BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Back in the ‘90s, there was a proliferation of alternative rock guitar bands who carefully blended hard rock hooks and heavy guitar sounds with singalong melodies and lyrics that ran the emotional gamut. That’s not news, of course – it’s a sound that was sneered at by hipsters at the time and hasn’t been looked upon fondly by their descendents, despite the influence avatars such as Bob Mould and Soundgarden continue to have. Arguably, the reason alt.rock gets ironic eyebrows and dismissive sniffs when it comes to significance is the genre’s profligacy – the major label signing frenzy resulted in SO GODDAMN MANY BANDS with that sound to be signed and LPs released it was impossible to walk through a record store or music rag’s office without accidentally kicking CDs that had fallen on the floor. (The late ‘90s “post grunge” era that gave us Creed and Nickleback didn’t help.) Some of those bands remain influential. Many of them were riding a trendy bandwagon with half-assed efforts. And some of them were sadly overlooked, even as their work has held up over time.
Failure was a good example of the latter. (And possibly a cautionary tale when it comes to more carefully naming one’s band.) The L.A. trio nailed a distinctive take on the sound on its third album, 1996’s Fantastic Planet: shimmering, perfectly recorded grunge that folded just enough psychedelic space rock into its melodic crunch to set it far apart from its peers. Despite that, a minor hit with the addiction anthem “Stuck On You” and the friendship/patronage of Tool, it wasn’t enough for the band to survive. Guitarist Ken Andrews went on to On, Year of the Rabbit and a career as a producer and engineer. Bassist Greg Edwards formed Lusk and Autolux. Drummer Kelli Scott pounded skins for a variety of acts, including Blinker the Star and Veruca Salt. The band’s catalog was fondly remembered by fans and passed over in bargain bins by everyone else.
Fortunately, that mass of diehards grew in size, old wounds healed and Failure reunited for festival performances and, at last, a new album. The Heart is a Monster picks up right where Fantastic Planet left off, maintaining the same core values of strongarm guitar sounds, pristine production and luscious melodies. “Hot Traveler,” “Come Crashing” and the skronking “Atom City Queen” bash and crash with graceful hammers, never letting the tunes drown in pummel. “Snow Angel,” “Otherwhere” and “Counterfeit Sky” shift further into the band’s psychedelic side, without loss of brute strength. “The Focus” and “Fair Light Era” play most bluntly with the dynamic shift most endemic to the style, moving easily from floating in space to crushing the puny humans below. The disk reaches its apex with “I Can See Houses,” nearly seven minutes of lava flowing into the heart of an acid star.
Andrews’ burnished singing sits comfortably atop the guitar edifice he and Edwards lay down, while Scott shifts rhythms on a dime to keep even the dreamiest tracks moving steadily. Produced with utmost clarity and letting the performances speak for themselves, The Heart is a Monster is that rare comeback record that sounds like no time has passed whatsoever. Having not lost a single step, Failure is as potent a force now as it was when its style of music was king.
DOWNLOAD: “The Focus,” “Counterfeit Sky,” “Atom City Queen”