Live Review: A Perfect Circle at The SSE Arena, Wembley (05/12/2018)

1999. Billy Howerdel, the guitar technician for the recording and tour of Tool’s Ænima (1996), accepts Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s offer to sing in the tracks Howerdel had been composing. A Perfect Circle is born.

Howerdel is not a conventional rock star, not at all. He did not plan to be one and did not have formal music training. Instead, he uses his intuition to guide his musical ambition. “I had to stop examining scales and patterns and function from emotion”, he alleged. Not long after, he started in the music industry as a stage lighting technician, but a meeting with L.A. alt. rockers Fishbone got him going as a guitar tech. Owing to his work with this genre fusion band, he became a popular road tech; hence why he had the opportunity to work for Tool and meet Maynard James Keenan.

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M. J. Keenan (left) and B. Howerdel (right) on Maximum Ink magazine (April 2000)

Billy wanted to do soundtracks, 40-minute tracks that involved a female singer, adjusting more than ten years of songwriting work consequently. When Billy met Maynard and the latter heard the guitarist’s songs, he volunteered to contribute vocals. Billy welcomed him with open arms. “I was thrilled! I quickly got over the female voice thing. Things changed from there”. Indeed they did, as the originally 40-minute score tracks were cropped to a smoother pop-format, Keenan producing the lyrics for APC’s debut album, ‘Mer de Noms’ (French for “sea of names”) (May 2000). The band’s debut album was an immediate success, as it peaked at No. 4 on U.S. Billboard 200 – it is the highest ever Billboard 200 debut for a rock band’s album, staying in the charts for 51 consecutive weeks. APC’s first LP is seen by many as an extension of Maynard’s progressive, avant-garde metal Tool, but A Perfect Circle quickly developed into its own self, concentrating on more melodic, theatrical and ambient sounds, reminiscent of Howerdel’s past aspiration for soundtrack work. Taking short (and not so short) breaks to allow Maynard to keep focusing on Tool and his other “premiere improvisational hardcore band” Puscifer, A Perfect Circle has released three other studio albums to date: ‘Thirteenth Step’ (2003), ‘eMOTIVe’ (2004), which includes eleven anti-war cover songs, and ‘Eat the Elephant’ (2018), released fourteen years after their previous record.

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A Perfect Circle was performing at The SSE Arena (Wembley), a 12.500-capacity venue just in front of Wembley Stadium, which was also overflowing with football fans – Premier League Tottenham Hotspur v. Southampton was happening on the same night. Opening at 7.45pm, American singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, with an intriguing blend olio of folk and gothic rock, whose 40-minute act seemed to conjure up an apocalyptic and eccentric Witch-hunt.

After announcing that the venue would be operating a rigorous ‘0 camera’ policy (photos and videos strictly prohibited, anybody caught would be subject to immediate removal) several times, A Perfect Circle blasted off at 9pm sharp. The stage setup and lighting were remarkably inviting, easy on the eyes; three circle-shaped platforms in the back accommodated, from left to right, Greg Edwards (keyboards, rhythmic guitar), as James Iha is currently on tour with The Smashing Pumpkins, Maynard James Keenan (vocals) and Jeff Friedl (drums). Leading the stage in the front, Matt McJunkins (bass) and Billy Howerdel (guitar and vocals). Quite appropriate for the band’s essence, irregular shapes were used as screens, most of the time exhibiting dynamic and colourful digitalized, dreamlike minerals and crystals, paper cuts and futuristic psychedelic seascapes. In addition to this, sharp-pointed stage limelights ranged from staying focused and moving around to traversing in a quivering motion from the SSE’s ceiling to the standing audience. An epic but at the same time, simplistic stage & lighting arrangement, which makes all the sense of the world when associated with Howerdel’s experience as a lighting tech in the past.

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APC performing ‘Delicious’ (Eat the Elephant, 2018). During the last couple minutes, Keenan announced it was allowed to take a souvenir picture/video with no removal consequences

Musically, A Perfect Circle were high-sounding. Maynard James Keenan’s voice is not only iconic; it feels like he is constantly piecing together an ASMR exploration -a sensory phenomenon which triggers feelings of relaxation and well-being (Barratt and Davis, 2015)- for all those who had their minds open. He also maintained a very suggestive strategy: to stand in one of the platforms, the one in the middle, and not have any light shed on him. He remained in the dark for the whole duration of the show. What could he have wanted to express with this? A refusal to be in the spotlight, even though singers are quite commonly frontmen? A relinquishment of the ego in favour of the rest of the four musicians, who were not in the spotlight either but were receiving way more illumination than him? Wholly personally, it could have been that the oneness of the band was primordial. Soundwise it was present throughout, A Perfect Balance in the mix. Symmetrical, elegant.  Keyboards were clearer and tenderer than one would expect for an arena, almost as if it was an intimate exhibit at your living room. Howerdel’s guitar navigated through a wide spectrum: sweet and melodious; enraged and overdriven; and telltale and vintage wah-wah, which is a weeping, crying tone similar to a human voice (Whittaker, 2013). Friedl’s drum work should also be highlighted for being efficiently grooved and pure with a subtle reverb.

Welcome back to the musical realm, it was a sensational evening at Wembley. So Long, and Thanks for All the Gig.

Setlist

  1. Eat the Elephant
  2. Disillusioned
  3. The Hollow
  4. Weak and Powerless
  5. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
  6. Rose
  7. Thomas
  8. (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding (Brinsley Schwarz cover)
  9. Vanishing
  10. The Noose
  11. 3 Libras (All Main Courses Mix)
  12. The Contrarian
  13. TalkTalk
  14. Hourglass
  15. The Doomed
  16. Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums
  17. Judith
  18. Dog Eat Dog (AC/DC cover)
  19. The Package
  20. Delicious

[Source: Setlist.fm]

Reference list 

Barratt, E. and Davis, N. (2015). Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state. Available here.

Whittaker, J. (2013). What Is A Wah Pedal? – A Guide To This Popular Effect. [online] Dawsons Music. Available here. [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018].

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