Sometimes it’s hard to see the future, especially when you’re enjoying the present so much. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s 311 enjoyed a seemingly non-stop ride of fun, fans, and hit singles. Then something began to gradually change. Instead of following up their wildly successful album From Chaos with another record full of pop hits, the band decided to stretch out their sound and create something totally different. That album became Evolver, which is in some hardcore fans’ opinion their “last great album,” despite not being a big seller. It saw a wide range of emotions and topics and was downright progressive for a band that rarely strayed from their proven formula.
But that might have been the last burst of speed from a vehicle that’s run out of gas. Around this point, perhaps due to music industry trends and falling record sales they decided they were primarily a live band and focused on that. They’re a fantastic live band with many legendary shows under their belt (5 hour 311 Day shows), without a doubt; but it took a toll on their songwriting, producing two of their most uninspired and downright bland albums, Don’t Tread On Me and Uplifter. Each had a couple of worthy tracks to be sure, but in general left people feeling underwhelmed if not downright disappointed. Now here’s the EP length album Universal Pulse. Does it return past glory or reek of a band puttering on fumes? A little of both, actually.
Clocking in at a scant 28 minutes, which seems to be an industry trend (a la King of Limbs) these days, one would hope this would be the first all killer no filler album from 311 in a while. Unfortunately it seems less like a decision of precision and more of a hurried way to put out material in time for their annual summer Unity Tour. Things start promisingly with “Time Bomb,” a rousing rocker that keeps the attention admirably setting the rock-heavy agenda and the resounding “wooooah woaaah” of second track “Wild Nights” is memorable and catchy. When first (and arguably best in a long time) single “Sunset In July” hits one is tempted to throw confetti in the air and proclaim a return to form for this veteran band.
Unfortunately, they front-loaded this with the best songs and the second half floats in anonymity until the final track, “And A Ways To Go.” This final track is the only time they slow the momentum down and explore territory more akin to things on Evolver or Transistor and is a genuinely great song—probably the best track of the bunch. It shows what they’re capable of musically and lyrically in a way that not much in the past 8 or so years has. The guitars have texture instead of a general “crunchiness” and SA Martinez both raps and harmonizes beautifully with Nick Hexum as they ruminate on existential topics deeper than other “in the now partying” sort of theme that permeates the majority of the album.
Bear in mind this track is not a “ballad” nor is it being proposed that they should return to padding out an album with ballads, especially if none of them come close to matching “Amber” or even lesser-known “Seems Uncertain.” 311 know their softer songs have always played second fiddle to the rock-out moments (“8:16am” aside) , and that’s what they’ve supplied this time around. It’s just disappointing that so many of them just don’t have that certain je n’ai c’est quoi that makes a song truly memorable. Still, half the tracks being worthwhile is a much better ratio than they’ve had in a long while, so this fan will take it gladly. Hopefully next time around they focus more on songwriting quality instead of trying to give the faithful Hive new yet unoriginal songs to bounce around to.
Written by Jarad Matula311 – Sunset In July by i of the mourning