Review Summary: Do you feel that atmosphere?
Hum’s legacy is in prime vintage. Their blend of sluggish post-hardcore and grunge with expansive shoegaze stylings has been an important influence on the heavy end of the alternaverse for two decades and counting, and their classic albums are remembered with equal emphasis. 1995’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut
was a commercially successful alternation between delicate space rock and crushing riffs while 1997’s Downward Is Heavenward
was a dense refinement that ended up as one of the finest hours of the ‘90s. Both albums cast a long shadow over ‘00s alternative metal and are essential for anyone peeling back the skin of the ‘90s, but until recently Hum as an institution seemed like a distant peal from a thunderstorm long since past, a cult classic widely but unexclamatively loved by those in the know.
No-one expects fresh thunder from yesterday’s storms, but this only sweetens the deal as far as Inlet
’s surprise release is concerned. Although frontman Matt Talbott had been circulating info on low-key represses of Hum’s classics and murmuring about new material on social media for a while prior to its release, the prospect of a new album never seemed real to me. This is partly to do with how vaguely it was teased (no track or title information was revealed and there wasn’t so much as a snippet of new music to chew over), but I think the main reason was that it was all but impossible to envision what a follow-up to Downward is Heavenward
might or should sound like. That album reached such highs and was so creatively accomplished that a worthy successor was nothing to take for granted; I certainly wouldn’t have begrudged Hum one bit had they backtracked from promises of new material in an effort to conserve their legacy.
And yet, here we are.
Released seemingly out of nowhere and scarcely missing a beat, Inlet
is oh-so-concrete and already feels at home in the wake of its predecessors; thinking now of Hum’s discography without it is just as strange as it was to imagine its existence before its release. It’s a dense listen, as heavy, atmospheric, seamlessly executed, and, in its own way, as engaging as Hum’s classics; with this in mind, it will likely benefit just as much as Downward…
from a spare decade or two’s worth of digestion. To Hum’s credit, Inlet
sounds less like a comeback album and more like a direct step onward from where Downward…
left off, into slower, murkier territory. Not to belittle its own merits, but one of the most extraordinary things about this album is the way it shrugs off a twenty-three year interim period like a Lovecraftian giant waking up to an almost unrecognisable world after a timespan it considered to be a brief nap.
This indifference to the passing of time is very much cogent with the direction Hum take here. At eight songs and fifty-six minutes, Inlet
is both their longest and weightiest record to date, and the tracks in question are uniformly among their most sluggishly expansive fare. They waste no time in vamping up to full tilt, yet are disinclined to move from a clearly signposted Point A to Point B; they aren’t slowburners per se, but they zero in on simple riffs and grooves in a way that leaves the album’s pacing somewhere between momentous and glacial. Unsurprisingly, the tempo sits almost exclusively at the low end of the BPM spectrum; taking this into account along with the broadly unwavering consistency of its atmosphere, Inlet
may strike some as homogenous at first. The only track that starkly breaks its tone or pace is the fantastic midway rocker “Step Into You”, which veers conspicuously into midtempo territory; the rest are a sludgier, doomier take on the vintage Hum sound and demand to be approached on these terms. This album often has more in common with the slower outings of groups like Kyuss, Pelican or Boris than Hum’s oft-referenced descendent band, Deftones, and it requires more of a stoner rock headspace than those chasing familiar alt metal thrills may be prepared for.
However, belaboured criticism on these grounds will likely be mired in misgivings over the stoner/doom sound in general and skirt the specifics of Hum’s engagement with it. Inlet
sounds huge. It’s heavy as balls (big balls, at that!) and folds such sludgy distortion into reverb excursions so beautiful that Aaron Turner has likely already spat out his craft beer in delight. Hum’s guitar section, Talbott and Tim Lash, did an exemplary job co-producing this with the assistance of audio engineer James Treichler; the album sounds crisper and more clearly defined than their ‘90s output without sacrificing any of the intricacies of its layering. Most importantly, the heaviness of the low end is a straight knockout, the bass and rhythm guitar blurring deliciously together as they carry stoner grooves with enough for force to wake the dead. This pairing alone is often sufficient to hold the floor, as epitomised by “Desert Rambler”’s coda, an exhilarating showcase of thunderous tones amidst coursing grooves. The band’s cleaner shoegazing tones and space rock soundscapes are less often placed centre-stage, but they are incorporated throughout these slow pummellings, gorgeous textural embellishments that round off the their trademark balance of atmosphere and intensity.
