It’s fashionable to look back on nu-metal, the Hot Topic friendly brand of detuned guitars and emotional anguish, and laugh.
It’s fashionable to look back on nu-metal, the Hot Topic friendly brand of detuned guitars and emotional anguish, and laugh. Twenty years on, it’s all too easy to scoff at the Adidas tracksuits, backward caps and mediocre white boy hip-hop that dominated the early 2000s, but it’s just as easy to neglect the bands and albums that subverted those trends. The Deftones infused a sense of psychedelic emotion into their walls of feedback while System of a Down embraced quirk and humor as much as they did primal screams. SoCal rockers Incubus represented something just as special: a textured, nuanced take on heavy riffs that equally leaned on clean and distorted sounds.
The band’s 1999 breakout album Make Yourself was unjustly lumped into the same trash and howl scene as their Ozzfest brethren. They fit in with tour-mates like Static-X and Soulfly not because of similarities, but because they represented, and very much sounded like, something else. Incubus was the soothing alternative to the aggression and angst of nu-metal, a band that expressed far more emotional range and intellectual clout.
Before the release of Make Yourself, Incubus were marginally notable in the rock and metal scene. S.C.I.E.N.C.E., the 1997 precursor, was loaded with heavy riffs, slap bass and purposefully odd twists and turns. That album highlighted the young band’s potential: melodic headbanger “New Skin” and the delightful lounge jam “Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song)” emphasized their creativity, albeit in a slightly messy fashion. The lukewarm reception both praised and damned their quirkiness, priming them, it seemed, for permanent opening act status, never headliner.
Make Yourself smoothed out the band’s rough edges and refined their musical goals. Funk grooves were eschewed for streamlined choruses and deep textures. Embracing traditional rock song structures became a step forward for the band, giving them a clear purpose and direction rather than permitting them to meander in musical eccentricities. Radio friendly tracks like “Consequence” and “Stellar” fit traditional molds, but with a solid focus and renewed faith in their abilities (aided by group therapy sessions undertaken before recording) Incubus’ new sound was at once bold and light, a thinking man’s rock band amidst an age of sludge riffs.
The album’s most rewarding quality is its deep soundscapes. The aquatic atmosphere of “The Warmth” elevates it beyond a mid-tempo rocker, while the verse of lead-off single “Pardon Me” lays out one of the more underrated rock textures of the past 20 years. It’s all a testament to the musicians understanding the strength of the sum of their numbers. Mike Einziger’s guitar work lays a robust framework for DJ Chris Kilmore to sneak in subtle manipulations and scratches that add to the track, never serving as a gimmick. Drummer Jose Pasillas and bassist Alex Katunich found their footing on the record, locking into an endless groove only hinted at on previous albums.
Of course, there’s “Drive.” It’s prone to eye-rolls and mocking sing-alongs today, but that’s not to say it’s a bad song. Maybe it’s the hangover of the early 2000s, but there’s nothing wrong with a chart-topping single, no matter how many overeager elder millennials may have a tattoo of the chorus. If anything, it serves as the weakest song on the record simply because it didn’t take the same arranging risks as the other 12 tracks on Make Yourself.
It’s easy to scoff at virtually everything that came in the wake of nu-metal, yet Make Yourself deserves another honest spin. It’s a testament to a band maturing beyond one-dimensional DJ scratches and chugging riffs. It’s not perfect—nothing is—but it’s introspective. It pauses, reflects and asks more significant questions about sound and delivery.