Following-up their smash hit “Stars”, Hum doubled down for their 1998 release Downward is Heavenward. I’ve been trying not to sound like a broken record for this fourth part of our Hum reviews, but I’ll have to be straight with you this time: this record embodies the quintessential sound of 90’s alt/rock, so much so that it transported me through time and gave me memories of browsing new up-and-coming bands in my area when I was a broke little high school kid. I didn’t have access to the band’s music during those times but now that I’ve learned of them as the source of this enormous guitar sound, it’s hard to deny their influence on the whole landscape.
Downward is Heavenward continues the band’s signature style of big riffs combined with even bigger ideas. Mat Talbott has been especially poetic in his lyrics, combining scientific and cosmic ideas and juxtaposing them with everyday experiences. In the opener “Isle of the Cheetah” he talks of a love that’s eternal, one that lingers on a thousand years after its inception. This combined with their riffs that stretch and evolve in multiple movements reinforces the enormity of its concept. “Comin’ Home” is especially interesting to me, as it’s restless shifts in rhythm remind me of math rock, albeit one that’s put through a 90’s lens. Unsurprising how not only does Hum explore and innovate through lyricism, but also pulled-off what I could only describe as a primordial version of math rock.
What differentiates this album from their predecessors however is how prevalent its more calm and laid-back moments are. “If You Are Into Bloom” has a more pop feel to it, if not for the virtuosic arrangement of riffs and hooks. “Ms. Lazarus” has a similar relaxing feel, guided by its dreamy idea of using a time machine to spend more time with a friend who’s passed away. It’s somber but filled with very thoughtful melodies.
Yet Hum still does what they do best. Although not as monumental as “Stars”, there are still large and sweeping rock masterpieces in here. “Afternoon with the Axolotls” finds its narrator wrapped up in a sweeping guitar meditation the likes that have never been done since. “The Inuit Promise” takes us to the freezing north with its hardened riffs and an avalanche of drums. Take a look back into this record, and you’ll feel the 90’s scene in its absolute peak. Where rock was at its loudest and proudest.