Review Summary: If this truly is the “universal pulse”, then I think it’s safe to say that we’re all about to die.
For most people, 311 is a band that was checked at the door right around the turn of the new millennium. Sure, they have had success in the past decade, namely 2001’s From Chaos
, as ‘Amber’ ignited the airwaves in a reggae-inspired fit of post-Sublime glory – but it was 1995’s self-titled LP and its follow-up Transistor
that really put this band on the map. While selling over four million albums and yielding the popular singles ‘Down’ and ‘Transistor’, the pair of releases still stands tall as 311’s measuring stick; at least as far as mainstream success is concerned. However, as time wore on, the band seemed to move further and further away from their roots, trading in reggae jams and slower atmospheric grooves for more of a straightforward alt-rock sound. At their worst, 2009’s Uplifter
felt completely soulless; it lacked creative insight, demonstrated few hints of experimentation, and suffered from a case of moronic lyrics. But here we are at the start of a new decade, and 311 are looking to bounce back in a big way. Preliminary appearances would suggest that Universal Pulse
is the album to catapult 311 back into relevancy. The colorful artwork hints at a plethora of psychedelic atmospheres - or at the very least a tropical reggae vibe in tune with their earliest material – while song titles like ‘Sunset In July’ and ‘Weightless’ not-so-subtly allude to the fact that 311, like their fans, miss the sound they employed in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Unfortunately, Universal Pulse
is the exact opposite of a return to form; in fact, this album is proof that they will never again craft a song as exciting as ‘Down’ or as effortless as ‘Amber.’
The primary drawbacks on this album are exactly the ones that plagued Uplifter
. The music feels formulaic instead of liberated; it features crunching riffs, swaying rhythms, and a funk vibe that all attempt to overcompensate for Universal Pulse
’s lack of fresh ideas by riding on the coattails of the band’s classic sound. Their motives end up being mind-numbingly transparent, and the album’s strained focus on maintaining that particular style ends up sounding prescribed and mechanical - which ironically, is the opposite effect that it is intended to have. ‘Wild Nights’ is a case in point, with a half-rapped verse that is followed up by a supposedly
chilled-out chorus that sounds surprisingly robotic. ‘Rock On’ is in a similar vein – in fact the song structure is nearly identical in its progression…and as you can probably deduce, the results are equally as unimpressive. ‘Trouble’ seems like Universal Pulse
’s most obvious attempt to craft a summer beach tune, and while the rhythm is admittedly infectious, the somewhat nasal vocals of Hexum don’t match the song’s vibe and make it a little harder to enjoy than it probably should be. To be fair, the vocals are one of the album’s stronger points, but here they just feel out of place with the rest of the song. The greater portion of the album follows a similar pattern to those songs discussed, yielding a similar set of predictably weak results.
To give credit where it is due, though, Universal Pulse
also possesses some redeeming qualities that are well displayed. The melodies are excellent, and in songs like ‘Sunset In July’ and ‘Time Bomb’, they rank among the catchiest in the 311’s recent discography. The aforementioned vocals are also spot on, despite the overproduction that gives it something of a streamlined feel. Instrumentally, the band appears to be in sync on most levels - Aaron Wills’ bass is the driving force behind a lot of these songs, while Mahoney’s fuzzy/moderately distorted electric guitars blend in perfectly. Sexton’s drumming, although on the quieter and more restrained side, is effective in small doses. As a whole, it may actually be the chemistry between band members that keeps Universal Pulse
afloat. They appear to know each other and their individual roles well enough to make even the most lifeless song tolerable - and that is a talent they were able to put to use quite frequently here. In an equal attempt not to oversell the album’s strengths, it should be noted that a lot of these qualities are indistinguishable due to a lack of variation between songs – something that puts a pretty low ceiling on Universal Pulse
’s overall potential.
311 have created an album that is disappointing, but will suffice for the time being. It doesn’t explore anything beyond their well-known boundaries, and it certainly doesn’t achieve any sort of glorious return like some fans might have been hoping for. This is a pretty standard album that satisfactorily accomplishes what it needs to: it is a somewhat catchy record with a familiar enough sound not to completely alienate the casual fan. If you peer under the surface though, you will discover the real problem: 311 simply doesn’t have a soul anymore. Everything they were founded on has essentially vanished, and this is no longer the same band we all came to know and love ten years ago. Figuratively, 311’s heart might still be beating – but that doesn’t mean that they exude life. And if this truly was the “universal pulse”, then I think it’s safe to say that we’re all about to die.