Review Summary: Complete and utter Failure in 2015
Thanks to the recent and successful reactivations of bands like Dinosaur Jr., Swans, Braid, and a plethora of others, writing my praises of the first Failure record in 19 years in the most obvious way would feel like a cliche and a cop out. The rate at which classic under-appreciated bands are transpiring from the inactive past and into the here and now has rendered the impressive act of reuniting after an extended, forever-feeling hiatus pretty damn average. Cool, for sure, but not exactly extraordinary or laudable on its own. When I was in high school I never imagined I would get to hear new music from bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, or The Pixies (...ugh). Now, however, each one of them, for better or worse, can be added to an ever-growing list of comeback artists, and this list has now grown to the point that it seems to beg the following question: Who isn't getting back together for at least reunion shows these days?*
I'm not saying that today's music scene is becoming over saturated with these types of reuniting artists- there probably has been, and always will be, a place for such acts. Rather, I'm saying that the excitement that comes from simply hearing new music, regardless of quality, from long dormant 90's alternative bands has become somewhat passé. The blasé reception that many nostalgia-rooted reunions receive from sterner critics than I is not only understandable, but in some cases called for. "So what if you guys are back?" they seem to say. "That's not a big deal anymore. That's not enough." Simply put, it is difficult to appreciate music that buttresses itself too heavily on the past.
Thankfully, "The Heart is a Monster" is more than enough to solidify Failure as a band that seems to understand that need for more than just their simple presence. They could have done it this way. Ken Andrews and co. struck gold with their masterpiece, "Fantastic Planet", in 1996, a record so spellbindingly wonderful that it rivals sex, microbrews, the joys of college life and live music itself on a list of my favorite discoveries of the past ten years. While that album was overlooked back in the day, word on it has seemed to spread to the point that are probably enough music nerds out there worshiping "Planet" in their ceaseless nostalgia binges that Failure could've coasted to the bank after a summer of touring behind a quickly produced and phoned in album. Instead, Heart seeks not only to adequately follow up that previous success, but also to best it.
And how does Failure attack this new goal? As expertly as possible. While the music has been crafted with slick and instantly noticeable modern day production and direction, the album smartly begins with, and is littered with, nods to the past- but not in an overly reliant way. That being said, "Segue 4" kicks things off, a short intro track that inextricably entangles "Heart" with "Planet" by merits its title alone. And the first proper track, "Hot Traveler", with its strong chorus, headbang-able riffs and space-directed bridge, seems like exactly the sort of single old school fans could have been hoping to hear back in the late 90s- which is indeed a good thing, From then on, the highlights are more multifarious, and they come in a barrage: the blistering stabs of noise in "AM Amnesia", the tasteful growth into the cascading guitars that mark the outro to "Snow Angel", the primal basslines of "Petting the Carpet", and the epic build up of "Come Crashing" are just some of many stand out moments that envelope the album and push Failure's sound into more than nostalgia- and further yet into space (and, for the record, aptly titled "Otherwhere" wins the title for spaciest song on the album- just get lost in those flanging, echoing guitars!).
Like pretty much any album with 18 tracks (even if some of them are short and enjoyable segue tracks filling gaps and holding things together), Heart does fall victim to some bloat.The first eight or nine tracks pass by with nary a hiccup to be mentioned, however, change-of-pace track "Mulholland Dr." falls victim to a noticeable downward shift in quality and energy. While the most of the album is driven by enrapturing guitar and drum work, "Mulholland Dr." features a lot of piano for the sake of piano, and overall just feels like the type of song that's there, because, well, there has to be at least one slow ballad, right?! Unfortunately, the other aberration in quality comes in the very next track with "Fair Light Era", which perhaps attempts to jumpstart things a little to quickly. The song's riffage, vocals, drum and synth work all feel a little to busy to really be effective, and when the song's various facets finally stop banging their heads together in their individual attempts to earn the spotlight, it ends quickly and abruptly. Overall, the one two punch that makes up the album's center feels like it was delivered from a featherweight rather than from the successfully proven unit that is Failure in 2015.
Truthfully, though, that's all just a little (mostly) harmless fat to be trimmed. These songs may render the album a bit overlong, but in the end it feels more like Failure was just eager to heap loads of new music on their fans- and they should be. Heart is a record teeming with vibrant energy and discovery, and I imagine the band was quite excited in making it. Any negative to be found here is almost completely overshadowed by the quality of its surrounding content. Whether the band is playing Helmet songs better than Helmet can today in "Atom City Queen" or mesmerizing listeners with the stunning structure and brooding bass of "I Can See Houses", there is plenty here to impress.. And as Segue 9 closes the record with a post-rock feel coating its electronic ambience, one can only hope that it does, indeed, segue into something further. "The Heart is a Monster" is enjoyable and relevant, and the trip it offers is more than one of nostalgia.
*The Jesus Lizard. Please come back, Jesus Lizard. Thanks.