1990’s alt-rockers Failure tend to rank high on headbangers’ lists of non-metal pleasures, due in no small part to dark, dissonant songwriting and sonic girth that could rival any doom band. Those qualities produced two excellent records, Magnified (1994) and Fantastic Planet (1996), followed by an opiate-fueled breakup in ’97. Principal members Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards toiled on separately, the former going solo and becoming a renowned producer while the latter formed Autolux. Meanwhile, a little bit of the Failure DNA lived on through newer bands, including A Perfect Circle, Cave In, and The Atlas Moth. The band themselves remained dormant, however, until returning to the stage at Maynard Keenan’s insistence in 2014. This was followed by the announcement of a PledgeMusic-funded album, eventually titled The Heart Is A Monster.
After opening with the cleverly-titled “Segue 4” (segues 1 thru 3 were on Fantastic Planet), the album properly kicks off with “Hot Traveler.” Built on a thumping bassline and a seasick, effect-laden guitar hook, this track embodies the Failure ethos without sounding like anything they’ve done before. Up next is “A.M. Amnesia,” sporting loud-quiet-loud dynamics that recall Andrews’ awesome, short-lived Year Of The Rabbit project. “Atom City Queen” veers between robotic QOTSA-esque grooves and off-kilter verses, embellished by a truly disgusting guitar riff. Returning drummer Kellii Scott hasn’t lost a step either, playing with slightly less bombast than in ’96 but with more varied and creative parts.
At some point, it crosses my mind that these guys make much better music together than they did apart. In the absence of Edwards’ lyrical gifts, Andrews spent the ’00s writing lite-electronica songs about girls and relationships. Edwards’ work with Autolux was interesting but unfocused, and would’ve benefitted from someone like Andrews assuming a producer/songwriter role. Even Failure‘s signature weird-ass guitar style seems unattainable unless both of them are present.
“Mullholland Dr.” is a lurching, psychedelic ballad in the vein of fan favorite “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” and might even be the better song of the two. The bridge section of this one chokes me up, not due to any particularly emotional content, but just because it’s a brilliantly composed piece of music. Similarly, “Come Crashing” and “Snow Angel” unfold like small movies, revealing a sense of pacing and drama that even Fantastic Planet didn’t fully achieve. Even the more streamlined rockers like “The Focus” and “Fair Light Era” are powerfully visual.
No crowd-funded album would be complete without excessive fan service, though. The liner notes credit “additional guitar” to a certain Troy Van Leeuwen, who old-timers will recall as Failure‘s former touring guitarist before joining some obscure band called Queens Of The Stone Age. The album also contains new recordings of “Petting The Carpet” and “I Can See Houses,” which predate the band’s 1992 debut Comfort and remained unheard except for clips on the retrospective DVD Golden. Not surprisingly, these songs reek of the early 1990s, yet somehow fit into Monster‘s sequencing, with “Houses” placed last to bring the band’s career full circle.
My only grievance is that the “segue” tracks get waaaay out of hand, especially during the album’s second half. Of the album’s 18 tracks, 6 of them are of the short, transitional variety. This sort of thing was cute back in the ’90s, when bands strived to fill a 79-minute CD with as much content as possible. In 2015, you can be assured that anyone who’s not really high will simply skip these tracks.
To my amazement, The Heart Is A Monster not only exists, but is really fucking good. Andrews and Edwards are clearly at their best when working together, and their writing chemistry still yields powerful, fresh-sounding music after all this time. If you’re a fan, you’re probably listening to this album already. If you’re new to the Failure fold, this is a damn good place to work backwards from.