When a band reaches the twenty year mark, it must be hard to decide in which direction musically to go to next?
Do you back track to an unoriginal yet popular style, or move on and create something completely different and unexpected? Well for alternative Californian rock legends Incubus, on their seventh full-length they have taken a big risk. ‘If Not Now, When?’ is definitely different and unexpected. After releasing their not particularly brilliant last album ‘Light Grenades’ in 2006, the quintet took an extended hiat us; spending time with loved ones and generally replenishing their creative juices after a highly productive couple of years. And so five years later, they’re a little older but maybe not so wiser. With high expectations on new material after such a lengthy break, Brandon Boyd and co. unpredictably went soft. Not to say that Incubus have always been heavy or particularly aggressive with their style, but ‘If Not Now, When?’ is pretty much a complete departure for the band; a step into the world of mellow and safe pop-rock.
To give a little history before discussing the album in more detail, firstly they’re one of few bands who have in their epic t wenty years, managed to cultivate and fuse all sorts of mind-bending musical styles. Whether it’s heavy metal, electro, jazz or funk; they have always been one step ahead of being categorized into one genre. Rewind to 1995 and their funk-metal trip with ‘Fungus Amongus’ was bizarre and exhilarating. Just before the millennium we witnessed their brilliance expand with the slightly heavier but radio-friendly album ‘Make Yourself’; an album so inspiring, it’s still a firm favourite among fans worldwide today. I have to agree it’s a gem but my favourite is what came next. The word “Really?” closely followed by an extremely questionable look is a normal reaction to my favourite Incubus album. I cannot even begin to describe what ‘Morning View’ means to me (maybe for another time folks) but to be brief it’s somewhere between falling in love and winning the lottery – elated and dumbfounded. So big is my love for the 2001 album, that I have a tattoo of a lyric from the single “Nice To Know You”. And I can assure my love doesn’t stem from the fact that Mr Boyd was shirtless for the majority of the recording/promoting. Well maybe just a tad.
Anyway enough reminiscing of what was and back to what is. In April of this year, the group released single “Adolescents” stirring fans into a whip of frenzy about the impending new album. It’s a mysterious and undeniably cool rock song with a fiery chorus that’s sharp and compelling; a good sign that Incubus was back and on top form. And so it’s with a heavy heart that I say that my first listen of ‘If Not Now, When?’ left me disappointed. Where was the crunchy, guitar distortion and sporadic turntable scratches? The pounding rhythms and eccentric but soaring vocals? Instead we have a leisurely-paced, stripped down, mature sound that’s borderline middle-of-the-road. And having the fairly down-beat title track as an opener, it makes for a particularly lack-lustre start. Frontman Brandon’s vocals are passionate enough but it’s only his distinguished, smooth tone that reminds me this is Incubus.
Second single “Promises, Promises” follows which thankfully has enough life in it to get my attention back; definitely one of the more memorable tracks on the album. Refreshingly, guitarist Mike Einziger exchanges strings for keys, joining resident turntablist/keys man Chris Kilmore with some clever, melodious notes that bounce off of one another effortlessly. Its pace is quite sluggish but it suits the songs tranquil mood and thoughtful lyrics – “I’m on the road of least resistance, I’d rather give up than give in to this. So promise me only one thing, would you? Just don’t ever make me promises.” As we progress through “Friends And Lovers” the atmosphere stays soft and unassuming with gentle acoustic guitar picking and light percussive flares. With the addition of a romantic string section however, it’s almost too nice if that makes sense. The great thing about Incubus is that the soft and friendly verses were normally followed by powerful and intense choruses. However this recognizable formula has been unfortunately left off the menu this time around.
As if cementing their new-found tame style there’s the particularly dull “Isadore” and Police-esque pop song “The Original”. It’s hard to even really class the album as rock in all honesty, with the obvious lack of electric guitar driven songs to be found. It’s not until the dying moments of the latter song that we get a sudden burst of psychedelic distortion (hurrah!) and crashing cymbals accompanying the lead vocals; a short lived joy unfortunately. After the brief, simple and pretty forgettable filler track “Defiance”, we hear Coldplay. Well, what comes very close to resembling the pop-rock giants’ melancholic musings in “In The Company Of Wolves”. It’s only until the three minute mark that the ambience changes and things start to get intriguing. A slightly warped musical crescendo brings a new chapter with everything bar Ben Kenney’s bass and Jose Pasillas II drums dropping out of the mix; leaving a footprint of a funky, progressive groove. It’s just a shame it becomes a dead end rather than a gateway to something better.
At least “Switchblade” changes the so far dreary tempo. It has a witty and cheeky tone with a catchy enough recurring line of “Light like a feather, bright like a dying star. Cut those together, girl that is what you are”. It’s a little more reminiscent of their style on ‘Light Grenades’ or its predecessor ‘A Crow Left of the Murder’; not their strongest material by any means but at least their personality was present. Which is more than can be said for ‘If Not Now, When?’ overall. If it wasn’t for the odd spark of enthusiasm amongst the all-too weary songs, I would have written the album off completely. As I said earlier, it’s a big risk for the group as they may lose fans who were expecting ‘Make Yourself’ Part II or at least hoping for a glimpse at the Incubus they knew before. Every band has to grow, there’s no question about that; twenty years is after all, a long time for a band to still be going, let alone managing to stay successful.
If not now, then when does a band take the challenge of doing something different, rather than what’s expected? It’s a good point but if doing something different means losing energy or dynamism, then it’ll be hard for fans, like myself, to stay keen and look forward to the future rather than finding consolation in the past.