A Perfect Circle is the side project of Maynard James Keenan, best known as the lead singer of the progressive metal band Tool. I’m not really that familiar with Tool, aside from a couple of radio hits, “Sober” and “Schism,” that have become alternative rock classics. (I’ve actually been trying to get my hands on Aenima (1996) for quite some time but haven’t gotten around to it — Tool’s music isn’t on iTunes for whatever reason.) Guitarist Billy Howerdel had worked as a guitar tech during Tool’s Aenima tour — he’s also listed in the album’s production credits — and played Keenan some of his songs. Keenan was impressed, and when Tool became paralyzed by a legal battle with their label he agreed to sing those songs when Howerdel formed A Perfect Circle in 1999.
A Perfect Circle’s debut Mer de Noms arrived in the summer of 2000 (incidentally, the same day as Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, which precedes Thirteenth Step on this list — odd coincidence), along with its lead single, “Judith,” which turned out to be a lasting hit on alternative rock radio. I had just gotten the original Napster on my Pentium 1 Dell computer with 3 gigabytes of hard drive space, and was going crazy downloading songs without paying for them. The only problem was, this was back in the days of dial-up, which meant that I could only download one song at a time and it would take like half an hour to download a three-minute song. (Isn’t it amazing how far technology has come?) Anyway, Napster didn’t last that long, as we all know, and the songs I downloaded, like the computer I downloaded them with, are long gone.
But when I got to college I discovered that Napster had been resurrected in the form of a legal Netflix-esque service that let you download as many songs with DRM (digital rights management — in other words, you didn’t own the songs, therefore eliminating your ability to put them on your iPod and take them with you) as you want for like ten bucks a month. And in a preemptive attempt to keep us from using illegal peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Limewire (they would catch you immediately if you used it and suspend your internet account anyway — it wasn’t worth it, to say the least), the University of Miami gave us free Napster memberships. This opened up a huge amount of music for me, since I could suddenly listen to just about anything I wanted for free. And it was all legal. And as far as that DRM stuff goes, they’re kidding with that, right? I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out you can just download a program that will convert the files — which were .wma, if I remember correctly — to .mp3, which eliminates the DRM nonsense.
In an attempt to keep us from downloading music illegally, they had really just given us the green light to get our hands on pretty much anything we wanted without paying for it. And there was nothing illegal about it, either. To those who disagree: the .wma files downloaded via Napster were downloaded legally, and the program that converted those files to .mp3 was legal, so the whole process can’t be deemed illegal if none of the individual acts in that process were illegal. (I missed my calling. I should have been a lawyer.) One of the first albums I sought out on Napster during my freshman year was Mer de Noms, since I had never heard it. I actually liked it a lot, and it stood the test of time much better than I had expected, since by this time I was in full-blown classic rock mode and hadn’t really been listening to alternative rock for the last few years.
By the fall of 2003, when I was in tenth grade, the alternative rock scene was a vast Dust Bowl-era wasteland of over-plundered soil and poorly insulated housing. Everything just sounded dusty, grimy and inorganic, and it wasn’t long before I stopped paying attention to it. A Perfect Circle released their follow-up album Thirteenth Step on the heels of its lead single, “Weak and Powerless.” I really liked “Weak and Powerless,” and I downloaded it through one of those post-Napster peer-to-peer programs like Kazaa or whatever everyone was using at the time. (I honestly can’t remember.) It was a hell of a lot better than the Hoobastank and Staind and whatever else they were playing at the time, but unfortunately, it faded to obscurity quite quickly despite reaching #1 on both the alternative and mainstream rock radio charts.
I think if the two subsequent singles, “The Outsider” and “Blue,” had received more airplay (I never even noticed them), I might have bought Thirteenth Step back in 2003. The exact same thing, of course, had happened with Mer de Noms in 2000. A stronger promotional push — and the subtraction of illegal downloading from the equation, possibly — probably would have caused me to pull the trigger on both albums, but it just didn’t happen that way. Unfortunately for me though, Thirteenth Step wasn’t available on Napster, so it wasn’t until I was perusing the shrinking CD section at Best Buy my senior year of college that I finally bought Thirteenth Step. Mer de Noms was, by any measure, an excellent debut, with a well-developed sense of dynamics and a great sense of atmosphere and space.
But it wasn’t until I heard Thirteenth Step that I realized how much farther they could develop that sound, removing the somewhat self-conscious polish that hinders Mer de Noms. If you’re an audiophile, look into getting Thirteenth Step — the quality is just amazing. Lyrically, the album is a bit heavy, as the title cryptically refers to Alcoholics Anonymous. (“Thirteenth-stepping” is making sexual advances towards someone at an AA meeting who has little sobriety under his or her belt.) The song titles alone — “Weak and Powerless,” “The Noose,” “Blue,” “Vanishing,” “A Stranger,” “The Outsider,” “Crimes,” “Gravity” — are more than a little suggestive of struggles with addiction. It’s a rewarding album, a rare modern rock classic that almost no one remembers.