Article written by Steven Fouchard (retired)
Failure’s The Heart is a Monster ends with “Segue 9”, the last of six sound pieces interspersed throughout. It takes you into an oppressively industrial (post-apocalyptic?), dank space. It’s almost unbearably nightmarish. Until the beat kicks in.
It would be foolish to try and reduce this album, and this band, down to any one thing but what happens in “Segue 9” does, in one sense at least, summarize exactly what is extraordinary about both: one minute, you’re holding your head in your hands as the music makes you contemplate some existential nightmare. The next minute, it’s bobbing up and down.
Like Swervedriver, another inexplicably underappreciated ‘90s rock act who returned with new music this year, you can’t put Failure in their proper context without discussing the past. It’s a necessary but distasteful process given that both bands sound now as they did then: utterly timeless.
So, to get it out of the way: Failure (largely the work of L.A.-bred duo Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, supplemented by the excellent Kelli Scott on drums) put out two pretty good records and then, their last until now, the 1996 mind-blower Fantastic Planet. It was a victim of the Velvet Underground-Stooges syndrome: nobody got it at the time but word of its greatness spread and its influence quietly grew.
To be fair, Andrews and Edwards clearly don’t mind revisiting the past a little. Those segues are a holdover from FP, which included three of them. The Heart is a Monster opens with “Segue 4”, so the connection is pretty explicit. They also go even further back with “Petting the Carpet”, a previously unreleased song last heard on the posthumously-released Golden CD/DVD package.
Links to the past aside, The Heart is a Monster succeeds easily on its own terms. It doesn’t sound exactly like Fantastic Planet, it just has similar ambition, vision and musicality. It’s heavy and dark but often shot through with the pop sensibilities that Andrews (who also gives the record a mean but lush mix) has brought to his post-Failure work (On, Year of the Rabbit and one album under his own name, all excellent). The Heart is a Monster may or may not be a concept album but, regardless, the vision and ambition (not to mention those segues) just make it feel narrative.
Lyrically, it’s steeped in death, questions of identity and a lot of other heady stuff. It speaks of demons, hallucinations. Apocalypse, perhaps; personal or literal, as you like. “I Can See Houses” is explicitly about a plane crash. Andrews intones ‘Let it fall, let it go’ in the chorus. It’s the last song proper, followed by that final, defining segue. It ends, to my mind, with the sound of a heartbeat terminating. The heft of this record, musically and thematically, is considerable.
Various commentators in recent years have felt compelled to ask where the rock stars have gone. It’s not a bad question, but the answers miss the real problem. It’s not that the world needs more people to look the part or to behave badly, but rather that so much of what we call indie rock never walks in the dark. Failure do. And they return with such songs (see the gorgeous yet demented Mulholland Drive).
To paraphrase Alejandro Jodorowsky (a reference I think Andrews and Edwards might appreciate), if you are great, Failure is a great band. If you are limited, Failure is limited.
Failure performs Sunday, July 12 at Bluesfest.
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