All these tones and stylings are immediately apparent, but the album’s lack of flashy melodies foreground them to the point of go-hard-or-go-home. This is a little deceptive: in its substance, Inlet
is no less melodic than Hum’s other albums, but there’s nothing as immediately striking as the riffs in classics such as “Stars” or “Dreamboat”. Instead, this album’s slower tempos and mesmeric churn present its motifs as foundations rather than hooks, and their catchiness is camouflaged as such. “In the Den” is a perfect example of this, rocking a handful of strong riffs with such overbearing sluggishness that every note lands as a vehicle for groove rather than a basis for an earworm. Speed things up a few notches and put it in the hands of a more flamboyant band and it would be an entirely different story. This strong-armed, hook-averse approach results in the album’s immersive value outweighing its contours. To this end, vocalist Matt Talbott’s knack for catching the soul of a piece without overegging the pudding is an indispensable aid when it comes to navigating these surging waves of distortion. His vocals make no pretence of polish or even forthright tunefulness, yet his deadpan sentimentalism has always been a spaced-out locus of mood, an approachable emotional reference point in the midst of maximalist instrumentals. His lyrics align with this neatly; his framing of the minutiae of personal relations within the vastness of nature is an apt reflection of his role behind the microphone, and his understated presence here goes a long way to fleshing out the album’s character.
All this talk of immersion and overall atmosphere isn’t to say that Inlet
is short of individually stunning moments. Its focus is very much not on bitesize standouts, yet Hum’s knack for fleeting moments of bittersweet rapture is as well represented here as ever. Theirs is the same thrill as trekking to the top of a steep hill on a rainy day, a huge moment is that can be only savoured for so long before the downpour forces you onwards. Case in point, the album’s doomiest track “The Summoning” is an outright juggernaut that crushes its eight-and-a-half minute runtime into one long exhalation, a larger than life moment that serves as a prime example of just how awe-inspiring this band can be at their most expansive. There’s little pause for breath in this track, but it takes this relentlessness firmly in its stride.
On the other hand, the album’s rare bliss-outs are unsurprisingly memorable. The final minutes of “Folding”, for instance, are a sparse ambient shimmer that entirely abandons the previous forty-ish minutes of onslaught without losing any of their momentum. “Shapeshifter”’s extended coda goes a step further, a perfect shoegaze outing that calls back to You’d Prefer an Astronaut
’s most delicate moments with fresh inspiration, a treat of a throwback that rounds off an album otherwise dedicated to breaking new ground. The other throwback of sorts comes in the form of “Step Into You”, an immensely gratifying rock banger that serves as a one-song charting of the Downward is Heavenward
sound, third intervals and syrupy leads galore. It’s the album’s most inviting number and an instant Hum classic. Finally, “Cloud City”’s outro provides the opportunity for a much-needed drum highlight. The drums in general are my main gripe here, as they don’t embrace the slower pace as convincingly as the rest of the band, all too often serving as a metronomic skeleton for grooves that finds itself overemphasised in the mix. The snare tones in particular cut through with such clarity that I can’t help but feel they should be bringing more to the table, and they somewhat mar the album as an aesthetic outing. However, drummer Bryan St. Pere delivers the goods on “Cloud City” and with occasional fills elsewhere, just enough to keep listeners from pining over what this album might have sounded like with a Brant Bjork or an Atsuo behind the kit.
All things considered, it feels somewhat inappropriate to trot out a firm conclusion on Inlet
at this point. So much of the album’s joy stems from how it reopens the book on a band few people were actively expecting to hear more from; this is hopefully the start of an exciting new chapter in an established classic, and it’s premature to pigeonhole its greatness as such. Equally, it’s silly and glib to brand it a worthwhile return to return to form
or similar comeback jargon; this album is Hum doing what they’ve always done with an updated set of textures and songwriting approach. Inlet
’s sense of timelessness is above the scope of such reductions, melding conceptions of Hum past, present and future into a fully realised outing that thrives on its own merits. Until now, a large part of Hum’s charm lay in the nostalgia they evoked for the peaks of ‘90s guitar music; Inlet
strikes a nice balance in this respect, largely successful in retaining the band’s signature sound without tripping over the dated production or occasional panderings to grunge tropes that blotted their earlier work. To its general credit, this music doesn’t really belong to 2020, but neither is it a ‘90s time capsule: it’s a Hum record through and through, and its assurance as such is far more exciting than talk of timeframes, expectations or comebacks. Hum are right here.