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A Perfect Circle, powerful yet artistic

Matthew Smedberg | Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Shrouded by the haze that filled the Morris Performing Arts Center, A Perfect Circle thrilled the crowd Monday night with a set of hard, overwhelming songs and spectacular effects. The quintet, headed by vocalist Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Billy Howerdel, moved through music from both of their albums, 2000’s Mer De Noms and the just-released Thirteenth Step. In a performance which felt much shorter than it actually was, the band showcased its hard-hitting and yet ethereal lyric poetry and a rock style much heavier than comes through on either record.On record, A Perfect Circle is understated and intense in a way which leaves room for a lot of “negative space” in its sound. On stage, the musical space is all filled, down to the vibrations shaking the ground, making you afraid that the balcony of the hall will come crashing down around you.Visually, the concert was defined by lighting which hides the band as much as shows it; the spotlights searching the smoke seldom came up with a musician but were no less beautiful to watch for that omission.A Perfect Circle is like few bands in the music world today. Because of their combination of experienced musicians and poetic talent, they speak to those who would listen to rock music as an art form, rather than merely as entertainment or an escape. Howerdel’s lyrics are not easy to digest, and the harmonies which Keenan sings them to are nothing if not original.The band is demographically unusual, as well; its fans are predominantly, perhaps even overwhelmingly, college students. Professors of English might well find in the lyrics to their songs hidden meanings in ways that are reminiscent of how they approach Keats or Joyce. This appeal, however, does not in any way diminish the experience of a concert like Monday’s as a fine show.The concert’s opening act was Abandoned Pools, a trio in the California tradition of Smashing Pumpkins; Josh Freese, A Perfect Circle’s percussionist, also played on Abandoned Pools’ album Humanistic. Tommy Walters, the band’s lead singer and moving force, is a classically trained musician who graduated from USC in music and did graduate studies at University of the Pacific. Walters gave the Notre Dame contingent of the audience a nod as he introduced “Monster:” “This song is about Notre Dame going to New York this weekend, playing Syracuse, losing to Syracuse … and keeping my USC Trojans out of the National Championship.” The song runs, in part, “I wanna go another round / I wanna blow the monster down / I wanna go another round / ‘Cause I am coming up / I am coming back.”A common theme of the music of Tool and A Perfect Circle is the understatement of Maynard’s vocals. The music is written as if his voice is merely another instrument in the symphony of the song, leaving the melody to be carried by the guitar. This was taken even further in the design of this tour, which placed all four of the other members of the band in prominent positions on the stage, splashing them with light and riveting the audience’s eyes on them. Maynard was not similarly visible. The best view of him that the crowd had up until the very end of the show was his silhouette cast on a sheet as “Vanishing,” the concert’s opening number, got underway. For the rest of the time, as spotlights knifed their way through the air all around, he was shrouded in mist, almost invisible.His body was usually bent; his hair covered his face. There was no way to tell that the shape standing on a platform deep upstage was the source of the words being sung. It almost seemed that he was not quite human, as if he were saying, with King David, “vermis sum, et non homo.”And indeed, for the entire show, it was not any individual or even any band which was on display; it was not that the five sweating and swearing men on stage were so much giving something to the hundreds of us in the audience, but rather allowing them to experience their own selves. In that music was a chance for all to ask what it was that he or she really was living and working and fighting for.A Perfect Circle shies away from politicizing their music, but, like most rock, it carries distinct anti-establishment, think-for-yourself overtones. This is most clearly borne out in “Pet,” the second song of the set and one of the strongest tracks of Thirteenth Step. “Go to sleep,” sings Maynard; “just stay with me, safe and ignorant.”Not content with delivering an incredible concert experience, the band entertained the crowd between songs with jokes about Thanksgiving dinner, Michael Jackson and other topics. These were, perhaps, to give the concert a personable side, as the music itself and the lighting artistry left little room for the artists to make themselves felt.Perhaps in response to the feeling of “art for art’s sake” which A Perfect Circle presents, many of the audience opted to remain in their seats for much of the concert. There was no place to form a pit at the Morris Center, of course, but even so it might be expected that an audience as excited as this one – at softer points in the music, it was sometimes impossible to hear the band – would be on their feet. But the chance to sit and experience a concert on this scale, in a venue like the Morris Center, may have been a welcome one for students of great art, who believe that A Perfect Circle does indeed fit the bill.

Contact Matthew Smedberg at msmedber@nd.edu