Supermassive Black Hum
If history is kind to perennial underdogs Hum, they will be remembered for more than a singular fluke hit in the mid-90s. Instead, the Illinois group's distinctive blend of space rock, alt-metal, and shoegaze, all delivered at face-melting volume will be seen a landmark, and their sound cited as an influence for years to come.
In some ways, this has already happened. Hum fandom is more like worship, and a love affair with their music often takes hold instantaneously. Sadly throwing in the towel at the turn of the millennium, two years after their 1998 masterpiece Downward Is Heavenward, but survived in the DNA of swathes of bands. most notably Deftones (Chino Moreno admits to chasing up Hum’s producer) but also more recent acts Title Fight, Nothing, Superheaven, Cloakroom, Narrow Head, the list goes on…
Spending over two decades sat on standby, the band have been a closed book. Little is known of the intricacies of their split, beyond being dropped from RCA and a tour van accident in Canada, but the uncertainties of their descent did nothing but plunge them further into cult status. Amongst fans, authentic tour merchandise is a badge of honour. Vinyl and CDs are hard to find as most copies are highly-prized possessions. Hum were largely unreachable on social media, assuming control of a fansite and Twitter account (which was the only real way to keep up to date with any band activity) only five years ago.
The reason for the silence isn’t really clear, though there is a pattern of Hum shying away from the limelight. In a room full of 90s bands they look more like uninvited guests. TV appearances were scarce, unusual for a major-label 90s rock band, and Hum would play with their heads down and sometimes even their backs to the audience. Interviews were quiet, awkward, and sometimes bizarre, as though the band were desperate for them to end. In 2003, they commanded a huge fee for their appearance at an alternative music festival in Alabama, assuming nobody would match it. The organisers did, being far more aware of the extent of Hum fans’ adoration for them than the band themselves.
Such 21st century Hum gigs were few and far between, but just about frequent enough to suggest they never really fully broke up. And now in 2020, the surprise release of new album Inlet testifies to that. Hum fans around the world are overjoyed having been finally rewarded for their perseverance, and are reminded almost instantly why they fell in love with this band in the first place. The first crashes of the brilliant opening track ‘Waves’ set the tone for the rest of the record – the guitars are as thick and crushing as ever, and Matt Talbott’s (admittedly sometimes ropey) vocals remain true to his gentle, languid style, woven beneath incredibly dense layers of sound. Listening closely, the curious fascination with outer space and the great unknown hasn’t faded, and the trademark oblique and obscure lyrics are still a key ingredient in the Hum formula.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Hum haven’t changed a bit, yet half of the album's songs are at least eight minutes long, signifying a new direction for the band. The first of which, ‘Desert Rambler’, is a nine-minute epic balancing smooth and spacious verses with a relentlessly pounding chorus and climax. ‘The Summoning’ is Hum overtly trying their hand at doom metal, as the song trudges its way through thumping riffs carried through by Bryan St. Pere’s booming drums, until its blissful final moments of calm. Not to mention the meandering ‘Shapeshifter’, the album’s immense closing track. The big impression from these tracks is that Hum are slower than ever before, but the sprawling nature of these songs is considered and calculated. Inlet isn’t a dull album which the listener slogs through; its refined production, its swirling guitar lines, and its entrancing atmosphere all help to keep the record engaging and (eventually) addictive.
It is not without its blasts of energy. ‘Step Into You’ is Hum at their most direct: four minutes of chugging guitar, a dreamy chorus, and even a solo buried beneath the mechanical pulse of the rhythm section. ‘Cloud City’ is heavenly and delicate at first, but crashes with brute force before you know it – this is Hum in a nutshell: the unprecedented and unmatched aptitude for holding ethereal shoegaze and aggressive alt-metal in equilibrium. This signature sound earns their acclaim and has underpinned their two major-label albums Downward Is Heavenward and You’d Prefer An Astronaut, both cult classics and hidden gems on the often mundane 90s rock circuit.
Hum have always defied convention and classification, always awkwardly jammed between two labels. Their hooks too catchy to appeal to the “experimental” crowd, and their dedication to thunderous volume too unwavering to ever “make it big”. The result? One of many bands criminally undervalued in the vague, abstract categorisation of “alternative”. They never achieved huge commercial success, and may never have wanted to, but they undoubtedly deserve special recognition for fashioning an image countless artists have tried to replicate.
Their latest release provides more evidence of that. The fundamentals and the essence of Hum have not changed, yet with Inlet the band have developed and grown, furnishing a meaningful reunion album capable of standing on its own two feet. This record is simultaneously a tribute to and an expansion of the Hum sound and will advance their legacy. Its wonder and mysticism is particularly rewarding in these times of isolation, where the imagination is boredom’s adversary, for this record is naturally and effortlessly inspiring and otherworldly. We don’t know how long it will be until the next one, so leave our world behind and give Inlet a listen, and be sure to turn up the volume! If you enjoy it, you might never return.
- 7.8 -
'Waves', 'Step Into You', 'Shapeshifter'
Anthony Ford is a Maths student, spending every Saturday watching Burnley attempt to avoid relegation. He calms himself down by listening to music, playing guitar, or shouting at people on the TV.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales. Follow us on instagram, like us on facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a new post is published on the site.