Failure/Hum/Nothing at 9:30 Club

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Friday, August 14, 2015

Over the past few years, it has seemed like there have been more and more 90s rock bands of just about every variant reuniting for tours or new albums. While some have had more success than others, quite a few of these runs have resulted in sold out performances as nostalgic listeners get another chance to experience their favorite material in person and newcomers get a chance to take it all in for the first time. As a music writer in his mid-20s, I missed out on a lot of the great albums from the mid-90s and it wasn’t until a lot of these bands had called it quits that I really gave them in depth listens. For this reason, the Failure/Hum East Coast tour was an exciting prospect and I was lucky that Washington D.C. ended up being one of the five stops. Failure was a group I hadn’t gotten in until a few years ago (though I did know about Year of the Rabbit back in 2003), and Fantastic Planet has become one of my all-time favorite rock albums. Hum I hadn’t spent much time with, but this show seemed like a great way to start the process. The 9:30 Club was packed and possibly sold out for this particular performance, and those that made it out were able to catch some great performances that were more than mere nostalgia runs.

Philadelphia shoegaze/dream pop band Nothing opened up the show, and I can’t think of a better group to have started the evening off. Though they’ve only been around for about four years, their overall sound is well suited to supporting acts from the late 80s to mid-90s, as their songs merge that familiar wall of fuzz and distortion with shimmering, dreamy melodies. I’d seen Nothing once previously when they played Sidebar for my friend Hasan’s birthday (who got a shout out from the band during this set), and in a smaller venue their noisier moments completely overwhelmed me and I felt like I was lost in the guitar melodies that filled the room. This time around they were on a much bigger stage so the sound had a lot more space to expand outwards, and while the volume seemed a bit less than I remembered that didn’t make the music any less mesmerizing. Bands that are in opening slots often seem like they get such little time to play, but Nothing was able to cram in a decent amount of songs that showcased all of their different elements for newcomers and established fans alike. What I like the most about these guys is how they move around the spectrum and don’t just fall into repetitive droning melodies that sound the same from one song to the next. They have a noticeable shift from slower distortion heavy pieces that lull you into a calmer state to upbeat pieces that have more of an alternative rock slant. It clearly made a strong impression on the already sizeable crowd, and 9:30 was able to do the band justice by striking the perfect balance between instrumentals and vocals. Domenic Palermo’s mellower pitch is the type that seems like it could be in danger of being completely swallowed up on certain sound systems, but here it was just clear enough to break free and that’s exactly how I prefer it. The band put on a tight performance and even threw in a new song, saying that a new record will be out next year “if they’re not all dead.” It was great to see them again, and Nothing’s one of those groups that’s able to capture all of the different elements I like about shoegaze and somber rock music without sounding like they’re merely cloning one of the better known 90s acts.

As I said earlier, Hum was the group on this show that I knew the least about but I had come across the name previously and had plenty of friends who were going specifically to see them. The alternative rock band was around full time from 1989 until 2000, after which they’ve chosen to play sporadically from time to time. As they took the stage to a packed house, Hum launched right into their set and chose to keep the stage banter to a minimum in favor of playing one song after the next. It didn’t take long for me to see just why there were so many people out to see the group, as there were plenty of hooks that instantly grabbed me and had my eyes and ears glued to the stage. The instrumentals have a perfect balance between rougher edged moments and laid back melodies that put me into a calm and peaceful state, and looking at the set list the next day it looks like the band split their time fairly evenly between You’d Prefer an Astronaut and Downward is Heavenward. I was not only drawn in by the guitar work that seemed to bounce between sprawling space rock/shoegaze and moments that were surprisingly aggressive and loud for this style of rock, but the sheer amount of energy that was present on stage. Every single song was played with precision and this sounded like a band still in their prime, despite the fact that they don’t tour regularly. The one exception to this is the one new piece they played a decent ways into the set, which sounded a bit messier and didn’t seem like the aggressiveness of the instrumental work was fully meshing with the mellower vocals. In addition to that the sound was completely room filling during some of the heaviest moments, and it drew me further into the performance. I do think that Matt Talbott’s vocal pitch tends to be a bit hit or miss for me though, as there are some moments where I was completely engaged in every word and others where the slightly nasally pitch wasn’t quite my thing. But there are more moments that I really liked compared to ones where I wasn’t as into the singing, and I was surprised when he broke into a full scream on some of the songs. Overall, Hum impressed me and despite a few songs that still failed to fully engage me the lengthy set was everything one could want from a band of this type and I’ve been spending in depth time with their records since the show.

Failure was the main band that I was at 9:30 Club for, but I have to admit that following up a surprisingly energetic and engaging set from Hum they definitely had a lot to live up to. Compared to the much fuller, room filling sound from the previous set Failure’s seemed a bit more compressed and their instrumentation didn’t have quite as many layers live as on record. That’s not to say they sounded bad by any means, not by a long shot, but I have to say that they may have been slightly upstaged by Hum on this night and I’m saying that as someone who had never heard more than one or two Hum songs before this show. But aside from the fact that the sound seemed a little thinner than I was anticipating, the set itself had plenty of memorable moments and Failure covered just about all of the material I was expecting to. They had video screens set up that would play different videos during specific songs, and it definitely helped to add some extra oomph to the performance. But my focus was on the set list, which started off with selections from their comeback record The Heart Is a Monster along with “Wet Gravity” from Magnified thrown into the mix. It took me a little while to warm up to the new album, particularly because of its attempts to mimic the segues from Fantastic Planet, but there are plenty of soaring melodic hooks to suck you in the more time you spend listening. I was really happy to see “A.M. Traveler” and “Counterfeit Sky” make an appearance, and while they do lose a little bit of depth live there’s a little bit more rawness in exchange. After finishing up “Mulholland Drive” vocalist/guitarist Ken Andrews told the crowd that it was time for “old stuff” and the band proceeded to play eight songs from Fantastic Planet (with two coming during the encore). The material from Fantastic Planet fared a bit better with the sound at the venue and I definitely had less complaints during this portion of the set, especially when I was able to experience some of my favorite songs in person. “Stuck On You” and “Solaris” and the band chose to end with “Heliotropic” instead of “Daylight” which they had used for their previous tour. I should also mention that even twenty five years after the group’s formation Andrews voice is perfect and his gravely range that heads into some higher pitches during the choruses continues to hook me again and again. Though I may have felt that the material from The Heart Is a Monster seemed to lose some of its layers live and Hum stole the evening, Failure was still 100% worth seeing and sound re-energized rather than a tired band coming back for nostalgic fans.




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