Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Hum Inlet

The members of the beloved space-rock band Hum have always followed a unique orbit. While appearing on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1998 to promote the then-new album Downward Is Heavenward, vocalist/guitarist Matt Talbott and guitarist Tim Lash wore, respectively, a full-body chicken suit and a gray rabbit costume. Host Matt Pinfield very pointedly didn’t reference their sartorial choices until Talbott forced the issue at the end, deadpanning hilariously that he had just laid an egg so it was time to go. Cue awkward silence.

This exchange summarized Hum’s wary relationship with and to the mainstream music establishment. Even when the Champaign, Illinois, band was at peak radio and MTV visibility in 1995 thanks to “Stars” — a smoldering triumph of churning guitar grime and space-rock dynamics that appeared on their major label debut, You’d Prefer An Astronaut — they never quite fit with even the anything-goes ’90s alternative scene.

For starters, Hum were too smart to be considered a post-grunge copycat, largely because their musical influences came from more interesting niches: sprawling prog, jagged post-hardcore, and metallic shoegaze. Their contemporary peers tended to include cult favorites (Failure) and fellow Midwest iconoclasts (Shiner, Season To Risk). And although both You’d Prefer An Astronaut and Downward Is Heavenward had accessible moments — the effervescent noise-pogo “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” a splintered “Comin’ Home,” the yearning “Ms. Lazarus” — Hum excelled more at sculpting dense, atmospheric songs that challenged listeners. Being a dedicated fan often felt like knowing a secret handshake or code word; the music wasn’t for everyone, but those who connected found solace in the band’s fraught, vulnerable claustrophobia.

Such unorthodoxy has continued to mark Hum’s career and impact. In the wake of a 2000 breakup, their legacy became glaringly obvious via other bands including Deftones, Junius, and Cave-In. The band has reconvened for select reunion shows since 2003, but largely avoid extensive touring. More tellingly, Hum’s first album in 22 years, Inlet, popped up on Bandcamp on Tuesday with no advance warning. (The pandemic delayed the physical version until the fall, but it’s up for pre-order now.)

That the record existed wasn’t a surprise. Hum revealed they were writing new music more than four years ago, and Talbott hinted as far back as September 2018 that a new album was nearing the mixing stage. However, there was never any indication the full-length was done. Recent times found Talbott embarking on a solo house concert tour and selling a vinyl repress of Downward Is Heavenward directly, DIY distro-style, via the online arm of his record label and studio, Earth Analog. In between these activities, he also runs a dive bar called Loose Cobra in Tolono, Illinois.

Yet this lack of fanfare or a drawn-out promotional cycle serves the music well. As with previous Hum efforts, Inlet is an album best listened to all at once, in one sitting, at speaker-blowing levels. Viscous guitars undulate like violent ocean waves, creating sonic tension that propels thundering drums and cushions Talbott’s even-keeled, silver-plated vocals. Tempos include a range of speeds: “sludgy quicksand” (“The Summoning”), “relentless drilling” (“In The Den”) and “tranquil slo-mo” (“Shapeshifter”). Inlet‘s production is rich and ear-pleasing, amplifying Hum’s luxurious dynamics and complex arrangements in ways at which their past albums only hinted.

While Hum’s approach here is familiar and comforting, it’s not exactly correct to say that the album picks up where Downward Is Heavenward left off in 1998. Fully half of Inlet‘s songs pass the eight-minute mark, leaving space for extended instrumental passages and textured sound sculptures. In a testament to Hum’s meticulous nature, these lengthy songs never come off as overly indulgent. The expansive “Desert Rambler” feels like being in a wind tunnel, thanks to guitars that roar like sideways sheets of rain. In contrast, the creased guitar melodies of “Folding” are aching and wistful, before giving way to a coda whirring with electronic pulses—and the album-closing “Shapeshifter” embraces blissed-out soundscapes with subtle, sighing background harmonies.

These songs illustrate that the passage of time has certainly emboldened Hum to try new things.

However, Inlet also finds the band displaying more perspective on their strengths — and figuring out better how to capture them in the studio. The closest thing Inlet has to a single, the brisk metallic chug “Step Into You,” contains a scorching guitar solo combining prog’s intricacies with the ache of ’80s AOR. Yet the album also contains the band’s heaviest moments on record: The thunderous beginning of “The Summoning” rivals Tool for prog heft, while the second half of “Cloud City” explodes into an instrumental driven by splattering drums and tornadic, pummeling guitars.

But as is Hum’s way, Inlet is aggressive, but not angry. The music embodies external frustrations directed inward, the sonic manifestation of deeply personal feelings of isolation, alienation, and confusion. Thematically, this translates to oblique lyrics that touch on wrenching concepts — grief, emotional desolation, missed connections — using vivid imagery. Songs contain trippy apocalyptic scenes (“The sunlight drips from the trees and forms in pools/ I’m wading through them oblivious and warm”) and fantastical musings (“Shapeshifter,” which depicts a protagonist transforming into a fawn, butterfly and a bird to gain insights into their human form). Other songs, however, capture the deeply painful experience of being an imperfect human: “Where is the rescue? It didn’t show/ Where is the bottom? I wouldn’t know/ I missed you so.”

During that 120 Minutes appearance back in ’98, Pinfield asked Talbott about the several years Hum took between albums. “It takes us a while to find our common ground the older we get—four diverging musical paths,” he responded. “It takes us a little while to get the songs worked out.” If these factors were in play in 1998, no doubt they haven’t gone away decades later. In a heartfelt post on the Loose Cobra Facebook page, Talbott even referenced the “3 or 4 years (yikes!)” he’s spent working on the album with his bandmates. It’s safe to say that Inlet was worth the effort: Although a band returning with new music after two decades can be a dodgy proposition, Hum sound exactly, gloriously, like themselves.

Inlet is out now digitally on Earth Analog Records. Physical pre-order is available through Polyvinyl.

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