Letters from Somnolescent October 1, 2023

First Draft: Failure’s Magnified

by mariteaux

Rarely do albums come out right on the first shot. Labels reject them, bands disown them, and they get added onto after release. Here on First Draft, we take a look at albums that got cut down or remade and see what difference the changes made.

This second edition examines the home demos that almost comprised Failure’s second album, 1994’s Magnified.

Welcome to another installment of First Draft! We’ve covered a record that got ditched and a new one made in its place, and we’ve covered a record that got re-recorded four or five times in pursuit of its final form. This one won’t be quite as overwhelming; today’s entry (which should’ve come out in August, see the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot First Draft) actually concerns a set of demos that were so good, the label wanted to release them as the album, but the band thought better and gave it the studio treatment anyway. Were the band right to redo them? And the more important question: are drummers obsolete?

Daylight won’t find us here

Kellii, Ken, Greg. Kellii joined on the tour for Magnified, so he doesn’t factor into this story much.

Failure is a 90s rock band that survived all the things that killed the other 90s rock bands. Part of that might just come down to the lack of exposure; in the seven years the band was active in their decade of origin, only one song from their three albums did even mild business on radio and MTV. By the time they reunited in 2014, the reunion show sold out in seconds. They’re now three albums into the reunion, and they’ve almost lasted for ten this go around.

Failure’s sound is one of a perfectly orchestrated meteor crash. Fuzz bass, especially chordal fuzz bass, is key. Their guitars chime and screech as accents. The drums never quite play straight. The bass provides all the pulse. Guitarist/bassist/singer Ken Andrews grew into a tech-savvy producer in time, coating the tight songwriting in strange sounds and film score-style ambient space. Lyrically, Failure explores detachment, drug addiction, the grim things humans are capable of, and the encroachment of unfeeling technology, and they do it damn well.

By 1995, their growing technical chops and some label disarray allowed them to record their seminal work, Fantastic Planet, pretty much unimpeded in a rented house in the Los Angeles hills. Even if the album was a critical darling, only “Stuck On You”, a fluke pop rock tune, went anywhere commercially, and by 1997, even as they were playing the main stage at Lollapalooza, Failure split up. Their legend grew, however, and Fantastic Planet became a lost gem of 90s alt rock whose praises were sung by everyone from Stone Temple Pilots to Paramore.

Their story is so well-trodden that parts of it border on cliché. Yes, drugs were involved. Yes, there’s the “space rock” stuff, despite only three of their six albums having any space iconography to speak of. They’re your favorite band’s favorite band, largely for Fantastic Planet, but we’re not going to be discussing Fantastic Planet today. I want to take you to 1993, post-Comfort, after their first drummer left, and Ken and bassist/guitarist/keyboardist/now-singer Greg Edwards were left alone to write an album for the first time together.

Frogs are hopping off my brain stem

The inlay for Magnified
“For promotional use only. Sale or other transfer is prohibited. Must be returned on demand of recording company.” Neat that I got this one then!

Comfort, Failure’s first album, proved polarizing. The album was recorded in 1992 with the notorious Steve Albini in the secluded forests of Minnesota (where Nirvana would record some stuff a year later). No one was quite happy with it. Steve’s recording methods–to put a band in a good-sounding room and record the room in few takes–didn’t suit Failure’s perfectionist tendencies, and critics found the vocals buried, the drums too loud, and the songs a little undercooked. The album did not do numbers, and no singles came from it.

Instrumentally, Comfort displayed very little of the sound Failure would go on to craft. Instruments were dry, untweaked, unlayered. There were no keyboards, no samplers, no acoustic guitars. The bass wasn’t just fuzzless, it was also fretless–Greg played a fretted bass with the frets removed to simulate the Wal bass he’d been using on Failure’s earliest singles. While ambient pieces acted as bridges between some of the tracks, they weren’t quite like the segues of later on; a few were effectively field recordings. Still, the early seeds of an angular 90s rock outfit were planted, and I really enjoy it. Just don’t expect spaceman Failure.

