S-Tier Songs, Vol. 15

This is another edition of S-Tier songs. For the premise behind this exercise and the list of prior inductees, click here.

Today I visit a song from 2000. Not a hotbed year of music, at least what I and many others who read this listen to. But this band and this song would rise up from the muck and gain widespread notice, becoming a hit single in the mire of post-Woodstock ’99 fatigue and a beacon for the way for alt-metal to go forward. It only helps that the song involves highly charged personal affairs and features the lead singer of alt-metal’s biggest band.

A Perfect Circle – Judith

To begin with, a Cliffnotes version of the formation of A Perfect Circle – guitarist Billy Howerdel had been a guitar tech with Nine Inch Nails and Tool, among others. The latter band is very important, as Tool singer Maynard James Keenan would offer Billy a place to crash in L.A. After Maynard heard Billy’s demos, Maynard offered to sing on them.

Billy Howerdel wanted singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins to sing on it originally, but was rebuffed and Maynard sang on the demos. The pair assembled a band and got a record deal, signing with a group apart from Tool’s label so that the band would be taken seriously as its own entity.

Well, no problem there.

A Perfect Circle would hit well on the early millennium, with the debut album Mer De Noms debuing on Billboard at number 4 and hitting platinum before year’s end. The band hit on the charts and also toured extensively, initially opening for Nine Inch Nails in the summer of 2000 – a show I caught and detailed here.

It was fairly quick success for APC, and it wasn’t entirely because the singer of Tool was involved. There was a rich, deep song composition to the band and that was evident on the lead single, which is the song we’re discussing today.

Judith hits with a monster riff that isn’t something that could be easily replicated by a band, rock or metal, that I know of. It’s not “complex” in the vein of Dream Theater or Yngwie, but it’s something not of our usual world and gets set apart. This song, for all its lyrical complexities, is a banger. This throws down and slams, and goes very mainstream in a weird 2000’s world where we’re still trying to define the new rules.

And then there is the lyrical content. This is a highly charged, personal song for Maynard James Keenan. The song bears the name of his mother, Judith Marie Keenan. It is directly influenced by her, but not in a way that would be considered a fitting tribute by many (don’t worry, that’s to come)

Judith Marie Keenan suffered a stroke when Maynard was roughly 11, and would live in a debilitated state until her death in 2003. Her devotion to the church through her life and the backbiting talk of members of her church would inspire Maynard’s lyrics for this song.

And the song is not, in any terms, kind to the Christian institution. While “shock rock” had been played out by 2000 and “shock rapper” Eminem was rising to superstardom at this time, it was a different scene to have such a blasphemous song so blunt and upfront on record. Lyrics like “fuck your god” weren’t reserved for much of rock, beyond a bit Nine Inch Nails used on a secondary track on The Downward Spiral in 1994. But A Perfect Circle would slot right in to a very weird early 2000’s MTV and radio scene and score a big hit that charted well in the US and abroad.

But the song is far more personal than just a rant at religious institutions. Judith was struck down by a stroke, left to linger for 10,000 days in a paralyzed state. The song bearing her name takes aim at the gods she deifies, who Maynard holds responsible for her state. The song is really a question, why are you venerating this deity that left you in this position for damn near 30 years?

The combination of complex riffing and instrumentation, as well as the massively charged personal lyrics, mark this song as a dark highlight of the year 2000. It would be a herald for more to come from the band, as 3 Libras would also chart well and The Hollow would be one of the best songs anyone has heard from whatever scene, ever. APC’s second album would bring The Outsider, another banger and very strong performing track.

But Judith was the lead that brought us to the dance, and its mix of uncategorized banging and personally-fueled lyrics were what put the band on the map in the first place, and also separated the work from Maynard’s main gig in Tool. It was a messed up hit single to have, but it worked in the time and place. It gave fuel to a fire no one really saw coming, that was a mesh of an unheralded talent and a known singer that had something else to say.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

The combined simple, headbanging qualities of the track along with its more complex underpinnings make this a worthwhile endeavor on its own. Combine it with some very, very personal lyrics that transcend the typical fare of rock and metal hit-making, and you have a song that sticks out like sore thumb among the rest of what the hell ever we were doing in 2000.

And, as shitty as it is that it resulted in the death of Judith Marie, we get a spiritual sequel to this song next week. Maynard logged time at his day job to pay homage to his since-departed mother a few years later. He doesn’t like talking about it (understandable), but I’m not going to let that masterpiece of a song go.

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