Some bands just have a taste for Big Topics. In the case of A Perfect Circle, the taste had always been accompanied with great expectations. Centered on guitarist Billy Howerdel’s songwriting, the band, whose new album Eat the Elephant is out today, was conceived as a supergroup of sorts. Maynard James Keenan, the vocalist for Tool (for which Howerdel had served as a guitar tech), offered to lend his voice; he was soon joined by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, and John Freese, a drummer who had played with Devo and Guns ‘N’ Roses, while Paz Lenchantin (currently the bassist for the Pixies) and guitarist Troy van Leeuwen rounded out the lineup. APC’s 2000 debut Mer de Noms presented a sound at once familiar and hauntingly strange. Instead of contrasting with the complex bludgeoning of the Tool lineup, Keenan’s high, rich voice melded with Howerdel’s gentler approach to melody. The guitars still carried a dissonant, alternative edge, but blunt force never prevailed. As the band’s name suggested, this was a project built on curves instead of right angles.
Appearing right as the nü-metal wave was cresting, Mer de Noms and its 2003 successor, The Thirteenth Step, offered relief for fans and critics eager for a change from the visceral lowlife nü-metal connoted but unwilling to back off from the alt-rock ethos entirely. That APC emerged from the bowels of Tool, whose submerged tones and gross-out content had inspired the likes of Limp Bizkit and Korn, was an added bonus. For once, you could bask in Keenan’s angelic vocals without bathing in sludge at the same time. The band wasn’t quite easy listening, but it was certainly easier. The lyrics’ intellectual pretensions were wrapped in a pleasing cloak of symbolism, foreign vibes, and songs titled after female names. “Judith,” the major hit from Mer de Noms, is a prime example: Named after Keenan’s mother and charged with his fury at the excesses of the Christian religion, the song carries a heavy payload, but gracefully. This was metal as cruise missile instead of main battle tank, and it blew up capably; both albums went platinum.
The follies of religion and other forms of mass mind control were a primary theme. Extreme individual suffering was another, particularly on The Thirteenth Step, whose title references the 12-step program and whose material focuses on the ravages of drug addiction. Finally, there was opposition to war: The band’s third album, Emotive (2004), released in the wake of the Iraq invasion, is a series of inventive, sometimes baffling covers whose source material — Lennon’s “Imagine,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Fear’s sarcastic “Let’s Have a War,” — is united by a longing for peace. As Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades, released around the same time, shows, covers albums tend to serve as last calls for the bands that put them out, and Emotive was no exception. In 2005, the slices of the circle went their separate ways, and though the band has reconvened to tour occasionally since, progression on a new collection was halting at best. Then Donald Trump ran for president.
Trump’s election and its aftermath seems to have lit a fire under Howerdel and Keenan — especially, it seems, the latter. The sonics of Eat the Elephant are mellow, at times too mellow to compete with lyrics that have gone clunky and a bit steroidal. All the old themes have returned. The title track centers on suicide and originally included Chester Bennington. Lead single “The Doomed” is a bitter inversion of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the gluttonous: may they lead us to famine and war.” On “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” a barrage of celebrity deaths — Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Prince — is likened to the abandoning of a doomed Earth by dolphins in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Along with many others on the album, these are grim signals to fit grim times, but without more bite from the guitars and less portentousness from the words, the art doesn’t hold up nearly as well as could have. If you’d forgotten how possible it is to become irritatingly didactic and bleak while criticizing systems of mental control, Keenan’s more than ready to remind you. That said, his voice hasn’t lost its pleasing, smooth, and vaguely British texture, and Howerdel’s songs, even if they sometimes lack vigor, are executed with graceful intelligence and occasional novelty. “Hourglass,” for example, is an intriguing venture into digital distortion. Eat the Elephant isn’t going to revive the flagging fortunes of alternative rock or give rise to any protest anthems, but at the very least it’s a curious experiment, which is something more than most reunited bands are capable of. It’s in this aspect that A Perfect Circle gives us some hope for its own future, though none for the world itself.