A Perfect Circle Mer de Noms (Virgin 49253) It used to...

CD REVIEWS

June 15, 2000|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A Perfect Circle

Mer de Noms (Virgin 49253)

It used to be that calling a pop group a "cult act" was tantamount to saying it was unpopular. Cult status meant being out of the mainstream and known only to dedicated fans; once an act's audience was big enough to push an album to gold-record status (i.e., over half a million sales), the act could safely be considered part of the mainstream.

Not any more. Not when there are bands like A Perfect Circle around.

These days, there are plenty of gold-record acts -- and even a few platinum ones -- that still qualify as cult bands. Some of that has to do with the fact that the record business is bigger than ever, what with 'N Sync's latest album selling more in its first week of release than the Beatles' "White Album" did in its first year.

But this phenomenon also reflects the fact that an awful lot of very passionate listeners have no use at all for mainstream, MTV-friendly pop.

A Perfect Circle is just such a group. Founded by guitarist Billy Howerdel and featuring singer Maynard James Keenan of Tool, it's hardly a high-profile or all-star act. Yet its debut album, "Mer de Noms," not only outsold Don Henley's latest in its first week of release, but set a record for the highest-charting debut by a new band. Clearly, some listeners knew who these guys were.

But A Perfect Circle's success isn't simply a matter of underground marketing. The real reason "Mer de Noms" made such a big splash in its first week on the charts is that its music is so eloquent and powerful.

As with such bands as Tool, Pitchshifter, Filter and Failure, A Perfect Circle's sound draws from the edgy side of alt-rock. Its sound is a stew of industrial, metal, punk and prog-rock influences, offering plenty of punch but not fitting easily into any pigeonhole. Musically, it's truly a one-of-a-kind outfit.

But it isn't the band's idiosyncratic sound that draws the listeners in; it's the songs. While A Perfect Circle may generate a mighty roar with its densely layered guitars, what makes the likes of "Rose" and "Judith" so magnificent is the way the band's instrumental muscle frames its melodies.

"Judith" is a case in point. Although the central guitar riff nicely underscores the tune's swaggering, waltz-time groove, it's Howerdel's exploitation of texture that lends the track its drama.

Just as Keenan goes from a whisper to a scream as he builds to the "It's not like you killed someone" chorus, so do Howerdel's guitars vary their attack, moving from muscular crunch to piercing howl to string-section sweetness as the song demands.

Granted, not every number on the album is as emotionally intense as "Judith." Despite its pumped-up chorus, there's a real sweetness, for instance, to the acoustic guitar and overdubbed violins in "3 Libras," while the dreamy, melancholy "Orestes" seems content to simmer moodily despite the itchy energy of the drums. But other tracks -- in particular, the brash, semi-symphonic "Rose" -- almost seem to luxuriate in the sumptuous clangor of the band's sound.

In the end, that attention to sonic detail is perhaps the deepest pleasure "Mer de Noms" affords. Unlike so many bands on the market these days, A Perfect Circle makes music that repays close listening. Not only does the album make it easy for the listener to get lost in the music, but it manages to reveal new depth with every hearing. It's no wonder this "cult band" has so many listeners. ****

David S. Ware

Surrendered (Columbia 63816)

It probably isn't accidental that the album David S. Ware's "Surrendered" most vividly evokes is John Coltrane's classic "A Love Supreme." Not only do Ware and his bandmates play off the same tonal palette as the Coltrane quartet, but there's a similar aura of spirituality to the playing. But where Coltrane's recording was built around the quest for enlightenment through intellectual exploration, Ware seems more oriented toward trancelike meditation. So instead of pushing the envelope harmonically, Ware and his cohorts stress circularity and stasis, trying to shift the music's harmonic axis through angular repetition instead of bold extrapolation. It's an interesting approach, and certainly suits the throaty sound of Ware's tenor sax. But the problem with evoking a classic is that you evoke a standard that's usually impossible to match, and there's nothing "Supreme" about Ware's "Surrendered." **1/2

BT

Movement in Still Life (Nettwerk 30154)

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