Review Summary: Incubus is dead. Long live Incubus!
Change. It’s a constant of the universe. Everything and everyone around us are always changing. This concept of change holds true for music too. Inevitably, our favorite bands go through different stages over the course of their careers. In this vein, Incubus has let a simple truth about change take their band in a new, if not unexpected direction. On their latest album “If Not Now, When?” Incubus has crafted a new sound that is a testament as to what change has done to these five individuals over the past five years, and where they are as an artistic group today. As humans though, we have a tendency to resist this change, and this definitely can play in to our initial reactions to music too.
After my first listen, I had what I think will be a very common reaction to this new album. I hated it. I thought Incubus was dead, and I thought I would never listen to this album again. It seemed so far removed from anything that they had previously done. I thought it was completely devoid of any elements that would even allow for this music to be presented under the same identity of Incubus. Thankfully something made me go back again. This time I listened without preconceived notions, and what I found was a band renewing their identity by trying to create music that put emotion and meaning before individual performance.
If you go into this record thinking not what should Incubus sound like, and accept the music for what it is, a band with an entirely new vision emerges. The first song, also the title track, is a perfect opening and declaration of this new vision. “If Not Now, When?” serves as a double entendre, holding both a personal meaning within the context of the lyrics from the song, and at the same time it is a statement to the world about the purpose of this record; a new direction for the band. If they aren’t supposed to change and challenge themselves as songwriters now, then when can they?
Musically, this song is orchestrated in a way that immediately reinforces this new identity. Some eerie sounding strings give way to a pulsating bass played over some very down tempo drums. Most interestingly is how small the guitar seems. For what used to be such a guitar driven band, this is the biggest indicator that the new Incubus is now more concerned with presenting great musical ideas, and not just flashy instrumental parts.
The melody to the verse is very infectious. Anchored by an ostinato bass line, its phrasing weaves around the straight beat created by the drums and repetition of this one note on the bass. To show off some subtlety in their new song writing approach, the first two verses move to a minor chord as this melodic line reaches the apex. The third time the verse comes back around; the melody again climbs towards this apex note. But this time as it climactically reaches the top note, and Boyd is singing “Hallelujah everyday”, the song stays on major chords as the rest of the band triumphantly reinforces this culmination with an explosion of sound.
“Defiance” is quite possibly the best acoustic song Incubus has made to date. Einzinger opens the track with some compound chords that are very reminiscent of a Led Zeppelin era acoustic track. As the singing kicks in, the phrases are given the Incubus treatment, as Brandon Boyd expertly follows the odd phrasing created by Mike’s playing on the guitar. The song is short and sweet, but wonderfully effective.
"In the Company of Wolves" may very well be the best song on the record. At the very least it has the most interesting structure. Upon my initial listen, I thought they hired Chris Martin of Coldplay to make a cameo appearance, as Boyd seemingly does his best impression to begin the song. This part of the song sounds good, but also very inoffensive. If the song ended there it would simply be a bad and blatant attempt to copy Coldplay. But it doesn’t. As described through the lyrics, this opening section rather serves as a light and timid contrast as to what is to come, giving way to some samples, creating a dark segue to the next section. We are now in the company of the wolves and there is no turning back. A quiet, but dark guitar line foreshadows what is to come next. This section slowly builds tension, adding more volume and melodic fragments as it works it way back and forth between the singing and instrumental passages. A very cool jazzy piano part sporadically fills in the instrumental sections. This all finally crescendos back in to our opening guitar line filled in with strings and vocals. To further reinforce Incubus’ new approach here, some loud, hard-hitting drums do not accompany this climactic section, rather, the drums remain fairly restrained. Instead the intensity of this section is created with filling in the full sonic register with strings, vocals, piano, and guitar.
The final song, “Tomorrow’s Food”, is the best example of how Incubus has shaped a new sound by subtly disguising old Incubus elements in to a new song. The song starts out with a quiet guitar playing a rhythm that could easily become a country guitar line. If a bass drum came in playing just the down beat along with a bass part bouncing back and forth on the 1st and 5th degree, it would sound very country. But instead, as the background singing hints at and later the bass reinforces, a major pentatonic scale is used. This is the same “oriental” scale found in so many other Incubus songs, Aqueous Transmission and Stellar to name a few. By also pausing on minor chords within the scale, the music here is cleverly blurring the rhythmic effect created by the guitar and the major effect created from the pentatonic scale. This creates a sense of conflict and ambiguity between the lighter leanings of the major scale and the darker sound of the minor chords. All this is combined lyrically with a weighty description time and death, as stated in the line “we are all tomorrow’s food”.
This new record is one that will be too easily passed upon after one listen by many closed minded Incubus fans. It is a very dramatic transformation that emphasizes subtly over virtuosity. I think that one of the biggest factors that makes up this new sound is a dramatic change in mixing. Past records had Boyd fighting to sing over the top of guitars that were in the front of the mix. The drums and bass were equally hard hitting rounding out a very common mixing approach to a modern hard rock band. This record pushes everything in the background and allows the vocals to take center stage. On many songs the guitar has become the least prominent instrument. This is quite strange considering Einzinger is the prominent songwriter and how guitar driven their music used to be. However, I find it to be a refreshing approach to mixing considering how many albums are now pushed and compressed to such limits that they clip, and sound unnatural.
If you like Incubus, do yourself a favor, and don’t just listen to this record once before you judge it. With a few repeated listens you might begin to pick up on some of the subtleties and find that the melodies get stuck in your head. Still, some may say Incubus is dead. They have obviously moved away from their old approach to songwriting. However, some of the old Incubus elements are still there, just cleverly disguised underneath good songwriting and restrained mixing. If you ask me this is what great bands should do. As they age, they should reflect upon what they have done, both in life and music, and then challenge themselves to redefine themselves as musicians and songwriters.
Incubus is dead. Long live Incubus!