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Nostalgic for 90’s rock?

Published: October 19, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


First thing you should know about Hum is that they like guitars. A lot. Like most of its peers in the 80s indie rock influenced mid-1990s Chicago rock scene, it favored driving rock songs tempered with heavy feedback and ringing drones.

Unlike some of its obvious influences (the Smashing Pumpkins, Big Black), Hum used these ultra-heavy guitar riffs and processed guitar effect-heavy explosions to create songs that were slow-moving, engrossing, and ultimately quite beautiful and endearing.

Hum is a band that no longer exists, and only had a quick brush with fame, with its mid-90s hit Stars, as well as an awkward appearance on the Howard Stern Show. Over its four-album career, this band created some of the most unique and interesting rock music around, and while being relatively accessible, as Stars proved for a moment, they were done in by its own relative anonymity and disappointing label management and sales.

Hum's first two albums found it tinkering with it's sound, and struggling to control its effects-heavy, dropped-D, guitar-as-texture approach. By the band's third album, 1995s Youd Prefer an Astronaut, Hum had refined this noisy approach into a very tight, processed, and reverb-heavy act that managed to balance poignant moments with driving rock rhythm.

This album was Hums most successful, as well as the one where all its trademarks and quirks as a band rose to prominence. This album features a number of driving rock tracks like the the Pod and the title track, intermixed with a few quieter numbers, where the layers of distortion guitarists Matt Talbott and Tim Lash provide ringing texture for quiet moments and occasionally exploding into driving, beautiful cathartic moments.

Suicide Machine perfectly exemplifies this technique, where a quiet, pulsating guitar rhythm is slowly layered with quiet distortion before a building to a moment of contemplative beauty complete with firing drones of feedback elevating the tracks roar into something more ethereal. Singer Matt Talbott keeps it simple vocally, providing a simple contrast to the intricacies of the bands rhythms. This vocal trick works tremendously. Talbotts lyrics are very fitting to the bands epic rock style, as he expresses simple romantic truths and near-cutesy themes through science and outer space.

A band like Hum elevates verses like I like your raindrop collector on Why I Like the Robins into something universal. Stars tells the tale of a distant girlfriend and the man that cares about her over a roaring Smashing Pumpkins-inspired riff. Its all great drama, and the success of that song from a band as unknown and under-promoted as Hum is evidence to that. Overall, Youd Prefer an Astronaut is an excellent summation of their style. However, it would never quite equal up to the artistic success and commercial failure of their next album.

1998s Downward is Heavenward found Hum taking its sound to new heights and musical directions. Throughout its more rock-oriented previous albums, Hum had always indulged in a great deal reverb-heavy, heavily affected and textured guitars. They had used them sparingly and would often revert to riff-heavy rocking as opposed to indulging in the artistic possibilities associated with these dream-rock overtones. With Downward is Heavenward, it appears some of their My Bloody Valentine and shoegazer worship had reached critical mass.

While the album still makes it a point on songs like Coming Home and Green to Me to freak out, much of the riff-dominated music prevalent on Youd Prefer an Astronaut has been replaced by a swirling, dreamy, and ultimately dynamic blend of rock and ambient experimental noisemaking.

The opener Isle of the Cheetah is a soaring track, with one loopy chord progression being elaborated upon and pushed and pulled to every logical conclusion possible. Ms. Lazarus comprises of a pretty melody being destroyed and pulverized through walls of distortion and spiking leads, only to be rebuilt around Matt Talbotts gorgeous vocal melody and (again) science-fiction lyrics and the marching rhythm of bassist Jeff Dimpsey and drummer Bryan St. Pere. Other stand out tracks include the ringing Inuit Promise and the album closer, the driving and sentimental Scientists.

However, the albums real centerpiece and possibly the bands best song is the epic Afternoon with the Axolotls. Building from some quiet guitar interplay, the band suddenly drops the bottom right out of the song, land on a giant, sludgy open chord as the rest of the band layers in walls of distortion, feedback, reverb, and percussion before building up to a chugging, chiming march that expels the song right into the stratosphere.

Its one of the most excellent things put to record, and it really is a shame it all got lost when the album absolutely tanked, leading to the band eventually being dropped from its label and to its subsequent break-up.

Despite a fanbase that never really rose above cult-status, and suffering from poor sales and some serious label mismanagement, Hum should be remembered as one of the best groups of 90s and 1999s Downward is Heavenward should be remembered for the sprawling masterpiece that it is.

Hum managed to never truly fit in a certain scene, as its fusion of heavily anthemic rock, shoegaze, original lyrics, and feedback left them with its own highly original sound, which in part distinguished it from the pack as well as hurt its promotion. Nevertheless, if you are looking for an act that is just as capable at playing with intricate power as evoking swirling, dream-like soundscapes, with a startling and disarming presence, look no further than Hum.