Incubus scored a multi-format radio smash and mass success in 2001 with the lilting, sing-along “Drive,” which hit #1 on Modern Rock charts and also landed in the uppermost reaches of the Top 40. But the band’s core fans will be stoked that their new album, A Crow Left Of The Murder, kicks like a mule.

Lead-off track “Megalomaniac” sets the tone for a reaffirmation of the hard-rock thrust that is key to the Incubus sound. After an exquisite build-up of instrumental tension, the song unleashes the kind of riffage that rises from the sea breathing fire and lays waste to Tokyo. This gives way momentarily to a spare verse pulsing with intimations of electronic menace – then singer Brandon Boyd hurls his urgent invective: “Hey megalomaniac, you’re no Jesus/ Yeah, you’re no fucking Elvis/ Wash your hands clean of yourself baby/ And step down, step down, step down.”

The “Megalomaniac” video, shot by acclaimed director Floria Sigismondi, illustrates the cut’s potential for political protest, but the political is impossible to separate from the personal in much of A Crow Left Of The Murder (released Feb. 3) In “Pistola,” another bad-ass outing (and Lollapalooza crowd favorite), Boyd states explicitly: “My pen is a pistola … a patriot’s weapon of choice.” “Talk Shows On Mute,” with its invocation of Orwell’s “1984,” and “Made For T.V. Movie” – which manages to recall both The Beatles and Alice In Chains – simmer with social commentary. But songs like “Agoraphobia” (boasting a huge pop chorus), “Beware! Criminal” and the driving “Leech” are more intimate explorations, more reflections of interpersonal agendas than global ones.

There’s no doubt from the sound and fury of A Crow Left Of The Murder that Boyd – frequently singled out among his generation of rock songwriters as a model of positivity – is pissed off. And it’s not just war and injustice and man’s general inhumanity to man that’s likely got him down. Perhaps the thematic tone of “Priceless” (which finds guitarist Mike Einziger channeling Primus’ Larry LaLonde) and the swinging, hook-heavy indictment of materialism called “Zee Deveel” indicate that Incubus has been in the game long enough to face some measure of disillusionment.

It seems reasonable to assume that in 1991, when Boyd, Einziger, drummer Jose Pasillas and original bassist Dirk Lance (Ben Kenney joined in 2003 upon Lance’s departure) began Incubus as high school sophomores in the San Fernando Valley outpost of Calabasas, they coveted the trappings of rock stardom. But maybe, now that they’ve attained some of these prizes, a heightened awareness of their position – and its treacheries – has begun to bubble up.

After all, Boyd and company have double-platinum plaques for 1999’s Make Yourself, home to the breakthrough, Top 10 hit “Pardon Me,” as well as airplay champs “Stellar” and the aforementioned “Drive,” and 2001’s Morning View, which debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 and introduced such radio staples as “I Wish You Were Here” (#2) “Warning” (#3) and “Nice To Know You” (#9). And Incubus is one of the very few acts who can claim to have toured with Ozzfest and Family Values but also with Moby’s Area: One, presumably hobnobbing along the way with more than a few admired peers and a handful of boyhood idols. Moreover, the band has managed to remain interesting for more than a decade, praised by critics for rampant experimentation amid all the melodic crowd-pleasing. And yet, the world is still a very fucked-up place, and the people who once seemed to be “keeping it real” just aren’t.

But Incubus has never been a one-note band, and Boyd has never been a one-mood writer. Despite the anger and outrage, a palpable sense of catharsis and even triumph pervades A Crow Left Of The Murder – “Yeah, I’m down, but not out/ And far from done,” Boyd promises on “Beware! Criminal.” Nor is the disc without its spiritual musing and tender moments. The title track gallops along an adventurous aural pathway espousing a Zen-like embrace of experience for experience’s sake; “Here In My Room” is a lovely, hushed ballad, with Boyd confiding: “If the world were to fall apart/ In a fiction-worthy wind/ I wouldn’t change a thing/ Now that you’re here/ Love is a verb/ Here in my room”; “Smile Lines” finds him so crushed out he swears, “High school never ends”; and “Southern Girl” transmits the abandon of new love, the singer telling the object of his affection, “Look no further/ I am yours.”

As a singer, Boyd reaches heretofore unimagined heights of vocal dexterity on A Crow Left Of The Murder. His signature syncopated phrasing remains intact – clearly, the heart of a beat poet beats in the heart of Brandon Boyd – but he has jettisoned some of his talk-singing for pure falsetto flight, deftly punctuating his delivery with these disarming departures. Bassist Ben Kenney, who during his many years with The Roots longed to rock, also opens it up on Crow. The thunder of “Megalomaniac,” in particular, bears his stamp, as do (among others) “Pistola,” “Smile Lines” and the epic thrash-o-rama “Sick, Sad Little World,” wherein Einziger also waxes virtuosic, conjuring Hendrix in a lengthy, satisfying solo.

That jam is emblematic of the fearless creative energy, uncanny sense of dynamics and high-wire eclecticism that Incubus pumps into all 58-odd minutes of A Crow Left Of The Murder: There’s a dub breakdown; a bit of wah-wah guitar played through a Leslie speaker cabinet; a jungle interlude where the snare and high-hat groove like Memphis; some intricate, jazzy drumming – finessed, mind you, while Pasillas is preventing the whole thing from spinning out of control – and then Einziger’s fabulously freaky guitar workout.

Harnessing this unbridled artistry was producer Brendan O’Brien, who pushed Incubus’ fondness for unearthly washes of distortion – not to mention beeps, whirs, squidges and other assorted robot noises – to 11. Which isn’t to say that Crow sounds like it was made by robots; it sounds like it was recorded in the factory where they make the robots, though the swooping cello part on “Here In My Room” orchestrated by Incubus cohort Suzy Katayama tempers this a bit, along with the organic accents like tambourine and handclaps heard throughout the record.

This tapestry of texture is perforated by a seemingly endless array of surging guitar theatrics, explosive drumming, beefy basslines, sturdy collaborative songcraft and Boyd’s consistently insistent vocal performances. It’s Incubus, only more so. Some may view the intensity of A Crow Left Of The Murder – exemplified by the Top 10 “Megalomaniac” – as a sonic response to the mellow vibe of “Drive.” Others may consider the band’s renewed ferocity a reaction to the mixed bag of stardom. But Incubus’ many rabid fans won’t give a shit; they’ll just be happy their heroes are still cranking out the post-modern head-bangers that made them rabid fans in the first place.

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