Spacey alt-rockers Failure watched their star fade too quickly in the '90s; now the trio is back with new music 

Return From Fantastic Planet

Return From Fantastic Planet

In the early Aughts, when I was a student at Belmont, I often spent lunches at the now-defunct CD Warehouse on 21st Avenue, talking with friends who manned the registers (when they weren't shooing away panhandlers trying to sell shrink-wrapped copies of The Sopranos). On one of those afternoons, local musician and then-clerk Ryan Parrish introduced me to Failure's Fantastic Planet, which prompted the sort of noncommittal response one can expect from a beleaguered political science student in the throes of writing his thesis: "Very cool. Very '90s. But spacey."

Thing is, Parrish responded, Failure was from the '90s. These weren't revisionist dilettantes spewing grunge affectations as a cheap nod to nostalgia. But for some reason, the band had not carried the same historical weight as their contemporaries in Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the like.

It turns out I wasn't the only one who missed the L.A. trio's brief heyday. Ken Andrews, a former film student who founded Failure with guitarist Greg Edwards, recalls being flummoxed by the band's growing myth in the years that followed its demise in 1997.

"I'd be in a conversation with a bunch of other people in bands, and they would say something like, 'Well, you know, Failure's such a legend now,' " Andrews tells the Scene. "And I'm like, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' No one really cared that much when we were together."

In February, Andrews, Edwards and the drummer Kellii Scott tested that theory by booking a show at L.A.'s El Rey Theatre. The gig sold out in minutes, which, Andrews points out, would've never happened in the '90s. Andrews says at one recent appearance, he was shocked to find the club filled with a different sort of fan than one might expect at a reunion gig for a spacey, Alternative Nation-era cult act.

"I was kind of freaking out looking at the audience, because it seemed like there were a lot of younger people up front," Andrews says. "I couldn't really tell — my eyesight's not so good anymore — so I asked the audience halfway through the show, 'How many people saw us play live in the '90s?' And less than a third of the room raised their hands. ... So that kind of sealed it for us, like, 'OK, clearly with no promotion, with no label, with no nothing, these kids are finding our music and liking it.' "

Fantastic Planet standout "Stuck on You" was a minor hit, and its video received light MTV airplay, so it can't be said that Failure was a total flop during the Clinton years. For his part, Tool's Maynard James Keenan saw the trio's potential almost immediately, bringing Failure on tour early in their ascent. Still, Failure's success was relatively meager. Big, distorted guitars and misanthropy were en vogue, sure — and Failure's three LPs contained plenty of that, along with the era's requisite drug-culture trappings — but the band was notoriously hard to classify. How, for instance, were radio programmers supposed to make sense of a rock act that telegraphed pain through the lens of stargazing stop-motion films made in France? (The title Fantastic Planet was lifted from René Laloux's 1973 film of same name, as were samples from its sound design.)

Listen to Fantastic Planet's "Another Space Song" and you'll get the drift: Failure was a group of aesthetic voyagers disguised as run-of-the-mill Gen X loners, seemingly more interested in the endless possibilities of production than the lion's share of their chart-topping peers.

"We can just tell that record is very loved by our fans," Andrews says. "So it's a bit of pressure actually — pressure we're putting on ourselves, and pressure from our listeners."

He's referring to the pressure as it applies to another full-length record, which Failure is currently laboring over between tours and other musical responsibilities. But all signs point to the band being as sturdy as they were in the Fantastic Planet years. Their recently debuted song "Come Crashing" affirmed that Failure's swan song may not have been an aberration — the track is as enveloping and nuanced as the trio's best stuff. And amazingly, it doesn't feel dated. It creates its own gravity, like everything else Failure's written.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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