In the ’90s, with the odd exception, there was no other band for me: 311 was it. As I ascended through junior high, then high school, the 311 insignia was not only a staple of my wardrobe, both emblazoned on t-shirts and patches that I had hand-stitched onto my backpack, but it was also found on various posters throughout my bedroom. More importantly, however, it represented not only my favorite band, but a strange fringe community of fans, a group that I felt I had grown with and one that championed a band that was tirelessly refreshing to listen to.
Like many, I believe I first became a fan following the release of 311′s greatest commercial success – the band’s 1995 multi-platinum self titled release – but when I took time to become engaged in the community surrounding the group and dug further into their catalog (I remember at exactly which shops I paid pre-Amazon retail prices for the band’s first two CDs: Music and Grassroots) I found myself hooked. By the time Transistor was released in 1997 it appeared that there was no turning back: the Hive had sucked me in.
The band’s 1998 Live album was fantastic, especially for someone who lived in a city where 311 had never played, and the musical experimentation of 1999′s Soundsystem only further cemented the group’s status in my mind. Seeing 311 for the first time in 2001, at a dusty race track in Western Canada as part of the Warped Tour, remains a concert-going highlight for me to this day, while the album that the band was supporting at the time, From Chaos, likewise remains a sentimental favorite. But after that something seemed to change.
Two years later 311 dropped Evolver, the band’s seventh studio album in nine years, which seemed to mark a turning point, musically, for the group. Critically panned, it retained an alluring core sound, but in retrospect it might have been evidence of 311 trying to do too much: a touring workhorse, the group was now locked into Sony’s Volcano subsidiary which, after recent comments made by vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum to Billboard, seems like it was slowly chipping away at the band.
A reggae-reaching cover of the Cure’s “Love Song” became a commercial hit in 2004, and was trailed by Don’t Tread on Me the following year. Again, the album wasn’t bad, but within 311′s growing catalog it hardly stood out. It was somewhere during this time, however, that the band lost me. To some degree 311′s sound was changing — a change for the worse in my opinion — and the part which remained true to the group’s past began feeling stale. Twenty years into their career as a band by that point in time, the decline in fresh-sounding new material was hardly shocking though – how many bands survive long enough to make a half dozen killer albums these days? – which only softened the blow of letting go, and somewhere between 2004 and 2009 I lost interest. It took the better part of a decade, but I had all the same gone from a die-hard fan to a glory days-seeking detractor. And up to just recently I had watched the group from the role of an outsider: curious about what they were up to, I no longer believed that they championed the style of music and values that once captured my fascination.
Now the band has released its tenth album, Universal Pulse. And with it comes a realization that somewhere between “Love Song” and now, I had simply lost the plot. Simply put: I was wrong.
Despite re-emerging with a seemingly half-cocked eight song release, Universal Pulse packages everything that I so thoroughly enjoyed about the band’s music into a palatable 30 minutes. “Time Bomb” quickly opens the release with the group’s familiar upbeat positivity before “Wild Nights” crashes down, delivering with it what might be Pulse‘s most endearing track. “Where would we be without the wild nights/Without the lows and highs, failing to get it right/Where would we be without the wild nights/Barely getting by, the days of getting high.” The theme of recognizing and growing from past failures carries with it plenty of personal sentiment, which lends the track even that much more emotional presence. “Trouble” later picks back up on the theme, complementing “Wild Nights” as Hexum details patches from a troubled youth, before clarifying that realization, maturity and self-awareness can alleviate such a burden. To a casual listener this is probably just more of the same old 311, but to thirsty ears, the significance of such uplifting themes is as refreshing as ever.
The album’s lead single, “Sunset in July,” is textbook 311, the song’s crunching guitars creating a base for Hexum and SA Martinez to trade verses as only they can. The song itself carries a special significance as it serves as a heartwarming thank you to fans, the light-hearted chorus revealing that the band has no greater joy than to watch their crowds dancing and singing along at shows. “Count Me In” is another stellar 311 track, led by a thick P-Nut bassline which carries through into “Rock On.” This track is unusual in that it offers the hardest throbbing sound on the album without detracting from the story of personal undoing and realization of self-abuse. “Your pattern became a prison the beast within you risen/Shop for your own device you pay the price/And so you give in to your pity party, party of one/No one shows up, another sip of poison, slow death fills your cup.” “Weightless” follows with what might perhaps be the softest record on the release, but it’s quickly overshadowed by album-closer “And a Ways to Go.” The airy song breezes by, a seemingly perfect arrangement to fall right into place aside Transistor, with Martinez vocally recalling the events of a wild dream. The track’s brilliant bassline breakdown notwithstanding, as the song drifts away the impression left behind is one focusing on the moment and calling for a loss of inhibitions. This is the 311 I remember.
Maybe I had changed too much as a listener, or maybe something had changed within the group, but by the time Uplifter was released in 2009 (peaking at the highest chart position the group had seen on the Billboard 200, a true testament to their dedicated and ever-growing fanbase) I was out. Yet while the ambivalence toward new material from the band had overwhelmed what was once a strong craving for all things 311 (56 kbps B-sides, you say? Yes please!), I never lost touch of the music that gave me so much joy during my youth. It’s easy to walk away, but it’s hard to forget how much impact an album like Transistor has had on not only my taste in music, but my life in general. Maybe they did change, or maybe my ears simply weren’t listening, but whatever the case, Universal Pulse has again shown why 311 have thrived all these years, and more importantly, why I once again am confident in considering myself a fan.