311 is loved and hated; the two strong emotions permeate from music fans and concert-goers every summer during the band’s annual Summer Unity Tour. The hardcore fans get behind the music and will follow 311 for as long as they keep going. The haters will disrespect every slight imperfection– the kind that all bands encounter– and put it on a grand scale of the worst thing to happen in music. The truth is that there’s no right or wrong answer, and that’s what makes music so amazing. In the ears of some fans, 311’s new album, Universal Pulse, will be a great rehash of earlier efforts and a return to a less pop, more rap/rock sound. On the contrary, others may hear it as the same 311 album they’ve heard nine times before. Thus, the great debate begins.
To have an appreciation for what this album is, you have to have a sense of where this band has been. 311 went from being the next big thing in 1995 following their smash self-titled album, to nearly falling completely off the charts with the exception of a few strong singles. This happened because they continued to evolve and change the way they made music and their sound. However, without the help of album sales and strong radio play, 311 still manages to tour two to three times a year and successfully fill amphitheaters and clubs. That doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of music itself, but does give a nod to how the music affects their fans. Even without an album or single to tour behind, they are still in high demand every time they hit the road.
When the band brought in Bob Rock to produce their previous effort, Uplifter, he took them into a sound that sells, and it worked. The only problem with this method was that the music really suffered. The album wasn’t considered poor overall, but it just lacked a certain punch. They brought Bob Rock back for Universal Pulse, and though you can still hear his influence, it seems 311 have thrown in more of their own ideas this time. That’s what makes this album so much more enjoyable than the former. There is still pop to be found on “Wild Nights” and “Count Me In”, but the fact that the album was mixed by drummer Chad Sexton (instead of Bob Rock) is an interesting twist, and possibly the reason the sound is so much more improved. Uplifter had the same steady tone throughout the whole album. Nick Hexum and S.A. Martine-z’s vocals never seemed to change volume; the whole thing was a little redundant. The new disc has a nice variety and effects in the mix, and the differences between the albums are profound.
The first single off Universal Pulse, “Sunset in July”, is a fun, upbeat track with a truly catchy chorus, and it (along with the heavy reggae track “Time Bomb”) is written about the fans themselves. The band clearly appreciates the fans’ willingness to accept their strengths and faults, and both tracks are an ode to the “excitable crew” and their devotion.
311 returns to its rap/rock origins on “Rock On”, which is arguably the best song on the disc (despite its generic title). The heavy, distorted track gives Hexum and Martinez a chance to channel their inner “Grassroots”, and it’s sure to become a live show staple. The lyrics themselves aren’t anything too special, but the fact that 311 went back to this style and can still flow at age 40 is admirable. Guitarist Tim Mahoney provides a great outro guitar solo to close it out, as he has done on every album to date, with ease and originality.
The single-worthy “Weightless” might have been one of the first tracks written for the effort when it was thought that this might be a concept album about space travel. It has high energy, and the chorus is desperately catchy: “Weightless, weightless/We’re all weightless, weightless.” You won’t find anything like “Amber” or a slow song on this disc, and that’s a welcomed change. Universal Pulse hits hard all the way through the eight tracks and comes full circle with the closest thing to a ballad in “And A Ways To Go”. The bass solo by Aaron “P-Nut” Wills on this track is jaw-dropping. The song has a slight resemblance to the track “There’s Always An Excuse” from the often overlooked Don’t Tread On Me. Martinez shows his best performance on the disc as he embraces his rapping skills. His delivery and presence are well-heard and needed.
Once this album has completed its first full rotation, there’s an immediate urge to play it again. It’s short, sweet, and a perfect follow-up to where the band was in 2009. Universal Pulse is the band’s best release since 2001’s From Chaos. Attribute this to the short number of tracks or to Bob Rock and Chad Sexton’s influence, but 311 had confidence when recording this record and it shows. Ten albums in, this band has nothing to prove to critics, and fans will follow them wherever they decide to go. They were out to prove to themselves they could still do this, and they just did.