INCUBUS – If Not Now, When?

Incubus’s fifth full length release ‘Light Grenades’ is often considered sub-par compared to the band’s previous releases.  True, it doesn’t always have the all-round sophistication of which Incubus are often capable, but it has a sense of energy within the songs.  That’s more than can be said for 2011’s ‘If Not Now, When?’, an album so underwhelming it may as well be audio wallpaper.  Its radio friendly sounds are as flat as the monochrome sleeve art.  As for the title, it almost sums up the feeling of actually waiting for Incubus to do something interesting.   Brandon Boyd puts in heartfelt (but ultimately very samey) vocal performances throughout, but the rest of the band do so little with the musical arrangements, half the time you have to ask if there’s a real band present here at all.  The album is approximately halfway through before a guitar puts in a proper appearance.  75% of the material sounds like Boyd has given some studio engineers a bunch of vocal tracks and asked them to create some musical backdrops.  Most of the songs are completely one-paced with no real peaks, and as a result, nothing here maintains interest for very long.

The sense of doubt regarding this album creeps in quickly, since the disc begins with a pedestrian tune which sounds like it ought to be the mellow number closing the first half.  With a rigid drum pattern, the title cut opens the disc with something more akin to Coldplay or Snow Patrol than Incubus.  The lyrics appear to have a religious bent (which doesn’t help the enjoyment especially); and after a minute or so, nothing’s different: the drum maintains its original click-track style, some bass and keyboards flesh out the sound and the song strolls along never really hitting anything resembling a climax.  ‘Promises, Promises’ is slightly better thanks to the presence of a piano, but is still best described as middling alt-pop music.

‘Friends and Lovers’ may boast the sound of a kettle drum, but it’s punctuating an arrangement which is incredibly bland.  Once again, Boyd’s vocal is fine, but the rest of the band kind of tinker sheepishly with their instruments barely making the smallest of rumbles.  By the time Ben Kinney’s bass even becomes audible, he’s just hitting the odd note to help accompany Boyd on the quietest of moments.  ‘Tomorrow’s Food’ doesn’t really rise above new-age plinky-plunkiness.  It could be said that Mike Einzinger’s finger-picked guitar is well played, but after a couple of minutes it gets boring – all style and no substance.  The instrumental jam which makes up the second half of ‘Company of Wolves’ provides a little light at the end of the tunnel, but even then Incubus sound relatively unenthused.  With its acoustic roots, ‘Isadore’ is okay as far as it goes, in as much that Boyd is vocally strong and the band are tight enough, but it’s still half a world away from more traditional Incubus.  Due to it’s general lack of anything resembling a chorus, though, this is just another number which can be forgotten almost as soon as it’s finished.  The band takes the full acoustic route with the short ‘Defiance’, which has an intro which calls to mind a couple of Led Zeppelin’s gentler numbers.  Like most of ‘If Not Now, When?’, it never quite reaches its full potential, but at least it’s short…

It’s only really with ‘Switchblade’s funk edge things improve noticeably, since here, Incubus actually sound like a real band again.  The drumming has a nice offbeat style, the bass lines actually have a presence and the guitar riffs bring a slightly edgy tone.  Despite a huge step in the right direction, it’s still far from classic Incubus, since in truth, a few years earlier, this would have been considered filler.  Despite a reasonable riff a which hits relatively hard coupled with a great vocal, the single release ‘Adolescents’ still a sense of “could try harder”.  There’s the feeling of a ‘Make Yourself’ leftover surrounding this track, but at least the band sound like a band pulling together once again, and not just a bunch of guys backing Boyd’s vocals and lyrics.  Even Einzinger gets an opportunity to play a fairly upfront guitar solo.  It’s a shame they couldn’t have found a better chorus, but at least they sound like they’re actually interested in what they’re doing.

It’s hard to believe we waited almost five years for Incubus to return and this is all we get.  Two half decent songs?  Representing the sound of “alternative” music which sounds like it was written with the shopping mall in mind, ‘If Not Now, When?’ is a seriously dull record.  The idea of a band wanting to record something more commercial is fine, but this release is severely lacking in anything which grabs the attention.  ‘Switchblade’ aside, there’s barely a hint of ‘Nice To Know You’ or ‘Anna Molly’ here, let alone the crunchiness ‘Privilege’ or the brilliant funkiness of ‘The Warmth’.  It has far more in common with Brandon Boyd’s alt-pop solo release ‘The Wild Trapeze’ than anything released under the Incubus name previously.  If you want the Brandon Boyd show, then fine, but there’s so more to Incubus than that…or at least there used to be.

According to Boyd, the band “recorded these songs at the same time as writing them…a process [they]’ve never done before”.  In which case, maybe it’s a process they shouldn’t try again in the future.  Maybe spending some time actually analysing the material after it was written could have given the band a bit more perspective; perhaps they could have looked at these songs and realised how lacking most of them are.

July 2011