In one of those occasional co-incidences that pop up in the music world, a couple of weeks back saw the release of new albums – comeback albums, if you will – from two bands who were overlooked in their prime and who only really gained critical respect in the years after they disbanded the first time around.
The Heart Is A Monster
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Those two bands couldn’t really be more different in style, though. Failure, the Space-Rock kings lauded by critics and other musicians alike following the release of their third album Fantastic Planet, vanished in a haze of drugs and lack of label support in 1997, while Refused hit their peak with the astonishing hardcore meisterwerk of The Shape of Punk to Come, and disbanded while on tour playing to mystifyingly small crowds and internal disagreements about their direction and politics.
The thing is, both albums – released within two years of each other – had one particular thing in common. Both albums were light years ahead of their peers, taking their respective sounds and styles into realms no-one else was really doing, and I’ve always thought that popular acceptance of both albums only came when everyone else began to catch up in style and taste.
And remarkably, they share a number of similiarities once again as they return.
Production is glistening on both – Failure self-produced, much as they did on Fantastic Planet, and the results are as impressive as that album – in sonic detail in particular. Refused went to Nick Launay and, more remarkably Shellback – the latter better known for his work with P!NK and Taylor Swift (the ubiquitous Shake It Off being one of his, amongst others)., which gives a glistening sheen to their at points punishing hardcore base materials, but at others irritates in simply abandoning subtlety – something Launay has history with after his disastrous album with Girls Against Boys – by airbrushing out any of the detail and both simply going for electronically-enhanced, bludgeoning force.
Both also stick to their guns with their subject matter. Failure were always more oblique, dealing with matters of the mind and heart in a distinctly introverted manner, and nothing is different here. Getting into Ken Andrews’ head is not an easy task. Refused, however, stick to their guns, and are still raging at the injustices in the world around them.
On bristling opener Elektra, Dennis Lyxzen roars ‘Down in the dirt / nothing has changed‘, and while it could also be a metaphor for the band returning (lest we forget, this is a band that were particularly derogatory about reunions in the past), more likely is that the political landscape for a band with far-left-of-centre politics is even less amenable than the late-nineties. Elsewhere, an angry critique of French and Belgian colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa appears on Françafrique, while War on the Palaces takes on privilege with equally blunt results. And with the events of the past few weeks, the closing Useless Europeans seems eerily prescient.
But the thing is, it is nowhere close to being as good as it could be. In trying to rekindle the glorious, wild experimentalism of The Shape of Punk to Come, practically every tool, instrument and production tool possible is hurled at the wall to make it stick. Some elements are indeed amazing – the slow motion stomp and glitchy electronics of Old Friends / New Wars, not to mention the jaw-dropping, acoustic bridge (no, really); the bruising, riff-heavy funk-groove of Servants of Death is bang on the money, and that bass kick-down in the chorus. But elsewhere, there are choirs of children on Françafrique, while on Thought Is Blood and 366 in particular, there is that nagging feeling of recycling riffs from previous work, but without the visceral impact of before.
What is remarkable about the Failure album, though, is that they make no such mistakes. They were upfront about it, anyway, that since they reformed they had decided effectively to follow on from where Fantastic Planet left off. This is made clear by the intro, outro and interlude tracks starting at Segue 4 and onwards (the first three were on the previous album). And they have the same use here – to provide a seamless thread running through the album, almost to give a nudge to ensure that this is an album best listened as a whole.
This is despite a whole list of songs I could be recommending – seriously, there isn’t a bad moment here – individually, that are worth picking out to listen to on their own. Lead track Hot Traveler marries a muscular, pounding rhythm attack and chopping riffs to a dreamy mid-section, a singalong chorus and a general sense that the old magic is still there – and this is reinforced by what follows.
A.M. Amnesia is even better, despite using a similar template, while Atom City Queen has now been stuck in my head for three weeks, and I’m not even considering thinking of evicting it yet. Everything works, all the elements come together brilliantly for a spaced-out rock song that I’ll be using in future to show just why Failure are so good.
It isn’t all rocking out, though. Mulholland Dr., as the title suggests, sounds like it comes from some curious, Lynchian soundtrack – and interestingly is the only song on the album where I find another band as a point of reference – it reminds me of Mercury Rev in their Deserter’s Songs phase. Not that this is a bad thing. Snow Angel sparkles like rays of light off the snow, with a dream-like, woozy vocal that lulls you before the guitars blow it away.
That is just some of the highlights, mind, and it is simply worth just diving in and enjoying the whole sixty-three minute, eighteen track ride.
Despite all those similarities, though, maybe there is one crucial difference after all. One band here had nothing to prove – their rapturously received reunion shows over the past few years meant Refused were absolutely fine there, and it has to be said that it was questionable as to whether we really needed another album. Failure, on the other hand, clearly felt they had a lot to prove, that Fantastic Planet wasn’t a one-off – and boy, have they delivered here. Self-producing has resulted in a gloriously lush album, stuffed full of ideas and executed by the band themselves in way that the Refused album isn’t – the latter feels like too many people were involved, almost like a committee had to decide everything and most of the good ideas got lost in the discussions, and the end result is more like The Shape of Punk that Came and Went.
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on Refused, but let’s be clear – theirs is hardly the only album that is going to be outshone by Failure’s in 2015 – which by my reckoning, is by a long way the best album of 2015 thus far.
The Heart Is A Monster and Freedom are both out now.