[5 February 2004]
Sometimes, in the fickle world of dance music, dodging the latest trend and sticking to your strengths pays off. Just ask the Crystal Method, who emerged during the mid-‘90s funky breaks craze as America’s answer to (or, some would say, America’s watered-down version of) the Chemical Brothers, and have clung doggedly to their signature mix of breakbeats, trip-hop, dirty acid synths and arena-friendly rock and hip-hop flourishes ever since. Even as Fatboy Slim was busily mutating the breaks scene into big beat, their first two albums mostly avoided that new genre’s smiley-face, MTV Spring Break vibe, sticking to darker, tweakier textures and only making overtures towards the mainstream by enlisting guest rock vocalists like Tom Morello and Scott Weiland. It got them into a lot of soundtracks and car commercials but not on the radio, and it also effectively banished their tunes from the clubs for a few years as every DJ and his pet ferret turned to progressive house.
Now it appears that the Method men, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, are about to have the last laugh. Thanks to the success of next-generation DJs like Adam Freeland, Überzone and Hyper, breaks are back in a big way, and the Crystal Method, along with the Chemical Brothers, are poised to become the scene’s elder statesmen. Which would be okay if they didn’t also sound like elder statesmen, but on their new album, Legion of Boom, there are too few surprises amid the usual, admittedly fun, rocktronic rave-ups. Unlike their UK counterparts, who have been inconsistent of late but at least continue to take chances, TCM seem to have settled pretty comfortably into their little soundtrack-for-video-games-and-halftime-shows niche, which gives Legion of Boom a surprisingly lifeless quality despite all the fat beats exploding all over the place.
The album’s opener, a midtempo mood-setter called “Starting Over”, is typical of TCM’s increasingly lazy sound, taking a very cool chopped-up b-boy vocal from Rahzel but setting it against a standard breaks pattern and synth washes that could almost be straight out of 1983. Things get a lot more interesting on the next track, the album’s first single and best song, a scorcher called “Born Too Slow”. Taking full advantage of former Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland’s dirty licks and especially former Kyuss frontman John Garcia’s brilliantly raw-throated vocals, the track sounds more rock than electronic, just using its sludgy breakbeats to jump-start Borland and Garcia’s heavy metal theatrics. A production assist from master rock producer Scott Litt (R.E.M., Nirvana, Incubus) probably didn’t hurt either. This track has monster crossover hit written all over it.
Garcia regrettably doesn’t return, but Borland shows up twice more, used to great effect on the trippy, midtempo “Broken Glass” and less well on “Weapons of Mass Distortion”, which showcases the kind of mindless metal guitar riffing that made Borland’s work in Limp Bizkit, for all his obvious talent, so utterly disposable. The only other track that features any guitar is a mildly funky breaks workout called “Realizer”, though you wouldn’t know it to listen to it—supposedly the guitar of L.A.-based pop cult icon Jon Brion is buried in there somewhere, but the song is really all about percolating synths and the soul sister vocals of yet another L.A. rocker, Lisa Kekaula of local punk/R&B heroes the BellRays. Kekaula’s a great singer, but TCM’s sound doesn’t play to her strengths; against the sleepy breaks of “Realizer” and the other track she appears on, “High and Low”, she comes off as just another disco diva-for-hire.
The other tracks on Legion of Boom that actually work are the eerie, trippy “I Know it’s You”, which runs actress Milla Jovavich’s ethereal vocals backwards over lots of spooky synth effects and a quietly insistent breakbeat. The result is a track that manages to be delicate and punishing all at once, as if Delerium were remixed by Meat Beat Manifesto. “Acetone” has some life in it, too, thanks some more aggressive beats and good use of that trademark TCM synth sound that resembles nothing so much as a the revving engine of a video game race car.
Come to think of it, many of the Crystal Method’s songs and sounds resemble video games, which I guess shouldn’t come as a surprise since they’ve leant their music to several of them. And that’s not meant as a dis—a lot of my favorite music evokes the frictionless, ever-evolving, single POV landscapes of classic video games, and that’s exactly what I like about it, because there’s something futuristic and sexy and escapist about music that sounds like it was composed for a world at once more simplistic and less mundane than this one. But Legion of Boom seems to be stuck in the lower levels of whatever Game Cube car chase or X-Box street fight it might be accompanying. Considering how well Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland have mastered their game, and considering that they’ve earned an extra life with the whole breaks revival, you’d think they’d be ready to take their music to the bonus round. For “Born Too Slow”, they do; for the rest of this disc, they seem to be keeping the settings at “Easy” and padding their scores. The results are often enjoyable, but Legion of Boom is a game that should have been way more of a challenge, to the Crystal Method and to us.