It’s no exaggeration to claim that the lion’s share of major ’90s rock music came from the West Coast. The grunge-infested scrublands of the Pacific Northwest have been well-charted by historians, but then again, California, more diffuse and various, was rock’s true epicenter at the end of history. As rock began to fracture permanently in the wake of Nirvana, it could seem as if a Golden State pedigree was the only thing tying the genre together. Pop-punk titans like Green Day, Blink-182, and the Offspring? All Californian. Mainstream-metal derivations, whether rigidly defiant in the form of Rage Against the Machine or coiled loosely in the form of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was California to the core, as were later metal outfits with heavier moods like Korn and the Deftones. Hole came from Los Angeles. And certain California bands forged in the ’80s (Faith No More, Metallica), were still active, even if Metallica wasn’t good anymore. The state, it seemed, was as fertile in electric guitars as it was in fruits and vegetables. A rich matrix of local scenes and national influences intersected with a high concentration of A&Rs to make for rock’s final gold rush.
Incubus doesn’t really stand out as a California band at first sight, but the SoCal aura is evident once you peer closer. The band was formed in 1991 by 14- and 15-year-old classmates in prosperous Calabasas, and its formative years were spent under the heady influences from two other California high-school bands, the Chili Peppers and hypereclectic Eureka outfit Mr. Bungle; Rage was another likely influence. What these three bands shared was a reverence for funk grooves and metal volume and a willingness to fuse the two. And, like every other band in that conformist decade, they had an affinity for loudly nonconformist rhetoric.
Incubus was well-positioned to listen and learn from their environment, and they had the time and talent to make their high-school habit into a full career. What defined them, at their best, was a willingness to adjust to prevailing currents while retaining their integrity and candor. Released on an indie label not long after their high-school graduation, their first album, Fungus Amungus, is a sincere and skilled pastiche of their funk-drunk idols, fat grooves and heavy riffs cheerfully jostling defiant references to 4/20, space aliens, and psilocybin mushrooms. Major-label debut S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997) registered the impact of nü-metal — remember record scratches over dense power chords? — while steering its headbanging energies away from despondency and making time for nifty field trips: a trip-hoppish interlude, a space-themed love song (“Summer Romance”), a full-on guitar solo (“Deep Inside”).
That album made waves, but it was its 1999 follow-up, Make Yourself, that marked a breakthrough for the band, commercially as well as aesthetically. The band had matured into a sound of its own: Mike Einziger’s clean, hard, finely textured guitar work; dashes of eclectic sonics for flavor; and Brandon Boyd’s lyrics, which treated the concerns of suburban adolescence and early adulthood seriously while neither plunging headlong into the florid self-presentation that that audience was prone to, nor avoiding it entirely. Self-determination and nonconformity never sounded so clear: The core singles “Stellar,” “Drive,” and “Pardon Me” have aged well, but so has the rest of the album. Morning View (2001) extends this aesthetic: A slight loss in lyrical focus was balanced out by a dilation of sonic and thematic scope. The album was recorded in Malibu, and something of the beach shows in its energetic, open quality, particularly on the love song “Echo.” The project was, to paraphrase the title of the charming East Asian–instrumented (ever heard of a pipa?) lullaby that closed it out, a successful aquatic transmission.
The beach also marks a point at which things end. To borrow from a later chronicler of young suburbanite adulthood (and fellow Calabasas resident), nothing was the same after Morning View. A Crow Left of the Murder, from 2004, dips its toes into social criticism, but comes out with little to show for it. The criticisms of TV on tracks like “Megalomaniac” or “Talk Shows on Mute” were clearly insufficient: They were done better on S.C.I.E.N.C.E. anyway (“Idiot Box”), and they didn’t make much sense coming from an MTV mainstay. The band, or at least Boyd’s lyrics, were tipping into megalomania in their own way, albeit not aggressively or offensively. With nothing left to push against, the lyrics devolved into unrhymed banalities. Meanwhile, the sound flattened out. Though Einziger’s riffs and lines remained firm and Jose Pasillas II’s drums steady, the departure of original bassist Alex Katunich corresponded with a loss of the band’s original groove. The band edged ever closer to anonymous mainstream rock: Where they previously dramatized uncertainty, now they reproduced stolidity. True, Crow Left and its descendants, Light Grenades (2006) and If Not Now, When?, weren’t quite awful, but they were also definitely anodyne.
It was too much to expect Incubus’ eighth album, 8, out tomorrow, to return to peak form. As the history of pretty much every ’90s band tells, men in their 40s can’t summon youthful inspiration. As with so many late-career rock releases, listening to 8 is like listening to a greatest-hits album without the greatness. The album’s April 20 release points to the weedy nature of the first album; there’s a track (“Surveillance”) that criticizes, again, mass media (now social media); there are lyrics about repeating high school forever. Einziger’s expertise in shaping riffs hasn’t faded much, it’s true. But all the same, it’s clear that the magic has departed from the mushrooms. The words don’t float; we’re left with generic portobellos.
To quote Boyd on album opener “No Fun,” it’s no fun anymore — the lyrics remain in a rut figuratively, but at least they’re honest enough to actually be about being in a rut. Still, when an album’s undisputed best track is an instrumental (“Make No Sound in the Digital Forest”), it’s clear that the band that made it has outlived its time. If Incubus became great, or at least very good, by treating high-school existence with exactly as much gravity as the subject merited, the band in its current state sounds the way high school feels a dozen years after: Trace elements of nostalgia will always persist, it’s hard to get angry about it, but it’s hard to say anything meaningful about it either.
The difference is that you can replay old albums a lot easier than you can relive your past. It’s been weird listening to the Incubus catalogue again and discovering that the band you thought was good as a high-school sophomore and junior was, actually, good — exactly as good you thought they were too, not one bit better or worse. Those emotions, apparently, are still there and still valid, but that fact is far more of a relief than its implications. A continuity of taste suggests a continuity of being, and it’s more disappointment than comfort to realize how little you’ve changed — or, at least, how little you’ve improved.
I’d gotten used to thinking that my former self was stupid and immature; that opinion hasn’t changed. But to suspect, while keeping that in mind, that my former self was smarter and more adult than I am now feels awkward, disturbing even. Are you really any more of a grown-up because you earn money and don’t do dumb shit? Teens are stupid and naïve — we all know that. But they’re not wrong to call adults out for being stupid, jaded, rule-besotted cowards. Maybe actual maturity is something else entirely: not a habitual restraint but the capacity to go all the way, coupled with the intelligence to know when to leave. If a band can’t figure that out, maybe part of the reason is that their listeners are no wiser than they are. Anyway, I don’t care; whatever. Happy 4/20, I guess.