About two and a half hours south of Chicago, after a drive down Interstate 57, you’ll find a city called Champaign. There’s not much to speak of in Champaign, save for a decently regarded college and a couple of nice vintage shops. Once upon a time, a band called Hum played in supermarket parking lots to rapt crowds in Champaign. The place and the band are inextricably linked, even if you might not know where Hum is from, or what Champaign, Illinois is supposed to be. To call them underground is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration (having toured with Converge and having played sets at numerous festivals), but they’re the band equivalent of a cult classic: their fans are rabid, and have been chomping at the bit, and then some, for the moment that Hum would drop Inlet, even before they had a name for it.
So: what is Hum? Hum is, most notably at this date and time, the above-ground band that just released their first album in 22 years, Inlet. Most fans skip their first two albums and go right ahead to You’d Prefer An Astronaut (which spawned the minor hit “Stars,” perhaps their best-known track) and Downward is Heavenward (the overall critical and fan favorite), making this their unofficial “third studio record.” Surprise drops are almost par for the course these days (we wave at Beyonce and My Bloody Valentine), but after 22 years only popping up from underground to play infrequent shows, this is a genuine, real-life music world surprise.
Speaking of My Bloody Valentine, Inlet’s opening track, “Waves,” throws their once-poppy sound directly out the window and tosses a mattress on top of it for good measure. The imprint of MBV and other slowcore and shoegaze stalwarts can be felt all through Inlet. The vocals of Hum’s brainchild, Matt Talbott, drift in and out of coherence, but never reach the point of discomfort. Slight tempo changes in the track save it from becoming too shoegaze, but the pop that Hum used to slide into is notably absent from this album, right from the jump. The album transitions from “Waves” to “In the Den,” trading a five-minute track for a six-minute track, a little more tempo-forward and vocally clear.
This is a bit unnatural for Hum, who frequently trade sweet and sour, opening an album with a five- or six-minute song, following it with a two- to three-minute song. The announcement this makes is: this is the Hum you know, but we didn’t come back to repeat ourselves. The lack of repetition is one of Inlet’s strong suits.
This is not to say that Hum isn’t Hum on Inlet. If anything, this is a very good band doing what they do best, with an expanded canvas to paint on. Talbott plays with his voice a little, running monotone through some of the best lyrics he’s ever written on “Desert Rambler,” a contender for Best Track In The Whole Catalog. From the opening of the track, it asks a little patience of the listener (who may have just waited 22 years, but enough about that), clocking in as the longest track they have committed to record (in fact, Inlet carries the three longest tracks in their body of work) and one of the most contemplative, flowing, compelling, and ultimately, at about the five-minute mark, during some truly soaring work, Hum at their most rewarding. When “Desert Rambler” wraps up, they return to their tried-and-tried sweet-and-sour method with the driving “Step into You.” In the album’s expected monotone, Matt Talbott sings “It’s coming down / Sheets of wasted promise”—lyrics that call to mind a little bit of stage-fright for a band doing their turn on the catwalk for the first time in a very long while. Eventually, even intoning “I am over it,” Talbott sounds like a man adrift. Hum, as a band, sound very good when they’re driving steady, but just as good when, sometimes prompted by Talbott, they’re aloof (out back counting stars, as the hit went).
Immediately, they leave that comfort zone for a track that could almost pass for hard rock, in “The Summoning.” The foundation of the track could pass for 1990s Metallica, but even before the vocals kick in, trademark shimmering Hum guitars make their way into the song. This is the headbanging-est song the band have ever recorded. It will very likely divide the diehards, but it still asks for analysis for being so singular and gutsy, both for its placement in the center of the record and for its length, clocking in at eight and a half minutes long. You can hear why fringe metal bands like Deftones have cited Hum as an inspiration during the little comedown on this track, and the overall comedown provided on the next track. “Cloud City” is another song that provides this album with a “never a dull moment” feel that was going to be quite needed.
The album’s closers, “Folding” and “Shapeshifter,” are two more of Inlet’s heavy-hitters in duration. The sonic variety that Hum clearly strives for on this album is most apparent here at the end, and it shows one of Hum’s long-standing strengths: sequencing. If there were a rating system in place, the sequencing would get the gold medal, the four stars, or the perfect 10 from all judges involved. While every track here works on its own, it revitalizes a form that is dying: at heart and in execution, Inlet is an album, a record, or whatever your preferred parlance may be. It just works, and never stops working.
Champaign is an unremarkable place that has produced another remarkable album, by a remarkable band. Matt Talbott, Tim Lash, Jeff Dimpsey, and Bryan St. Pere have yet another release under their belts to be proud of. After 22 years of waiting, hype, false starts, cheeky teases, low-key tours, and constant invitations to revisit their glory years, it is wonderful to see them ask: “Hey, why can’t we have our next golden age?”