Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Live Show Review: Failure - 6/5/14

Date:  June 5, 2014
Venue:  The Fillmore, Silver Spring, MD

Naming your band "Failure" seems kind of stupid - not just tempting fate but poking it right in the eye. Then again the early 1990's was a time when a rocker could be a "loser," a "creep," or "dumb" and still be a chart-topping superstar.  This was an era of drab irony and false modesty, when po-faced guitar heroes with secret arena-rock ambitions were saddled with the overwhelming weight of "punk rock guilt" - the pop-cultural pressure to act like you just didn't care.

It was in this miasma of anti-careerist posturing and slacker ethos that LA based alternative rockers Failure formed and eventually disbanded.  Comprised of Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, with drummer Kellii Scott and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen joining later, Failure did everything right.  Their debut album Comfort, released in '92, was produced by indie-rock iconoclast Steve Albini (famous for producing the Pixies' Surfer Rosa from '88 and Nirvana's final album In Utero from '93), they frequently opened for edgy prog-rockers Tool, were masters of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic, and composed impossibly catchy anthems about love, sex, and drug addiction - usually in the same breath.

Failure (left to right - Greg Edwards, Kellii Scott, and Ken Andrews)

Fate, however, wasn't on Failure's side.  Some record label marketing genius set a March 8, 1994, release date for their self-produced sophomore album Magnified - the same drop date as runaway platinum LPs The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails and Superunkown by Soundgarden.  Though Magnified mirrored and often bested those albums musically - Failure was overshadowed by their MTV whoring contemporaries.  The band put out a third album, an equally great self-produced Fantastic Planet in '96, but it was too late.  Drug abuse had taken its toll on the band and Failure's brand of jagged alternative rock was already slipping off the charts.  Living up to their namesake, the band dissolved a year later.

Full disclosure, despite being pretty keyed into the music scene in the 90's, I hadn't heard of Failure until the mid-2000's.  The band had developed a posthumous cult following as former members crept into the limelight on more successful projects that also happened to be some of my favorites.  Ken Andrews became a successful studio engineer and producer working with bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Greg Edwards founded critically acclaimed Silver Lake shoegazers Autolux, and tour guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen joined stoner-rock heathens Queens of the Stone Age.  So, it was a welcome surprise when Failure fired up their social media accounts, announced a reunion, and hit the road this year for the first time since 1997.


Forgoing an opening act, Failure opted to prep the audience with a twenty minute montage of scenes from films that inspired much of their material, including Stanley Kubrik's "2001:  A Space Odyssey," Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris," and Lewis Gilbert's "The Spy Who Loved Me."  As animation from Rene Laloux's surreal "Le Planete Sauvage" rolled onscreen, the classic Failure trio emerged, took their spots onstage, and exploded into "Another Space Song" from their last album Fantastic Planet.  Kellii Scott thwacked a steady drum beat while Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards coaxed a growling bass line and a familiar six-string arpeggio, respectively.  The crowd went wild.  Failure was back!

The band might as well have arrived aboard one of the spacecraft featured in their favorite vintage films.  Illuminated by the soft glow of carefully placed rope lights, the stage looked like the bridge of some strange starship - each band member stationed atop a circular riser and flanked by neatly arranged effects pedals, keyboards, laptops, mics, a full soundboard, and two monolithic Sunn amplifiers.  The plethora of custom gear on display alone reconfirmed that which always set Failure apart from their scruffy flannel-clad colleagues - a dedication to the concept of studio-as-instrument, that technology could be embraced and help shape rock music into new forms.  My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth were already on to this, in one way or another, but those guys rarely put out singles as infectious as Failure's "Stuck on You."   


Two decades on from their drug addled heyday, now sober and well practiced, Failure looked and sounded like absolute pros.  Sporting in-ear monitors (a tool sadly neglected by too many live musicians), the band never missed a beat or note and Ken Andrews' vocals were damn near perfect.  Failure played a dazzling two-part set dominated by choice selections from Fantastic Planet and peppered by fan-favorites from Magnified.  Devotees sang along enthusiastically, arms raised, smothered by waves of glorious sound.  Failure's mastery of slow rumbling low-end anticipated doom and drone metal luminaries like Sunn 0))) so molasses-thick jams like "Small Crimes" and "Heliotropic" put the band's towering amps and the venue's sound system through their paces.      

Failure closed out the evening in a cathartic whirlwind of squealing guitars and stratospheric chorus with a lengthy rendition of "Daylight" - incidentally the final track off their last studio album and the last new material fans heard from the band in eighteen years.  Rumors of a new album in-the-works abound and Ken Andrews has hinted as much in recent interviews.  So, fate may still reward this criminally unsung trio.  Despite a sarcastic band name that betrays their origin in a bygone musical era of affected pessimism and apathy, Failure's sublime performance at The Fillmore - easily my favorite of the year so far - proved that they do care.  So do the fans, more than ever before.  Welcome back gents.  We're ready, and can't wait for the next phase.