This will come as a surprise to those who don’t know me personally, but Incubus is my favorite band, and though other Incubus fans will probably disagree with me on this, I really do believe A Crow Left of the Murder… is their most expressive work. I grew up listening to alternative music, and though I love the ’90s rock that came to define the genre, a lot of it isn’t quite my generation. Nirvana, for example, had such a short life span that they appeal mostly to Generation X. I have always found myself identifying much more with the Foo Fighters — Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s subsequent band, for those not in the know — since I wasn’t really around for Nirvana and the Foo Fighters have existed for as long as I can remember.
There’s actually a pretty sharp divide, I think, between the alternative rock of the early ’90s and late ’90s. For one thing, the quality of it dropped off a cliff in the second half. The grunge explosion of 1991 quickly gave way to ultra-aggressive, testosterone-fueled nü metal, a terribly embarrassing black eye in the history of alternative rock. Bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Staind soon dominated the airwaves of both radio and MTV, their inexplicable popularity followed soon thereafter by Linkin Park, who managed to outsell them all by a wide margin by merging rap, electronic and hard rock into the most presentable package. Korn created the Family Values Tour in 1998, and that fall the tour included Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube (he had appeared on a track on Korn’s most recent album Follow the Leader), Orgy and Rammstein.
Ice Cube had to withdraw from the last four tour dates to film the movie Next Friday, and a young southern California band called Incubus filled in for him. Incubus and Korn were both signed to the Immortal label (it’s part of the Sony empire), and were looking to promote their major label debut, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997), since Sony had declined to promote it through radio or video airplay. (It’s quite common for that to happen. A record deal only gets a record made. There’s no guarantee the label will spend the necessary fortune to give the album a big promotional push. You sort of have to get signed twice.) Incubus has never really been a nü metal band, but at the time they were pushed into that crowded pool because there wasn’t really anywhere else to put them. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is easily their heaviest album, and though their intentions were very different than say, Korn’s, it’s not a complete stretch to at least superficially draw parallels between their respective sounds.
When the time came to make their second and third albums, Make Yourself (1999) and Morning View (2001), respectively, they worked with R.E.M.’s producer, Scott Litt, to shed their harder exoskeleton and Sony responded by giving both albums a sizable promotional push. Both went double platinum as a result, and in the process Incubus emerged as the band that defined modern rock as nü metal came and went. (Limp Bizkit in particular was laughed out of town.) Ever since the mid-’90s, alternative has been mired in a post-grunge sound that labels can’t seem to understand isn’t very popular anymore and won’t ever be again. Incubus, interestingly, are pretty much the only alternative band to emerge from the second half of the ’90s without a scratch of grunge on them. (Nü metal, incidentally, owed a large part of its sound to grunge, taking the angst of grunge and blowing it up to such a degree that it was basically a parody.)
So the question is, if Incubus aren’t nü metal or grunge (or post-grunge), what the hell are they? They had done something incredibly hard — impossible even. They had managed to carve out their own distinct sound in a genre with no wiggle room left. Alternative rock had become corporate and manufactured by the end of the ’90s, and Incubus came along and furthered alternative rock when no other new acts on the radio were bringing anything new or good to the table. The truth is, post-grunge was still doing quite well back then. Creed was incredibly popular during that same Make Yourself/Morning View period (how did Human Clay sell 11 million copies again?), despite being terrible and hated by pretty much everyone I knew, and Nickelback later enjoyed ridiculous popularity throughout the ’00s.
When I look back on that late ’90s/early ’00s period when alternative rock was dominated by nü metal, everything has washed away except for Incubus. (Again, in terms of new bands that emerged. Some older bands continued to produce good work.) Morning View has become their most popular album, and its lead single “Wish You Were Here” is probably their signature alt-rock song, which came on the heels of their crossover acoustic mega-hit “Drive” from Make Yourself. By the time 2003 rolled around, most of us were wondering what they were going to do next. Nü metal had pretty much completely disappeared by this time, replaced by garage rock (the good), emo (the bad) and System of a Down (the ugly). The band had quietly undergone some changes in the interim, replacing their bassist (Dirk Lance) with Roots guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Ben Kenney.
They had also been involved in a contract renegotiation with Sony, filing a lawsuit claiming they were being unfairly compensated in light of releasing three successful albums. Sony countersued, naturally, since Incubus was asking to leave their clutches, but it was all settled without amounting to much of an incident. Now that they could move forward with recording, Incubus worked with legendary alternative rock producer Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine in the ’90s and for producing every Bruce Springsteen album during the ’00s. It was a sign that Incubus had graduated to alternative rock royalty, and they responded by making quite possibly the best album they’ve ever made. They previously had taken the looser, more experimental strands of S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and tightened them into a more accessible and palatable sound on Make Yourself and Morning View.
Under O’Brien, they exploded that sound with A Crow Left of the Murder…, creating a purposeful and political record of amazing force. I still remember hearing the lead single “Megalomaniac” and thinking, “Oh my God.” The Iraq war was still new back then and wasn’t unpopular yet, so for a band to release a startling direct attack on President Bush was startling. The video was even crazier, and it got banned from MTV’s daytime rotation for being too objectionable. When the album was finally released in early February of 2004, it was the death of Incubus as the definers of modern rock. Incubus had emerged as an almost entirely different band, with extended solos and interludes that no longer fit on alternative rock radio. The album was a sign of real growth, but like many artistic works ahead of its time, it was met with a fairly lukewarm response.
Rolling Stone actually gave it a pretty good review (3.5/5), and they hate Incubus for reasons that have never been clear to me. AllMusic gave it 4.5/5 stars and seemed to be the only publication that recognized its considerable value. I remember being baffled by it at first, since it was a radical departure from their earlier work, but at the same time, I was just getting into classic rock back then and as I listened to Crow more I appreciated the elevated musicianship. A Crow Left of the Murder… has always reminded me of a lost Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd album or something. In particular, the song “Here in My Room” blew me away, and it’s still my favorite Incubus song to date. I think it’s one of the great errors of their career that it was never released as a single, since I’m convinced it would have done quite well and it could have been a crossover hit à la “Drive.”
But alas, Sony pulled the plug on promoting the album after just two singles (the excellent “Talk Shows on Mute” was the second), and to this day A Crow Left of the Murder… is a criminally under-appreciated album, overlooked upon its release and thrown under the bus by fans who wanted more of the same. Despite the fact that it has aged the best of all of their albums, it remains by far their most misunderstood and forgotten. It was a turning point in their career, as Incubus had decided to move on past the increasingly sterile alt-rock environment, pushing the boundaries beyond what that environment could realistically endure. When labels are trying to find the next Nickelback or Linkin Park, there’s not much of a future there. After all, why wouldn’t labels be doing that? Those are the rock bands that have sold well over the past ten to twelve years.
Meanwhile, Incubus has continued to develop a sound that’s entirely their own in the most crowded of genres, which is a rare thing in today’s music world.