Album review: Billy Howerdel – What Normal Was

A Perfect Circle co-founder Billy Howerdel delves deeper into atmospheric electronic rock on wonderful debut What Normal Was…

Album review: Billy Howerdel – What Normal Was
Jordan Blum

Multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Billy Howerdel’s role in A Perfect Circle is sometimes overshadowed by the band’s more famous frontman, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan. Thus, his first solo album, What Normal Was, allows him to nab more the spotlight amidst showcasing a broader musical range.

Specifically, it sees Billy and several terrific guests tapping into moodier and sparser arrangements brimming with shadowy synths, haunting vocals, programmed beats, and the like. Initially slated to come out under his Ashes Divide alias, he felt that its sound was “closer” to his “musical DNA,” so he wanted to use his own name.

Indeed, the whole record oozes intimacy and integrity, as if Billy is filtering his biggest influences into distinctive and earnest outlooks. Opener Selfish Hearts is perhaps the best example of this since its fusion of symphonic, electronic and industrial instrumentation and captivating hooks yields a movingly inventive experience.

Some other tracks, such as Ani, The Same Again, and Follower, arguably follow the same template a bit too closely. However, they’re still quite good, and they do enough on their own to standout with unique emotional vibes and nuances.

The album is at its best, though, when it travels down significantly different directions. For instance, Free and Weightless is notably upbeat and empowering – to the point of being danceable – whereas Beautiful Mistake is poignantly hollow and organic. Later, Poison Flowers is sleek and resolute; Bring Honor Back Home is lusciously angelic yet downtrodden; and EXP is elevated by the ethereal outcries of three female vocalists.

What Normal Was is a magnificent creation that sees Billy stepping away from prior stylistic palettes while also satisfying certain expectations. In other words, it’s a fitting yet fresh statement that reveals new dimensions of his artistry without alienating fans of his past work. In multiple ways, then, it’s a complete and irresistible triumph.

Verdict: 4/5

For fans of: Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Depeche Mode

What Was Normal is out now via Rise

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