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311 “Universal Pulse” Review

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 99′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.


22 Comments

    I echo most of your sentiments having gone through a very similar experience. However, I listened to Universal Pulse once the other day and did find it anywhere near as refreshing as 311 was back in Middle/High school. I think I will give it another listen (based solely off of your experience and how closely it mirrors mine), but I admit, I’m not that hopeful. I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I imagine I’ll remain a lost fan.

    • Don’t think it will ever match the feeling you got back in the day, but it’s the closest I’ve heard in terms of a return to that. Hope it resonates this time through! Cheers.

    Thanks for the history and the review. I completely agree. This is the strongest album for me since Transistor. Good to hear after being let down (for the most part) by Uplifter last year.

  • Go to one of their live shows… Just saw them in Pittsburgh, Unreal the energy that they give off. Played alot of older jams from grassroots and what not, it was a pretty amazing show.

  • Couldn’t really disagree with you more Chris. Initially, I was upset when I found out there would only be 8 songs (weak) on the new CD…and then I listened to it…and thank goodness I wasn’t subjected to anymore pain after 8 songs.

    What happened to the riff-heavy, reggae-infused rock that 311 has done so well for so long? This CD is just boring 4-chord drab rock. I understand that bands evolve and change over time…and I don’t expect them to duplicate earlier efforts but why was the fun sucked out of the music? I’ve never been so disappointed by one of my favorite bands. And I put a lot of blame on Bob Rock. I thought he really held them back on Uplifter and I still really liked that album. Here’s how I would rate the tracks:

    1. Timebomb
    2. Count me in
    3. Wild Nights
    4. Weightless

    8. everything else on the CD
    15. Sunset in July (really botched up what could have been a great tribute to their Live-Show fans…boring song)

    I guess the great thing about music is that we all have our own tastes and are drawn to different genres. And I’m not saying one is right or wrong…or good or bad….but for the longest time it seemed like 311 did have this Universal Appeal to people because they were a great live show and made honest music. this was a poor effort on their part.

  • I was a fan since around ’92/’93 (really don’t remember). 311 played a bar in my hometown Columbia, SC called Rockafellas. It was a small venue and I had no idea who they were. The show made me an instant fan. I was only about 12 years old at the time (my friends’ older brother was a bartender there and got me in!!) The energy was amazing and I hadn’t heard anything like it. I didn’t bring enough extra money for merch so as soon as I found “Music” in the store, I bought it-likewise with the release of “Grassroots”. I was actually a little disappointed by the time the Blue album came out with the polished production and more formulaic structure they adopted but still loved the album. I was happy they were having more commercial success because they deserved it- however, I hated that one of my favorite bands was getting noticed by so many jocks and posers. “Transistor” was mostly good but had some rough spots and a couple of songs I just didn’t like. I always considered it a big experiment. I was concerned they were on their way out after that release. “Soundsystem” and “From Chaos” destroyed that idea. I was so excited about those releases and that’s why I figured “Transistor” was a phase. Then “Evolver” happened-a handful of good songs and the rest just generic 311. Ultimately disappointed, I thought once again they were on their way out. “Don’t Tread on Me” was about the same but more generic for 311. Everything was just seeming more stale and boring. I felt like I had heard it all before. “Uplifter” = CRAP. I tolerate the songs in a playlist but typically still skip those tracks. While I do feel that “Universal Pulse” is a VERY SLIGHT improvement, I am at the point where I just can’t defend them anymore. The cover is ridiculous. It just looks like someone experimenting with photoshop. This is their shortest major release and it is nothing but generic 311. Nothing new. Nothing exciting. Nothing worth paying attention to. I have seen them live over 20 times (lost count years ago!) I have over 100 bootlegged shows mostly downloaded from http://www.archive.org, tons of pics, all the free tracks they put on their website…. Unless the NEXT album sounds good, I think this is the last album I am buying. Their live shows are still amazing but I regretfully think they have written all the songs they can. Sorry for the long post (it could have been longer!!) but felt I should explain my experience.

    • Just looked it up… my memory isn’t that great. Turns out the show was in ’94 (seems earlier than that!!)

    I can relate to some of the fans, in that they still can’t get that feeling back that they had about the band in “good ole days.” I felt the same way with Uplifter. But I’m very pleased with “Universal Pulse” because a majority of the songs take me back to the magic I felt when I first started listening to them in the 5th grade. It’s not exactly the same, but I feel like they’ve gotten some of that style back on this album that sets them apart from so many other bands, the style that has them the most loyal fanbase in music in my opinion. You can tell that they’re trying to give us the best that they possibly can. I really enjoyed reading your review, Chris…like you, 311 had a pretty big impact on my life earlier. The blue album was the first I ever bought and they kind opened my eyes to music and what I wanted to hear.

  • Thnx for sharing your thoughts. I just love this band, the music, and the memories I have with each record and each song….

