If there is one word to describe rap/funk metal fusionists 311, it is consistency. The Nebraska alt rockers have had the same lineup since 1992, continue to sell out arenas around the U.S. despite only moderate mainstream success, and even rapper/turntablist S.A.’s Martinez’s on-stage dance moves haven’t changed. Musically, depending on whom you ask, 311 puts out a consistently infectious melding of rock, reggae and rap; or they continue to put out a formulaic, white middle-America hijacking of said genres.
So maybe polarizing is another word to describe 311. Their 10th studio release, Universal Pulse, does little to bridge the divide. For fans, this material represents a return to form — the tightest, most focused album in years. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes and with only eight songs, there is little room for dub inspired filler (see Transistor) or forays into indie rock influences ( Uplifter). Detractors, on the other hand, will point to the same old frat dude reggae rock and lame lyrics of pseudo-philosophy and self-adulation. Rolling Stone, a publication that has never given the band a three star rating or higher, described the album as “blunt, dimwitted, (and) completely formulaic”.
Album opener “Time Bomb” kicks off the retro 311 love fest with upbeat guitars, Nick Hexum and S.A. sing/rap interplay, and a chorus of “Let me introduce you to the excitable crew/This is just how we do/Ticking like a Time Bomb, watch me go off”. “Wild Night” continues the party with drug fueled nostalgia. “Where would be/Without the Wild nights/Barely getting by/The days of getting high”. The raging alt rock is bolstered by S.A.’s hip-hop interludes and a funk solo from lead guitarist Tim Mahoney. Hexum explores the lessons he learned from his drug days over a Caribbean/ska groove on “Trouble”, only to come to the conclusion that the problem was the six inches between his ears, “The bullshit, the trouble was coming from me, honestly”.
Lead single “Sunset in July” is the perfect radio friendly summer anthem: solid production, a catchy hook, innocuous upbeat lyrics, floating vocals and some scat thrown in for good measure. “Sunset in July/Rockers by my side/And time is flying by/Ba da dop dop da dee-yah”. The song’s twin cousin “Count Me In” combines a crafty mix of ska, power chords and wa-wa pedals with some less crafty lyrics, “We’re not living the Dream/We’re living the Life”.
311 saves the best for last with the last quarter of the album. “Weightless”, an airy but energized track, is one of the catchiest songs in the band’s catalog. The repetitive chorus “So weightless, weightless/All weightless, weightless/We’re all weightless, weightless/ Everyone of us is weightless”, in the context of the music, actually drives home the theme of the song without sounding redundant. Veteran producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Metallica) does a flawless production job on the album closer, “And a Ways to Go”. The track shifts back and forth between ethereal and crunchy guitars better than any song since Evolver’s “Beyond the Gray Sky”. About three minutes in, the song somewhat abruptly shifts gears with an excellent P-nut bass solo that sounds straight out of the YES repertoire. Despite the slightly awkward song structure, it is the strongest track of the album.