released 11 July 2011 on Sony Music
It may seem paradoxical, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for a band to become popular at precisely the wrong time. Around the turn of the century, their canny blend of heavy rock and hip-hop pushed Incubus towards mainstream success. Unfortunately, that was also the dark time in music history when nu-metal became inexplicably popular. Lazy pigeonholing meant Incubus were lumped in the same bucket as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and their ilk by the music press.
In reality, Incubus were a cut above their contemporaries and streets ahead of the self-obsessed, baggy shorts crowd. In the years that followed, Incubus carved a niche for themselves as a competent hard rock band with a large, devoted fanbase, but had seemingly lost the hunger for experimentation that made them such a joy in their early years.
Following the release of frontman Brandon Boyd’s debut solo effort, The Wild Trapeze, last year, Incubus have returned with their first studio record in five years. It seems that Boyd going solo has had adisharmonising effect on the group dynamic, because for large sections of If Not Now, When?, it may as well be a Brandon Boyd album anyway. Incubus are blessed with phenomenal musicians, and part of the appeal of the band has always been the invention and genre-hopping of the sounds that came through the speakers, but it seems to have gone. Mike Einziger is a gifted guitarist, Ben Kenney creates greatbasslines almost at will (as you’d expect from someone who used to be in The Roots), but here they’re merely a foil for Brandon Boyd’s vision. It’s dispiriting to see this once fresh band be reduced to the status of back-up to a pretty boy singer.
This wouldn’t be quite so difficult to stomach if Boyd had become a better frontman in the intervening years but, if anything, he’s got worse. At a guess, his lyrics were written independently of the rest of the songs and as a result, he struggles to bend them to fit the music. The cadences and stresses are all in the wrong place – witness Promises, Promises’ awkward, “I’m a big fan OF yours AND I need a big mistake” – bringing to mind James Dean Bradfield’s noble attempts to fit Richey Edwards’ bile-fuelled rhetoric into songs in the early days of Manic Street Preachers.
And what lyrics they are! They may seem profound on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it’s a mish-mash of new-age, gap year nonsense and ham-fisted attempts at seduction. Boyd comes across as the kind of guy who’d befriend you, ask to borrow money, donate it all to a commune, then sleep with your girlfriend, claiming it was inevitable because she was a Scorpio. When he croons, “you should never have to defend being friends and lovers,” on Friends and Lovers, it’s more than a little creepy.
Musically, If Not Now, When? mostly sticks to epic sounds more suited to stadia. It’s also difficult to work out what turntablist DJ Kilmore actually does any more. As the albums progresses though, some of the old spark starts to return. The seven minute In The Company Of Wolves is fairly forgettable until near the end where the distortion pedal gets a bashing and the band really let loose. Maybe that’s a wake-up call; next track Switchblade is fun, if a little on the Red Hot Chili Peppers side, and that’s followed byAdolescents, which has shades of the A Crow Left Of The Murder... era, and finally discovers the big chorus that’s sadly lacking in the other tracks.
So, there are still hints of the old magic, but Brandon Boyd seems to have taken control of Incubus’ musical direction and put himself even more centre-stage. Too many songs are simply a vehicle for him pushing his voice to its limits, and little else. After half a decade away, If Not Now, When? really does feel like a misstep. Hopefully a little creative control can be wrestled away from Boyd in the future, otherwise a much under-rated band really could be lost forever.