Fantastic Planet is a true hidden gem, a definitive cult classic.
If a name can be an omen, Failure is a fitting one. Often compared to their Seattle-based contemporaries, the Los Angeles-based outfit stood separately from their peers in more than just geographical terms. Like Nirvana and Soundgarden, Failure’s sound comprised of sludgy guitar riffs but in place of aping Blacks Flag and Sabbath with a devil-may-care nonchalance, the prolific songwriting and instrument swapping duo of Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards focused their energies on crafting songs driven by bass and tribal rhythms with impressionistic guitar lines. But for all of their sonic ambition and artistic achievement, Failure were unable to replicate the commercial success of their peers.
Their Steve Albini-produced debut album Comfort was a shameless, second-rate pastiche of alternative rock radio, while follow-up Magnified, a jarring and distorted 50 minutes that better demonstrated the core duo’s songwriting prowess and ambitious production style, was critically acclaimed but essentially ignored and all but forgotten. Here the band began to come into their own, displaying a mutual ear for killer hooks and atypical melodies that took their expansive sonic textures to an intoxicating atmosphere. However their original parting gift, Fantastic Planet would be their semi-conceptual masterstroke.
Extensive in its scope, featuring 17 songs at over an hour, Fantastic Planet is an incredibly studied project, every track tailored for a comprehensive story of heroin addiction and alienation while tipping its hat to the 1973 French animated film it took its name from. In stark contrast to the anti-corporate rock ethos of the time, Failure here displayed comfort in borrowing from prog rock and heavy metal. In truth, they had a lot more in common with the Smashing Pumpkins than Nirvana or Soundgarden. But while the Smashing Pumpkins would succumb to self-indulgence on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Fantastic Planet is a tightly crafted thematic album, bereft of any bloat or filler.
Opening with the minimalistic “Saturday Saviour” and an eerie, looping chime – an ode to one-night stands – Fantastic Planet flows seamlessly, “Saturday Saviour” giving way the straight-ahead rocker “Sergeant Politeness” which itself bleeds into the first of three instrumental segues, offering a fleeting glimpse of what lies ahead.
Over the course of its 70 odd minutes, Andrews and Edwards (accompanied by drummer Kellii Scott) map out an interstellar path. Studies of addiction and abuse come in different ways – being too whacked out to escape a burning house in “Smoking Umbrellas”, the navel-gazing obsession on “Blank”, or the trippy fuzz of “Heliotropic”.
Sonically, Failure include many rich, full colours on their palette. Fantastic Planet’s many dense layers rival that of My Bloody Valentine, another obvious reference point. It’s a loud album, but its high fidelity production values afford it a warmth that eluded many of their peers. As with the album’s title and the film that birthed it, the album pulls its listener into a far-off galaxy. “Another Space Song” is potent in its starriness, while “Heliotropic” is thicker than molasses.
Songs such as “Pillowhead” and “Pitiful” pack a mean punch, but the comparatively serene numbers like “Blank” and fan-favourite “The Nurse Who Loved Me” (later covered by A Perfect Circle). Lyrical topics flit from beautifully cryptic (“Another Space Song”) to suggestive (“Dirty Blue Balloons”). “Stuck on You”, the closest the band ever came to a hit single, is itself a superbly awkward workout in word play and metaphor. A reflection on heroin addiction, the song is disguised in prose about getting a song stuck in your head which could just as easily be mistaken for being about falling in love. A later version of the song recorded by Paramore likely took this interpretation.
Closing track “Daylight” brings the album full circle, opening with the same eerie music box effect as on “Saturday Saviour” and provides a feeling of resolve for the album. In hindsight, it could also be considered a final chapter for a band whose relationship has broken down.
In terms of performance, Failure never sounded as focused, surprising given the addiction and tension that existed amongst the members at the time of recording. And while Fantastic Planet is an album from the ‘90s, it doesn’t sound dated in the way that many contemporaneous releases do, a true testament to the quality of its production/mix. It was, however, out of step with the en vogue alt-rock sound.
Fantastic Planet is a true hidden gem, a definitive cult classic. Its sonic scope has had an immeasurable influence on music ever since its release. Unceremonious though their end came, it’s great to see that they have since reformed to tour and record music that while not as vital as this, is definitely worth hearing.