Nineteen years ago, Failure launched into deep space with their underrated opus Fantastic Planet. It was like a foreboding Kubrickian monolith, coming from seemingly nowhere. For those who did find the record, it became an obsession. As years went on, notions of a follow-up were easy to dismiss. But like a cinematic astronaut lost in space, the band has returned from the endless void with The Heart Is a Monster.
Comeback albums are tricky business, especially when there’s been so much time to deify the old material. Fantastic Planet sets a high standard with all of its experimental guitar work and darkening space rock jams. Monster doesn’t try to replicate the magic of that point in time. Instead, it makes the next logical step forward. Failure, much like interstellar research, has always been about progression.
That’s not to say that there aren’t nods to the band’s past. The first track on the new album continues the band’s instrumental “Segue” series that started on Fantastic Planet. It’s easy to hear “Segue 4” as the band’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere before seamlessly transitioning into “Hot Traveler”. The track erupts with crunchy bass tones and disorienting guitar lines. It’s vintage Failure, with an exception: It’s the first indication listeners get of the more polished sound that permeates the album.
As much as the rawness of Fantastic Planet added to its prestige, Monster’s refined production suits Failure better. They have always been a band obsessed with intricacies and incorporating weird sounds. Now they have the means to give that hard work its proper due. “Petting the Carpet”, which originally appeared as a muddy studio outtake on the Golden compilation, warrants nerding out over every lush, distinct layer of guitar.
The album is not without minor missteps, however. “Mulholland Dr.” feel a bit dated with its David Lynch inspiration, plodding along with cryptic keys and steel guitars. The jagged riffs of “Fair Light Era” may translate well live, but they feel a bit unfocused and scattered here. For an album that’s over an hour long, it’s easy to point out what could be trimmed.
Many of the album’s finer moments come in the slower, more abstract compositions. The various segues suggest Failure could easily transform into a successful post-rock group. But the true high point of the album comes near the end with “I Can See Houses”. Once again, the bass tone on this record is absolutely stunning. But on this track, every moving part hits its peak, with pensive drums, escalating guitars, and Ken Andrews’ powerful vocal performance. There’s no rush, just crawling waves of sonic exploration before masterfully fading out into the intoxicating wormhole of “Segue 9”.
It’s easy to get caught up in what Failure could have been over the last 19 years, but that seems moot. They’re here now and finding bold, new worlds to explore. Their universe expands far beyond the confines of some fantastic planet.
Essential Tracks: “Hot Traveler”, “I Can See Houses”, and “Segue 9”