One notable bunch of early fans were the band Tool, who Failure toured with and whose debut Undertow released a year later in 1993. Ken Andrews put his film student skills to work, editing the highly uncomfortable video for Tool’s highly uncomfortable song “Prison Sex”, and Tool guitarist Adam Jones would join Failure onstage for their regular closer “Macaque”. (Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan would also eventually cover Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me” with his other band A Perfect Circle.) While Tool were out touring Undertow, Failure regrouped to write and demo album #2, Magnified.

Greg Edwards toying with the drum machine for the Magnified demos
“There’s no such thing as a good day with the drum machine.”

Things changed dramatically early in the writing process when Failure’s first drummer, Robert Gauss, left out of disinterest with the direction the band was taking. Robert’s influence would continue to be felt in the band’s drum arrangements, though without a drummer, Ken and Greg were forced to improvise. On the demos, a drum machine would suffice. On the album, four tracks would be recorded with new kid John Dargahi (who very much didn’t last and is now a public school teacher, I believe), and the other six would be done by Greg himself with the drum machine kick subbing in for decent leg coordination.

In 1993, Ken moved into Greg’s apartment in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, and the two turned it into a home studio, featuring a four-track cassette recorder and the drum machine. Most bands back then were content to record full-band takes of early songs on a boombox, but Failure took things a step further. There’s an astounding bit of footage on the DVD portion of Golden where Ken shows off a closet with an amp cabinet in it, mic’ed up as if it were in a real studio, isolated from the rest of the “live room” so it could be recorded cleanly. This adorable little pseudo-studio setup would result in at least 14 demos, including all the songs on Magnified.

A still from the Golden documentary showing the amp in the closet
“You see that cable? That goes in there. In there is my cabinet, mic’ed up.”

When Ken and Greg turned in the demos to Slash, the label was impressed enough that they offered to release them as the album (and now you see why it counts for this series). Turned off by the clacky drum machine, however, the band opted to redo ten of the songs in a proper studio, producing Magnified. The demos went unreleased until 2004’s Golden, a documentary and rarities compilation, and especially 2006’s Essentials, a two-disc “best-of” with Failure’s first two 45s and Magnified‘s demos in album order as the second disc.

I have heard anecdotally that the Magnified demos appeared in RealAudio form on Failure fansites in the 90s, but without knowing which fansites those were, I can’t verify, nor would I know where the demos came from since I don’t think they ever circulated outside the label.

The Final Product: Revisiting Magnified

The CD art for Magnified

I can tell you that I did not like Magnified much on first listen. This might amuse some of you who know how much this album means to me now, but when I first heard it, I thought it was indistinct, somehow both muddy and thin at the same time. The songs took a few tries to sink in. There was a period of time in 10th grade when I would listen to Fantastic Planet, loved the shit out of Comfort, and liked one single tune from Magnified, “Wonderful Life”. I fell asleep during “Bernie” my first listen (in my defense, I did not get very good sleep in high school).

But then Magnified grew sticky. Some of my favorite drum parts of all time come from this album. “Undone” has a beat that feels like a really good guitar riff, choppy and distinctive with a little fill at the end of every measure. “Wet Gravity” has these fast tom rolls that current Failure drummer Kellii Scott goes absolutely nuts on live. “Frogs” has its distinctive gallop (apparently stolen from a Kyuss song, according to the Essentials booklet), and “Bernie” throws in enough kick-snare fakeouts to keep the slow lurch feeling off-kilter. For not having a solid drummer during recording, the drum parts on this album are incredibly imaginative.

This album’s bass sound is legendary. “Small Crimes” is the single bleakest buzz I’ve ever heard come from a bass. This is going to sound incredibly autistic, but it’s the musical equivalent of the infamous (to Perfect Dark speedrunning fans) Chuya Takizawa Attack Ship 2:06 video, blown out, colorless, the details (like Greg’s strumming) there theoretically among all the distortion, but basically invisible in practice. It turns an instrument often used to jerk off melodic or funk parts into an all-consuming brushfire, and it’s like that across a lot of Magnified.

