To anyone raised on traditional assumptions about rock – that for all its rawness and cathartic energy, it is ultimately joyful and uplifting – the nü-metal scene has been a hard keg to tap. Sullen and repressed, the new rock curls up in a corner, making few attempts (beyond the occasional lapse into stripped-down introspection, as in Staind’s ”It’s Been Awhile”) to reach out to anyone beyond its designated crowd. It’s more than appropriate that a new generation reclaims and reshapes mainstream rock, but does it all have to be so grim, even before Sept. 11?
Though lumped in with this scene, thanks to an Ozzfest slot and their roadwork with Korn, Incubus would rather not be included, thank you. The band’s hit ”Drive” (from their 1999 breakthrough album, ”Make Yourself”) presaged nü metal’s interest in the intermittent unplugged melody, and lead singer/heartthrob Brandon Boyd, with his wavy locks and herbal-life philosophy, is the anti?Fred Durst. ”Make Yourself” also featured vintage funk that could have been found on ”Shaft”’s cutting-room floor, and trippy turntable scratching. (DJs are the must-have accessories of these bands, even if it’s sometimes hard to know what they do other than provide a patina of street cred.)
Incubus’ nontraditional drift continues on Morning View, a third album that, with its sonic kitchen-sink approach to record making, feels more like a typical band’s experimental sixth album. Boyd contemplates the ups and downs of sadly fractured relationships to the accompaniment of strummed acoustic guitars and strings (”Mexico”), an exotically twangy plucked instrument and strings (”Aqueous Transmission”), and hippie-pop harmonies (the swooning and unexpectedly beautiful ”Are You In?”). ”11 a.m.,” a nicely detailed ode to sleeping-in depression, is a moody mantra. At times, these musical meanderings verge on self-indulgence and callowness, as they have with prog bands dating back to the Moody Blues. There’s also something generic about Boyd’s blandly earnest voice and the band’s musicianship; hints of a half-dozen ’90s alt-rock bands ripple through the album. But in the current climate, credit Incubus for at least trying something beyond rage & roll, for imagining possibilities beyond nihilism set to a beat.
To be sure, ”Morning View” has its share of very contemporary aggression. Full-on thrashers like ”Nice to Know You” and ”Blood on the Ground” find Boyd spewing mouthfuls of disillusioned venom toward an ex. But even here, Incubus tweak the formula of their peers. Besides hooks, these tracks sport swirling, multilayered arrangements with tempo-shifting, hills-and-valley arrangements. (And check out the way DJ Kilmore turns his turntable into a flute on ”Circles.”) Another textured pile driver, ”Just a Phase,” could be interpreted as Boyd’s petulant, dismissive take on rap-metal (”You are a fingernail running down the chalkboard/I thought I left in third grade”).
Given his penchant for good vibrations, it’s surprising that Boyd would lower himself to this level of name-calling, even if it does provide guitarist Michael Einziger an opportunity to crank up his amp to 11. But the two contrasting Incubuses we hear on ”Morning View” – call it hard rock and soft rock – are also symbolic of the creative challenges facing the new rock. On the televised all-star fund-raiser ”America: A Tribute to Heroes,” how telling was it that Fred Durst chose to sing Pink Floyd’s 26-year-old ”Wish You Were Here,” rather than one of his jackhammer rants? And how equally revealing was it that Neil Young’s emotional rendering of John Lennon’s ”Imagine” would be the evening’s musical highlight? It’s hard to imagine Brandon Boyd as the Lennon of a new generation, but ”Morning View” cracks open the window just enough to let the sun shine in.