For a decade, Incubus’ sixth album, Light Grenades, held the notorious world record for largest drop from a first-week No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. How does an artist go from such a high to a low? Typically by commanding a huge cult of personality: Kanye’s Yeezus dropped 80% from the No. 1 spot in its second week (though admittedly, this may be partially due to the fact that people realized they were dropping full CD prices on a blank jewel box). The only two albums to break Incubus’ record since have come from Bon Jovi and A Tribe Called Quest, acts beloved by a long-cemented, mobilized fanbase. And when we think of aggressive chart presences for one week only, Radiohead and Tool come to mind. These are mostly cult acts, essentially, with enormously well-trained audiences who neatly show up and cop a new album immediately without an artist having to push anything through slow radio burn.
Incubus isn’t the type of artist to get analyzed the way Radiohead or Kanye or even Tool do, though, so they might seem dubious to this category, but anyone who went to high school or college during the supreme reign of heavy-rotation specials like “Drive”, “Wish You Were Here”, or “Megalomaniac” would tell you otherwise. These once-funky nü-metal holdovers (who may be the last rock band standing that still employs a DJ) successfully won over the hacky-sack crowd and, as anyone who’s ever been to a gig can attest, a higher ratio of women than attend most of their peers’ shows. (Brandon Boyd may or may not be a sex symbol, but you’d be hard-pressed to find YouTube evidence of a show where he kept his shirt on.)
Crossing over to all these demographics has helped Incubus stay in the game, though you can hear their creative centers liquefying if you play their albums chronologically, starting with 1997’s self-consciously hyperactive S.C.I.E.N.C.E., their sole great record. The zany sonic vocabulary (pinball guitar wizardry on “New Skin”, creditable turntablism on “Glass”, smooth sax on “Summer Romance [Anti-Gravity Love Song]”) and frantic polyrhythms were mostly shorn from its multi-platinum 1999 follow-up, Make Yourself, but Boyd’s hammy self-helpisms remained and grew whinier in the context of arena ballads. 2001’s Morning View was pointedly beachier in its posi-posturing, further casting them apart from metal’s perceived immaturity, but 2004’s A Crow Left of the Murder… was their most strident record to date, and by then their eclecticism was so pared down you couldn’t hear much Faith No More or hip-hop or quirky distinctions from butt-rock peers anymore.
A few decreasingly remarkable albums (despite their obvious gift for knockout singles in “Anna-Molly” and “Adolescents”) and seven years later, it’s hard to hear anything that made Incubus a cult band in the first place on 8, an outing as plain as its title. It is the band’s most consistent album in years, never dipping into any true clinkers but never approaching anything close to a risk either. The opening “No Fun” is a cruelly apt mission statement, and neither its moderately infectious chorus or the just-ok single “Nimble Bastard” that follows ever truly distinguish themselves. Make Yourself had some downright awful lyrics and ill-advised chord changes nearly two decades ago, but those were balanced out by say, the lovely oddness of “Stellar”.
While perfectly easy to listen to, 8 can make you pine for the days of a groaner like “They’ll screw you complete/ ‘Til your ass is blue and gray” or a digeridoo solo. The only experimental bit here is the brief “When I Become a Man”, a moderately theatrical attempt at levity that would be better if it was worse. Memorable moments among the rest require a lot of squinting, though, and only seem to occur when it sounds like another band: “Surveillance” is halved by a grinding figure that resembles Soundgarden’s “Rhinosaur” if performed by Tom Morello in Audioslave instead.
As it happens, “Nimble Bastard” is more likely to be a breath of fresh air as an outlier on 2017 radio than among these other out-of-step alt-rock tunes, though the ultra-compressed synth-verse/guitar-tsunami chorus dynamics of “State of the Art” would fit just right following a Halsey track. A song called “Glitterbomb” should be easier to describe; a song called “Loneliest” shouldn’t be so easy to peg for a dirge. And if “Throw Out the Map” took the title’s own advice, it might have more moments you’ll notice than the ad lib “Chaka Khan, motherfuckers!” at the end. These guys are rich and supposedly wide-ranging in taste; they were early adopters of R&B in alt-rock. So why not call up Chaka Khan herself for a crazy jam?
It’s not like stale arena bands traditionally recharge their songwriting 20 years on, but following a six-year sabbatical from full-lengths, it just seems like these particular alleged fun-havers would feel itchier to do something nutty. Judging by the preponderance of koto and djembe on their early records, Incubus’ living rooms are probably littered with stoned purchases they could record an impromptu jam session with and have it be more interesting than these formal banalities. Cult acts tend to keep their loyal fans forever, but to anyone but the converted, Incubus have long since unmade themselves.
Essential Tracks: “Nimble Bastard”, “No Fun”, and “Surveillance”