The songwriting is also much improved from Comfort. Where a song like “Pro-Catastrophe” is basically the same thing for two minutes, the songs on Magnified evolve. “Moth” is one of my favorite compositions on the whole thing, going from unassuming to roaring, leaving you dizzy and your ears ringing into “Frogs”. I love how orange-tinted “Empty Friend” is, the sundown moment before the nightfall of “Small Crimes”. There’s actual harmonies on this thing! And I love the lyrics. I’ll discuss them more with the demos, but on every track, they’re just as evocative as the music.

Magnified is my preferred Failure album just because of how visceral it is. It’s not conceptual like Fantastic Planet. It’s just a collection of ten really excellent rock and metal tunes from a band really starting to discover their sonic trademarks. You can’t even call it the dress rehearsal for Fantastic Planet just because of how different that album works in execution. Fantastic Planet is meticulously arranged to explore drug-induced isolation in 17 songs. Magnified does it in ten with a lot less planning. I still think it’s a bit sonically odd (the drums could use a little more heft, mainly), but that’s part of its charm.

The First Draft: Examining Essentials

The CD art for Essentials

It’s not hard to hear why Slash wanted to release the demos as the actual album: they’re impressively finished sounding. Most of the songs are close in structure if not lyrics, the guitar and bass tone is pretty on par with some actual albums I own (if a little duller than what Ken and Greg pulled off in the studio), and the vocals have even been double-tracked on a couple songs. (If you’re not up on music production jargon, that’s where a singer will sing his vocal twice and they’ll play the same time to make the vocal sound fuller.) Remember, this was a demo done on cassette with only four tracks to record onto, so the amount of polish that’s gone into just the recording is incredible.

That drum machine really does suck a lot of the life out of the songs, though. As opposed to the trebly savagery of the first fifteen seconds of the album version of “Frogs”, the demo sounds like a MIDI rendition. Not pretty. Not only is it artificial and cheap-sounding, but a huge portion of a recording’s ambience comes from the drum sound and the way the kit interacts with the room. The drum machine has no ambience to it, so even when Failure try to give a bit more space to the recording using reverb, it’s very sterile. It really detracts from the otherwise well-recorded guitars and even vocals.

The vocal performances are a lesser weak point. Ken is singing in his inside voice across most of the songs, probably to reduce the chance of the two getting a noise complaint. In an actual vocal booth, you can scream and no one cares. In an apartment, less so. Not only does it mean a gentler vocal in general, but the parts where a song would open up and Ken would get loud (see the final choruses of “Let it Drip”, “Bernie”, “Wet Gravity”, the title track), he goes flat in his normal register instead. Not unlistenable, but definitely not as exciting.

(Two interesting notes about the demo’s vocal takes: Firstly, on “Bernie”, you can hear that Ken seems to have gotten sick at some point during recording; his voice is rather hoarse and scratchy, and his nose sounds stuffed up. No other song has this sick Ken on it. Secondly, contrary to the above paragraph, “Wonderful Life” has a loud vocal in the climax that worked so well, Failure actually patched in a couple of the demo’s lines on the official album. You can hear it if you listen closely to the “That restless old monkey/Prisoned inside of me” on both versions. The EQ and reverb on those lines is different from the rest of the newly-recorded album vocal, and the phrasing is the same as on the demo. Failure themselves admitted this in the Essentials booklet.)

A couple of the songs are effectively the same across both versions of the album. Most only differ in their outros; “Frogs” effectively goes the same, just for a lot longer. “Bernie” ends with instrumental riffage and a fadeout where a louder vocal and distorted guitars properly close the song on the album. “Moth” has a backwards feedback-and-toy-piano outro. “Wonderful Life” and “Undone”, on the other hand, are very different structurally, each clocking in a solid minute longer than the album versions. “Undone” joins some of its verses together with more instrumental jamming, while “Wonderful Life” dips into the B-section much earlier and has an additional chorus before the final B-section. The lyrics on both are massively different as well.

