Albums Revisited: Failure’s ‘Fantastic Planet’ Turns 20: celebrating one of the most underrated alternative albums of the 90s.
August 13, 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of Fantastic Planet, the 1996 album from L.A. space rock gods Failure. And if ever there was an album deserving of a tribute and reappraisal, this is it.In an decade full of fantastically produced albums (Violator, Angel Dust, Siamese Dream, Nevermind, The Downward Spiral, Dummy, etc, etc.) Fantastic Planet (their third studio release) was equally impressive, even if it didn’t get the proper accolades and attention at the time.
My first exposure, like many fans, was hearing Stuck on You on rock radio. I was drawn in, impressed by how catchy it was, even while employing unusual chord structures and textures. It’s hummable qualities were even there in the lyrics: Stuck on you, til’ the end of time, I’m too tired to fight your rhyme. Even Failure knew they had a potential hit on their hands. So it seemed inexplicable when they fell off the radar.
It’s hard to figure out why Fantastic Planet went over people’s heads in 1996. While it was certainly musically adventurous and ambitious, it matched the zeitgeist of the times, even if the alternative rock market had begun to peak.
In the end, it was the usual stumbling block that can stonewall an artist: record company indifference. Despite initially giving the band creative control, their label Slash Records went through a massive restructuring, and Fantastic Planet was shelved it for over a year. When it came out, it suffered from a lack of promotion, and despite a stint on that year’s Lollapalooza, internal discord and drug abuse lead to the group’s disintegration.
Luckily, they’re back, treating fans to a Fantastic Planet 20th anniversary tour this fall, playing the album from top to bottom.
When looking back on the album’s legacy, its multi-layered painstaking production is key to its longevity. Failure are a band full of mad scientist sonic perfectionists, with frontman/multi-instrumentalist Ken Andrews pulling double-duty as engineer. Their sense of invention is apparent even from album opener Saturday Savior, with its alien cuckoo clock intro and lumbering main riff, it casts a spell.
When I interviewed Andrews in back in 2014, he discussed how the group created such otherworldly soundscapes, all the more impressive given it was recorded in a house not set up for production: There was just no way you were going to end up with a normal sound in that environment…you get a few things for free in terms of the unique aspect of things when you record in a non-standard makeshift studio.
But its charms go beyond the meteoric production: the songs are fascinating–texturally complex, full of left turn musical hooks, be it the power-pop/metal crunch of Sargent Politeness, the New Wave chill of Solaris, or my personal favorite, Another Space Song, an ethereal lullaby that is just as otherworldly as its name suggests (and an amazing performance from drummer Kellii Scott).
Failure’s magic trick is using (for lack of better word) a wrong note, and make it sound right. No band uses dissonance so effectively as a musical tool: or as lyricist/multi-instrumentalist Greg Edwards said when I spoke to him last year: There’s got to be some little twist, because music can be so conventional…I have a fetish for dissonance and just a little moment of it, even in a very normal chord progression can drastically alter my view of an idea and make me want to pursue it.
Perhaps its their refusal to take the easy musical route that denied them immediate success. But a funny thing happened: word got out about how great Fantastic Planet was, and its legend continued to grow, inspiring a ton of younger bands like Paramour, Pelican, Cave In, and Speedy Ortiz, while fellow alt-rock veterans like Tool, A Perfect Circle (who covered their narcotic ballad The Nurse Who Loved Me) and Faith No More sang its praises.So when Failure decided to reunite, the world had finally caught up. Their reunion shows were just as full of millennials as Gen-Xers. The fact that their 2015 release The Heart Is A Monster made so many best of lists last year (ours included) says volumes.
I highly recommend you get tickets to see them live when they tour the album in October. Hearing album closer Daylight live just might change your life. Stuck on You ’til the end of time…twenty years later? That feels like a mission statement.