embracing, heavy on hypnotic 6/8 time, hung with overlapping shrouds of harmony and fleshed with Pumpkinsesque expanses of effected guitars. Inadvertently, A Perfect Circle come on like Tool’s feminine side.
Three years on, Howerdel has assembled a re-jigged APC to create a sophomore opus, The Thirteenth Step, this time under weight of expectation and without the spice of surprise. In the incestuous world of A Perfect Circle, gone are Mer de Noms alumni Troy Van Leeuwen (now in Queens of the Stone Age) and Paz Lenchantin (who joined Billy Corgan’s Zwan), and in come Iha and White. The Thirteenth Step is an obviously more confident collection than its predecessor: The songwriting is more concise, the bass lines bolder, the arrangements more open, all slinging the crutch of superdense production. There’s still much dynamic clambering and careening, distant stringed swarms, condemned-man hand-wringing, and sumptuously exotic harmonies amid the furtive atmospherics, but the album — aside from an incongruous cover of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me” — is the sound of a band crisping its sonic silhouette. Yet the process belies the product.
“There was a big struggle with the material,” Howerdel says, sighing. “The last album was a lot easier. If the last one was a 3, this one was a 9 and a half or 10 to make, because Maynard and I just had different ideas on what we wanted to do.”
The frustration for Howerdel is that, while APC is essentially his baby (he’s principal songwriter, producer and guitarist), Keenan — as the big name and identifiable voice — has power of creative veto. “I had been working on this new album for two years prior to the rest of the band coming in,” says Howerdel, “so I had things that I was holding dear to me, and when I presented them to Maynard, he was like, ‘Nah, I’m not hearing it on these,’ so it was kinda back to the drawing board for me. I wasn’t hearing what he wanted, either, just what he didn’t want — and that’s a very difficult position to be in. I definitely feel like this was more of Maynard’s record; this time he had some kind of vision, and I was trying to chase it.”
For Howerdel, songwriting is a solitary endeavor, so exposing his ideas to the collective sunlight is a wincing experience. “I honestly have trouble writing with other people in the room, and I wish I didn’t. I’m not very good at ‘jamming’ traditionally. At Lollapalooza, there was a jam tent set up backstage and all these guys were ripping on these songs, and I just felt like such an outsider.”
Yet Howerdel is far from squeamish about live performance (APC played this summer’s Lollapalooza tour between headlining dates of its own). “Touring’s so much fun, so rewarding . . . I don’t want to be alone! I get jealous of people, like, playing and figuring things out that way — but we’re starting to get that; at a couple of sound checks we’ve really started something, and now I look forward to it.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, its grappling genesis, The Thirteenth Step is an authentic, intriguing disc that will become a tormenting soundtrack to thousands. While deeply committed to APC, though, Howerdel’s aware that his gentle monster is wriggling away from him and so is maneuvering toward parallel avenues of less-diluted self-expression. (He’s already planning a new project as a vehicle for songs that didn’t make The Thirteenth Step.) While its evolution makes an uncomfortable tale, it’s perversely reassuring that The Thirteenth Step’s disquieting transmissions are anything but contrived.