Inside the lyrics booklet for Essentials

And we might as well talk about some of those lyrics. On Magnified, “Wonderful Life” is a sarcastic look at human suffering, presenting three characters across its three verses: a corpse found in a dumpster, an exhausted commuter in a head-on collision, and a junkie trying to quit prescription pain meds cold turkey. On the demo, the same concept is there, but there’s none of the characters, only a list of struggles and atrocities that don’t have much impact in their vagueness: “the new Holocaust”, “the disease untamed”, “the unborn killed”. Very much a point for the rewrite.

It’s not about the freeway drone
That score her tired journeys home
Softly licking her to sleep
Her eyes are closed to the brake light streaks

It’s not about the new hole in the sky
It’s not about the crooks we can’t try
It’s not about the disease untamed
It ain’t about the rapist unnamed

“Undone”, meanwhile, features two additional verses, a different bridge and outro, and an extended second chorus. I’ve always taken it to be a song about the way trauma can translate into sexuality, with the verses describing abuse and the chorus describing likely debauched sexual abandon as a way to relate to others. I quite like the “no stomach for battle” stanza on the demo, I wish they found a way to keep that in.

Could’ve guessed you were the only one they wanted
To laugh at
Believe them

No surprise you let it get to you, it was
Always there
Can’t hide it

Let me come undone in your house
I need to kill some time tonight
Let me come undone in your mouth
I need to know that you’re the same

Your face is easy to hate
Looking helpless and sincere
Curled up in self-sickness
Lick your wounds and dream of home

No surprise you’d let it get to you, it was
Always there
Can’t hide it

Better empty out before they reach you
No stomach
For battle

Let me come undone in your bed
I need to kill some time tonight
Let me come undone in your head
I need to know that you’re the same

Cracked steps lead to a small room
They have blocked the way back home
Curled up at the bottom
Lick your wounds and dream of home

“Small Crimes” is where the most drastic lyrical changes happened. Listed as “Small Bird”, the Essentials demo features the original lyrics written by Ken, as opposed to the rewritten ones from Greg. “Small Crimes” is this exquisite look at a paranoid arsonist, on the run, delusional, and seeing things through all the fumes. “Small Bird”, meanwhile, is about a helpless, wounded bird, with some shit about rain lands and marked men in the B-section. I think the rewrite matches the music better, but I’d encourage you to read both sets of lyrics in full because they’re both pretty solid in their own right.

Small crimes
Smiles stretched on old trees
Strike your match so lightly
Watch the crooked smoke rise
Empty prayers to Heaven
Just a mask of blue sky
Look away to

Small crimes
Kick the dog for eating
Leave your old self hungry
Watch in coldest pleasure
Tell the world, “What

Turns you on is fine with me as long as
Matches don’t get wet”

Warm winds
Calling me a coward make me smile
They can’t convince me now

Burned prayers
Turn me on to nowhere sick and empty
I don’t feel so bad

Turns around again, says to me softly
“Start the fire now”

Small crimes
Simmer used up, old considerations
Freedom’s not so great

All fears
Burn up

Small bird
Sits atop my red eye
Bring the phone, she can’t cry
Quite alone and can’t fly
Sorry, but I found you
Not enough to bless you
Looks away to

Small bird
Sits alone to look shy
Beats her wings and asks why
Not enough to be kind
Looks away to

Rain lands
Where the weak are given back their meaning
Lost so long ago

Marked men
Who cried out that they were always hidden
From the tenderness

Dead homes
Where the sick were treated by the blinded
With nobody saved

Small bird
You were always there to give them nothing
From those who said they cared

Rain lands
Where the weak are given back their meaning
Lost so long ago

Marked men
Who cried out that they were always hidden
From the tenderness

I think my favorite change across the entire demo is a subtle one. On “Empty Friend”, instead of going loud during the first chorus, actually goes very gentle and eerie (listen around 1:12). I know it’s hard to imagine a single part of a song affecting the whole, but it very much does. It gives the song some extra color and contrast for what’s otherwise a pretty straightforward and easy-to-miss song. For as much as the demos lack, they sure do have some real neat ideas you wish they would’ve stuck with.

