A Perfect Circle have always been a bit of an enigma. The brainchild of Billy Howerdel, a guitar tech to major alternative bands like Tool, Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins, the band’s compositions are a mix of alternative rock tropes mixed with classic rock bravado and goth aesthetics. What sets the band apart are the lyrics and singing of Maynard James Keenan–a man who already fronts a moody, guitar-heavy alternative rock band.
So why exactly did the world need another band that sounds like Tool, and in this case is actually fronted by Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan? What does the band do that makes them standout? Their performance at the Times Union Center on Saturday night was a reminder that they’ve never actually answered that question.
Tool’s complex compositions are made stronger by Keenan’s impassioned and haunting vocals. A Perfect Circle’s songs are so slight and familiar that without Keenan’s vocals they might be mistaken for generic alt-rock muzak.
I caught the band live in 1999 opening for Nine Inch Nails before they dropped their debut. Keenan, who is known for theatrics, cross dressing and crankiness from the stage spent the entire show on his back–it looked like he was asleep. On Saturday I had to find ways to stop myself from going to sleep during the band’s subdued set.
A Perfect Circle’s debut Mer de Noms served in some ways as a stop gap between Tool albums. Tool has a notoriously slow song-writing process. Mer de Noms’ lead single “Judith” exploded on alt-rock radio–a pop version of Tool–a 3-minute snippet of Maynard’s usual religiously themed lyrics as opposed to Tool’s 7-minute epics. Howerdel’s riffing even mimicked that of Tool guitarist Adam Jones–sludgy, rhythmic.
The rest of the album missed that rhythmic propulsion–slight, ethereal and in some ways unrealized Mer de Noms felt rather unsubstantial—a version of Tool for romantics and the heartbroken. A radio-friendly version of Tool.
The band’s 2003 follow up Thirteenth Step suffered from the same problems–the songs shared extremely similar lyrical themes–Keenan condemning a former lover and the same standard guitar tones. One song blending into the next.
That is mostly what we got on Saturday night. The band opened up with some of their stronger numbers. “The Package” found Keenan donned in a blonde wig with pigtails seducing the audience as a shadow from behind curtains.“Clever got me this far/ Then tricky got me in/ Eye on what I’m after/ I don’t need another friend,” he crooned.
“The Hollow,” “The Noose” and “Weak and Powerless” followed that.
The band has seen a myriad of lineup changes over the years. Along with Maynard and Howerdel this amalgamation featured James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame on guitar, Matt McJunkins of Beta Band on bass, and drummer Jeff Friedl of Puscifer, Filter–a list of talented professionals to be sure but tasked to perform numbers that weren’t particularly daunting.
Six songs in, and the band was digging for material from their covers album Emotive a work that functioned as an an anti-Iraq War protest. Their take on John Lennon’s “Imagine, was morose. Keenan gave a half-hearted speech about politics and everyone needing to hug one another. He failed to mention Trump.
I recalled seeing System of a Down cover the same song in the arena in the early aughts. It had teeth. It ached. A Perfect Circle’s cover barely existed.
Then I recalled the Trump rally that packed the arena in 2016.
Keenan told the crowd that the tour was functioning as a reminder that the band still exists and aren’t in an old-folks home somewhere. He said they are back and “grumpier” than ever. But there was no fiery political speech. The band’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” was barely recognizable.
Audience members were warned before the band took the stage that photography and video recording was forbidden and that those that violated the policy would be ejected. Throughout the show people took pictures and were quickly descended on by security. A pair of drunkards near me refused to leave and the five security guards called to respond gave up on trying to remove them but argued with them for an extended period. It was distracting, to say the least.
Things finally got a bit interesting on “Hour Glass” a vocoder-fueled electronic number that presented as a mashup of Kanye West and sludge metal. Keenan sang as if he was a nuclear weapon–”Five four three two/ Aristocrat breaks down to/ Democrat breaks down/ Oligarch/ Breaks down to/ Republicrat/ Breaks down to/ Aristocrat breaks down to.”
The band pretended to leave the stage after playing “The Outsider” a tune with Keenan lambasting a suicidal lover. “Lying to yourself again/ suicidal imbecile/ You’re pounding on a fault line/ What’ll it take to get it through to you precious/ Over this, why do you/ Wanna throw it away like this/ Such a mess, well I don’t wanna watch you.”
With the sparse audience, the band seemed a bit unmotivated. They played “Feathers” and then actually did leave–having failed to play their biggest hit–”Judith.”
Perhaps their new album will bring them a solid identity. Perhaps leaving out “Judith” was a message that they aren’t just Tool-lite. Perhaps failing to actually address the political situation was a calculated move designed not to alienate fans who are Trump supporters. Perhaps banning photography was an artistic statement, perhaps it was meant to boost the audience’s experience. No matter what the truth is, in the end, the result was that the paying audience got a generally bland set, full of distractions from security from a set of musicians who should be able to accomplish so much more.