Review Summary: 3 confessions of a music realist.
So here goes the first attempt at an album review, an exercise in redundancy to be sure- no matter how concise, eloquent and smooth your piece is, there will always be a degenerate 40 year troll with a single digit I.Q. living in his mother’s basement pulling himself off to reruns of The Brady Bunch. Wow, what a sentence.
Confession number 1; I realise that I fill this stereotype simply by just writing this review. Ouch.
In writing this I have taken every measure to remain unbiased in review of this album- Incubus have been my favourite band since I was 16, and I saw them live for the first time in February this year. Not only that, but they have acted as my gateway to bigger, better and more esoteric music. I think fresh eyes are important when dissecting any album of a band with a catalogue of more than 2 albums- people change and the world changes with them. This is especially true when considering all current members of Incubus have some mild form of attention- deficit disorder. It doesn’t sound anything like any Incubus album before it (gun to my head, maybe it has vague undercurrents of Morning View). This eclectic songwriting process has led to some confusing moments as a listener.
Confession number 2; Prior to this release, I couldn’t sit through an entire album from these guys from start to finish. Seriously.
One track would contain enough layering, complexity and thought- provoking wonder to leave me dumbstruck, with more loose ends to tie up in one song than most flash-in-the-pan bands have in one entire album. But then the next song would go off on a completely different tangent, and my poor brain would feel like it had been crammed into a Korean deep fryer.
That is, I couldn’t sit through an entire Incubus album, until this one. For lack of a better word, it flows. Perhaps it is simply the calmer tone of the music, but each song matches well up with its predecessor. For some reason this brings me to an Ed O’Brien interview, where he compared the selection process of songs for The King Of Limbs with choosing a soccer, where he stated that they “don’t necessarily pick the best songs, they pick the songs that play the best together.” Back in the context of Incubus, this may explain why most people dig Surface To Air and Rebel Girls more than some songs on the album. Could it be that they only make sense together?
After having listened sat through this album from start to finish, the things that draw me in as a listener are the products of a different animal. Surprise surprise, they don’t sound like the Incubus from prior releases. Not that that was ever a concern. The title and opening track, If Not Now, When? is softer and slower than any other opener in their catalogue, yet is completely self- assured in the tone it sets from the first dissonant chord of mandolin mellotron, to the constant backbeat behind the melody. Brandon’s voice soars here, in a register that surpasses even the pitching of Rogues. This song ends and turns into the most “pop” sounding song from the album, Promises Promises. I’m not referring to the trashy, plastic “pop” of 2000 onwards, which applies to anything mainstream and embraced by the generally stupid masses of the world, but the refined, tasteful “pop” of the 80’s- where the execution of the music was what gave it merit. It is the same here- the playing is crisp, and the end product is an incredibly well crafted song that is both upfront and paradoxically subtle by nature. These subtleties permeate the album throughout, in new, open spaces that were once filled with distortion and power chords. Now, everyone gets their chance to take the spotlight- Take The Original, where the driving forces of the song are Kilmore’s sampling and keys, and Kenney’s pulsating bass licks.
But don’t despair, hard-core fans, there are still moments that are quintessentially “Incubusy.” You know what I’m talking about- the moments of power that make your head spin, only instead of doing it with sonic walls of guitar, it’s now accomplished with unexpected chord changes, climaxing through layers and sporadic crescendos. Look properly, and you’ll find these in almost every song- the solo in the latter half of Isadore contrasts the softer acoustic mix magnificently. It’s a calm song, sure, but not only does the solo push the breath out of your chest, it does so tastefully, without overpowering the rest of the song. Lead single Adolescents creates the same atmosphere, with the spaced out, drunken triplet feel actually making me lose balance several times. But the best example of this, by far, is the epic mood change halfway through In The Company Of Wolves. It’s like they wrote the first half as underwhelming deliberately, to make the listener *** themselves as punishment for dismissing the song as mediocre too early.
Confession number 3; I admit, I did it.
On an individual basis, the members have all improved greatly in their individual roles- Brandon still has his range intact, reaching more deeply into his voice than ever before, and his lyrical weaves invoke imagery in such a profound way that every song feels like a story. Jose’s rhythmic mastery of syncopation is present as always, but the theme of subtlety manifests behind the kit too- every drumbeat has meaning, and the gaps he leaves have more meaning than every, creating space for the music to breathe. “DJ” Kilmore doesn’t do any scratching as far as I’m aware, but playing samples live instead of dropping them in on value gets points for merit, if nothing else. Ben’s basswork on this is tantalising- this is the first album that I’ve picked on his staccato runs, that run parallel with any idea Einziger creates but holds enough groove on its own (Friends And Lovers is the best example of this duality). I honestly think he has surpassed Dirk in ability here- quote me on it. Obviously Mike is minimalistic in his approach- he only comes to the forefront of the music when soloing- the verses of Switchblade and Thieves, widely considered as the two heaviest on the album, are completely absent of thick guitar chords; in fact, I think they’re absent of guitar altogether. Puzzling, huh? A band that has made its mark through walls of thick guitar, deliberately steering away from that approach and seeing what resides underneath. Even if you don’t particularly like the music on the album, you can surely at least respect the balls it takes to do something so different to any of their previous works.
You may be wondering why this has only received a 4.5 from me, hopelessly optimistic as I am, and there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, was the large amount of time it took to grow on me- upon first listen, like many of you, I thought it was somewhat mediocre, and downright passive considering the talent these guys possess. However, upon reflection I can’t help but think that it was deliberate- they’ve slowly had fans jump off the bandwagon as they’ve progressed, and perhaps this is their way of avoiding the centre of attention- the media aren’t known for their attention span are they?
However, this lack of immediateness is the thing that annoys me about this album- there is no simple, uplifting song that lifts your mood no matter what. Songs like Drive and Wish You Were Here; bonafide singles that would appeal to the masses by not trying to be anymore than they are on face value. The intellectual in me dismisses this notion and whispers that there is far treasure to be dug in the subtleties of the music, but there is still a hole where Dirk used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ben Kenney’s bass lines and how he fits into the band, but there is still something that will never be re-captured. Strange. Defiance is the only one that comes close to this uplifting piece of the puzzle, and despite being an incredible song in it’s own right, channelling Pink Floyd in its execution, it still fails to be the pick-me-up that most Incubus albums, and most great albums, in fact, contain.
So where does this leave the listener? Whether you’re a first time listener or a hard-core fanboy from the days of Fungus Amongus, my message is the same- give it time. It’s a textbook case of an album that grows on you, slowly, relentlessly, like a wave that builds and builds gradually. Until one day you lose yourself in a song and the person next to you in the lecture theatre glances at you and asks if you can smell anything.