Comparing the Drafts

Both Ken and Greg are on record as being proud of the demos, drum machine notwithstanding, and it’s great that we got to hear them in the end. I can tell you this much though: I would not love this album if the demos were released like Slash intended. They’re not finished. They’re close! But there’s something missing from them. Ken had yet to find his voice (and perhaps couldn’t find his voice completely in an apartment), and the drums are, well, not real drums. There’s a thin, puncturing feel to the drums on Magnified that a cheesy, late 80s drum machine playing digital samples simply can’t replicate.

One of the inlays for Essentials

Really, that’s what’s missing; Magnified has this aggressively nihilistic tone that the demos lack on account of where and how they were recorded. Greg’s bass is more rounded in its rumble, as opposed to the blown out roar of the final album’s, and the demo is missing a lot of the intros and outros that properly set the eerie, unhinged tone of each song. I think the additional time in the oven allowed Ken and Greg to polish off songs like “Small Crimes” and “Wonderful Life”, even if just how close they came at home is impressive.

And maybe that’s maybe the biggest accomplishment of the demo. Home recording didn’t come into its own until the mid-late 90s, when Fantastic Planet was being worked on. Bands were left recording on hissy compact cassette, limited to four tracks without bouncing and incurring the extra noise in the signal as a result, oftentimes in suboptimal acoustics with cheap microphones. That “lo-fi” sound was one of necessity, not of aesthetic. The advent of ADAT birthed the project studio; bands could sound good on tape for four figures instead of five, far more attainable for bands of Failure’s status. The fact that the Magnified demos don’t immediately register as home-recorded is a true testament to Ken Andrews’ still-developing genius as a producer and a sonic wizard.

Greg Edwards and Ken Andrews demoing "Mange", a Magnified outtake

That’s not to say the demos were completely for naught, however. The pseudo-segues on Magnified (which appear after the title track and “Wet Gravity”) were actually recorded at that same Sherman Oaks apartment, on that same setup, and glued into the final album. It’s most apparent on the “Wet Gravity” segue; that’s the drum machine providing the beat, and looking at the track in a spectrograph reveals a rolloff of the high frequencies around 17KHz, about on par with the type II audio cassettes a Portastudio like Ken and Greg were using would take. The backwards chiming on the “Magnified” segue comes from a toy piano, same as the one at the end of “Moth” on Essentials (and later used by Autolux on Future Perfect!).

So really, regardless of if the demos came out as intended, they’ve been with us since day one, and given how some of its sounds showed up across the rest of the album, they’re just as big a part of the overall brew as anything done in a proper studio. Not bad for a cassette rig in a bedroom.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to incorporate Golden‘s extra tracks from those sessions into this writeup–I liked the flow of what I had too much to stuff them in somewhere, but Golden has four additional songs from the Sherman Oaks sessions on it, “Shrine”, “Golden”, “Mange”, and “Lucky Shoreline”. I honestly like them way more than any of the Magnified demos. I don’t know if that’s just because I don’t have studio versions to compare them to, but “Lucky Shoreline” is Failure at their most predatory, and “Golden”‘s “groaning bridge” outro has a bass so big and nasty, it has to be heard to be believed. Kino stuff.

I’ve got a nice list of First Draft candidates to carry us into the spring of next year, at one a month, so I’m not stopping any time soon. Stay tuned for next month’s edition, which concerns another 90s favorite alt rock act (and their extant, albeit naked, drummer) recording another demo-turned-real-album.

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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