Artist: Incubus

Title: If Not Now, When?

Label: Epic

Incubus began twenty years ago when singer Brandon Boyd and guitarist Mike Einziger were high school kids in California. Over time the gold and platinum-selling band's style has morphed from youth-driven funk metal to a more tuneful alternative rock sound set apart by a heavy rhythm section and turntables. So any further artistic changes wouldn't be too shocking, right?

With a five-year gap since its sixth studio album (Boyd did a solo project and Einziger studied music at Harvard), anticipation was high for this seventh set, If Not Now, When? But the early buzz is that some fans aren't digging its far less aggressive vibe and will probably just move on.

That's a shame, because to hear the record without preconceived notions is to discover an admittedly mellower but still compelling and tight group of songs that only gets better with repeated listens. Today, Incubus is just more Radiohead than Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the media, Einziger has already said, "There's a pretty obvious lack of heavy rock music on this album," and the first three cuts confirm as much. The opening title track defines the main Incubus approach here, which is to let Boyd's standout voice take the atmospheric melodies on a winding expedition while the band locks into a disciplined, muted groove.

"Promises, Promises" is clever pop with a steady piano replacing any record scratching. To a shuffling beat with folk and jazz undertones, "Friends and Lovers" becomes an almost hypnotic meditation on the complexity of human relationships. "Defiance" is entirely acoustic but not without its sharp edges.

And there's the point: Incubus really hasn't lost its edge. Selections like "Isadore" and first single "Adolescents" still have a current of unrest running through them, they just don't overstate it like they might have done in the past. Loyal followers get their reward on "Switchblade," a darker almost-rap with a hot beat and Nine Inch Nails influences.

Meeting in the stylistic middle are the uniquely rhythmic, politically charged "Thieves" (with a provocative lyric about what it means to "be a God-fearing white American") and the ambitious, Pink Floyd-leaning progressive rocker "In the Company of Wolves." Credit producer Brendan O'Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) with keeping the latter's oddly coupled yet intriguing sections cohesive across seven-and-a-half minutes.

Ultimately, If Not Now, When? succeeds as a bold creative shift. Let it grow on you, just as Incubus has clearly grown.

*This review first published 7/22/2011