A Perfect Circle is one of my all-time favorite bands. There’s just something about the mix of Maynard’s voice with the dreamy compositions of Billy Howerdel. For one reason or another, I feel like Billy has never been the face of APC, even though Maynard doesn’t like to show his face. Ironic. Well, Billy has released a new solo album called What Normal Was, and I feel like more people should be taking notice. The album released on June 10th.
Billy Howerdel has always been a fantastic guitarist. I remember seeing him with APC twice, and I was impressed both times with his versatility and even showmanship on stage. However, I think his compositional skills are his greatest strength. He originally released his debut album Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright under the name Ashes Divide back in 2008. I like that album, especially the closing track. For his sophomore effort, he chose to use his own name. He handles vocals, guitar, bass, and keyboards here, and Josh Freese handles drums (he was APC’s drummer for their first few albums).
So, what is this record? What Normal Was is obviously an extension of the sound under APC and Ashes Divide. You will recognize the atmospheric, smooth sound immediately, though I would say this sound is a little softer and includes more keyboards and electronic accents. Billy mainly utilizes his guitar for shoegaze-y waves of soloing, and I think that is effective. Much of the music is driven by drums and keys, and so a piercing bolt of guitar lightning mid-song really makes us stand up and notice.
Billy has a great voice. Maynard is one of my favorite vocalists, and I get why Billy would have recruited him for APC in the first place, but Billy has a gentle, soothing sort of style that deserves more credit. I like how haunting and mysterious he chooses to remain, even though the lyrics cover some potent relationships and topics. It makes this record rather beautiful.
The album has 10 songs and is about 42 minutes long, so don’t expect any lengthy epics or sprawling instrumentals. This album is about solid hooks and hazy atmosphere primarily. You can see this in the singles, “Poison Flowers” and “Selfish Hearts”. The former is a fantastic piece with a slow-burning effect that explodes into Billy’s pealing guitars near the end. I love this song so much; it is dark and delicious. I really like “Selfish Hearts”, too. It is definitely short, but the song serves as a topical introduction, and it has an extremely catch chorus.
The whole album is pretty solid, though. I don’t think it is a masterpiece or even on par with anything APC has produced, but I really enjoy it, and it tends to end before I even realize it. My other favorite tracks are “Ani”, “Beautiful Mistake”, and then the one-two punch of “EXP” and “Stars” at the end of the album. “Ani” has a great gait with ethereal keys and some great vocal phrasing from Billy. I like how it flows peacefully and in layers. “Beautiful Mistake” feels very 2000s to me with its xylophone-esque keys and choice of lyrics. I really like how downtempo the chorus feels, like an admission or confession of sorts.
The last couple songs are wonderful. “EXP” has an electronic edge; in fact, it’s pretty ambient for the first minute or so, and the rest of the song is abstract and heavily filtered. The last half is like a grey aura with some vocals punctuating the experience. A female vocalist joins at this point, but I haven’t been able to discover her name. She also appears on “Stars”, the amazing closer. I like how expansive it sounds compared to the rest of the album, and there are several transitions with each section featuring some memorable and even beguiling ingredients. I would like to hear more songs from Billy like this one.
Overall, What Normal Was is a great album. It won’t have the staying power of his APC work, but I do like it more than his Ashes Divide release. Each track feels floating and peacefully and weightless, and Billy does a great job of building layers of texture for us to appreciate. Despite it being alternative in genre mostly, it comes across as a comforting, healing album, especially in its lyrical progression and in the hope it seems to give at the end. I think fans of atmospheric rock will eat this up, no problem.
Find Billy Howerdel online:
Cassandra Church on EXP and Hannah Greenspan on Stars I believe