Back in March of 2014, the massive art-metal juggernaut known as Tool rumbled through the Bay Area, gracing its residents with a set of shows once again at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Those who were wise enough to arrive early for the show might have had a chance to watch the real surprise of the night: the recently-reformed Los Angeles trio of Failure, bringing their expert musicianship and crushing brand of alt-space-rock back into the fold for a set of short but powerful sets. Continuing the connection, Failure made a reappearance for Tool singer Maynard James Keenan’s 50th birthday celebration, with all three members offering both their own songs and contributions to the sprawling evening of music that took place each night. With a healthy amount of new exposure under their belt, Failure is coming back on the road for their own headlining tour, this time with zero accompaniment — an Evening With, two sets, and a furious chunk of tunes across their three records to throw into the mix. If their show at the Great American Music Hall was any indication, this is one reunion that isn’t fading any time soon: Failure are back and as sonically potent as ever before.
After a short film of cobbled-together clips, ranging in randomness and obscurity from The Spy Who Loved Me or Ren and Stimpy to Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and René Laloux’s classic Fantastic Planet (both major influences on Failure’s third album, which is named after the latter), the men of Failure slunk carefully onto the stage, all but fully visible on the massive, glowing stage pieces they towered over that still managed to fit on the tiny stage of the Great American Music Hall. Though they would have time for talk, and many words of thanks, in the hours to come, singer Ken Andrews, guitarist Greg Edwards, and drummer Kellii Scott wasted no time in launching directly into “Another Space Song”, filling the space with monstrous riffs and wailing soundscapes, every bit of the song just as colossal as it appeared on Fantastic Planet. With a big grin and a firm nod to the enthusiastic cheers that greeted their performance, the trio wasted no time in shifting gears, hurtling into “Frogs” from Magnified and continuing the evening in darkly glorious style.
It was very clear that Failure were pleased to be back together, and the chemistry between the members shone almost as brightly as the dizzying array of lights that bathed them onstage. Andrews and Edwards cued off of each other with delicate nods, each slicing through the air around them with roaring sonics beneath their delicate swaying motions, with occasional bursts into more leaping and banging about. Keeping a watchful eye on both of them, Scott held up the rhythm section magnificently with an almost terrifying assault of explosive beats, each measure — whether fast or slow — threatening to demolish the drumset in his own ferocity. The trio’s performance was brilliantly held together, a tight precision rarely glimpsed in the musicians of today shining between them, and the crowd responded to their radiant aplomb with awe and fierce encouragement.
Failure drew upon nearly all of their catalogue for a seventeen-song set, which spanned across over two hours of music and all three of their albums. Most well received, of course, were classics from Fantastic Planet, such as “Saturday Savior”, “Dirty Blue Balloons” and “Solaris”, but the nods to Magnified with songs like “Undone” and “Wet Gravity” also drew some frantic cheers from those closest to the stage. Andrews and Edwards traded bass and guitar duties throughout the set, with plenty of segues — in addition to the regular “Segue” tracks from Fantastic Planet — in the middle to fill the silence between changes. The second set consisted entirely of songs from Fantastic Planet, many from the latter half of the record, and closed beautifully with a keyboard-driven performance of the haunting “The Nurse Who Loved Me”; the biggest surprise came in the encore, which was kicked off with “Macaque”, the sophomore track from their debut Comfort, a rarity as Andrews had, up until that point, often expressed disconnection and dissatisfaction with the songs from that record. The show ended, fittingly, with “Daylight”, the final track from Fantastic Planet, and the trio departed after shaking hands with their wildly excited fans in the first two rows.
For me, Failure filled all of the unspoken connections between so many fantastic acts of the 90s — everyone from the modern grunge staples like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to the morbid whimsy of alternative metal in Tool and The Melvins — and even then, their albums were a breed of their own, an entirely different echelon with a darkly lush and sonically vibrant texture. Like many other concertgoers I know, I only came upon Failure after their tense breakup of 1997, so I was utterly thrilled to be able to see them again, especially with the stability and incredible togetherness with which they performed their sets during this evening of music. The fury of Scott’s drumming paired amazingly the gentle poise and grace of Andrews and Edwards behind their guitars, basses and keyboards, and it was the ultimate payoff for everyone who made it out to the show, whether inspired by witnessing them open for Tool, or excited (like me) for the chance to experience something thought to never return. With a new song, “Come Crashing”, in their arsenal of music, Failure are poised to conquer the scene anew, and have already thrown themselves boldly into it with a great show that is every bit as thundering as it is mesmerizing.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2014 Jonathan Pirro