  • Chris,

    My older brother was the one who really got me into 311 back when I was in middle school high School. He kinda stopped liking them after From Chaos, which in my opinion was a great album. But I have always been a loyal fan, unlike you absolutely loved EVOLVER but you are correct after that Don’t Tread on Me and then Uplifter were not their best stuff. Despite that I have always enjoyed listening to their stuff, always been a summer band for me. I bought a listened to the new album today, and I really thought it was much more like the 311 of the earlier years, but with a refreshing new spin. Wildnights, Trouble and Sunset in july being my favorites, it was enjoyable to listen too. I think some people expect a band to stay exactly the same album after album, but Bands Evolve and that is what 311 has done here. Some of the evolution of the music may not have been my favorite, but bands mature and change and so does their fanbase. I don’t listen to nearly has much ROCK or Alternative rock that I used to when I was younger, and I think 311 has an awesome Rock sound, but can put together a killer ballad, like Amber, and Beyond the Gray Sky. That is what I like about them. The Beatles changes, if they were the same we would never have Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper. Its a good change and I am a fan of Universal Pulse. Thanks for the REVIEW Chis.

  • I couldn’t agree more with this review. Couldn’t have said it better myself. My background goes back to about the “Transistor” timeframe. I’m from Chicago and back then it was the Smashing Pumpkins, so 311 wasn’t really noticed as much. But I fell in love with their sound and positive vibes. I don’t think there is a band out there that has a stronger fanbase as 311. That being said, every album they have come out with since “Evolver” has had mostly negative reviews because the average “old school” 311 fan always says “I have been a 311 fan since I was 14 and this album is crap because its not “Grassroots” or “Music”" well there will never be albums like those again. It was 20 or so years ago when they came out. Now it gives us the opportunity to respect those albums even more for what they are. I lost a little faith in them after “Evolver” “DTOM” and “Uplifter” but this album reminds me a bit of every album they have ever put out. I hear a lot of the spacy vocals as on “Transistor” also some of the songs have the “Grassroots” feel and a bit of “DTOM” I don’t think 311 really pays attention to the criticism they may receive. They just want to make positive music and make people happy and appreciate the work they put in. I am simply amazed that they have exceeded their own expectation. This album is truly a kick-ass gem!

  • I, too, had “grown out” of 311 and just moved onto other things shortly after the release of the live album. It seemed the band’s success continued while I somehow remained oblivious to what they were up to. The Love Song release DID catch my attention, because a band I had really liked recorded a song I had always loved. However, it was still not enough to draw me back in. I may have actually owned Soundsystem at one point and just didn’t care for anything offered on that release. I probably convinced myself that 311 was on a downward spiral because of it…and I liked tyhe band far too much to stick around to witness their demise.

    Earlier this year, as I prepared to turn 40 years old, a very random acquisition landed the band’s entire discography in my possession. For the last several months, I have listened to 311, and only 311, every day at my job. Today. Soundsystem is one of my favorite albums and 311 is again my favorite band. Because I have spent this year playing catch up on the band’s last four releases, all of which I really like, I have learned that 311′s sound is often too complex to become immediately likable. I have spent quite a bit of time taking in these newer releases and I have noticed that it usually takes time for some of their music to grow on you, and once each song “grabs hold”, you become aware of the underlying genius that is 311 music.

    I’ve only listened to most of Universal Pulse one time… and nothing really reached out and grabbed me or impressed me.. But hey, I have made this mistake once before with 311. I have learned some patience and maturity and i am no longer expecting the music to come to me. I will listen to it until I am ready to go to the music.

  • An honest look from a real fan, well done. While I disagree, your point was not lost. I’ve been a fan since Music in 94 and I’ve found the bands sound has changed along with them. We get older, our lives and influences change, and the music industry can be anti-good. 311 cd’s are the only ones I still buy out of loyalty and because I want a hard copy of their work. The difference between Grassroots and Don’t Tread On Me is huge but shouldn’t it be? They’ve made the hard rockin’ tracks and the soft tracks. They’ve made the weird tracks and the tracks we cannot classify. Universal Pulse is just another step on their musical journey. It doesn’t sound like we think it should and I think that’s good. Keep us guessing, but there is no mistake that it’s 311 on all of these songs. “We only enter in one contest that we made up ourselves, that’s to be the 311est!”

  • Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion.

    I was in the same boat as a “fan wandering from the flock” after Evolver and Don’t Tread On Me. However, I came back with Uplifter. For me that has been their best album since From Chaos. )I’m sure the new album will grow on me more with time) Songs like: Two Drops in the Ocean, Daisy Cutter, It’s Alright, Too Much too fast, and Get down really made Uplifter for me. I hope when I see them in a month they play some of those tracks.

  • Looks like this is the gathering of lost 311 fans.. Count me amongst thee, but somehow all of us keep saying, “oh, this will be the last 311 release I buy” — then what, at the record store buying the next one. This is the first 311 album I did not buy the day it’s been released since the blue album. I’ve listened to the new tracks.. they remind me mostly of the soundsystem/from chaos era more than the early stuff.

    I have never hated the actual MUSIC — that part has always been phenomenal. they have a great sound and they all know how to play their instruments (which is more than we can say for plenty of other bands). The loathsome part of the last few albums has come down to one thing — lyrics. They just got so ridiculously cheesy it was impossible to ignore. I was listening to a track from grassroots the other day and could barely keep up with SA’s lyrics.. when was the last time that happened? Nick has always been cheesy mostly but at least he had a sick delivery. Once everything got all sing-songy they just became too “different” like they were trying to write the next lucy in the sky with diamonds or something.

    I still love the old shit and will probably pick up the new album eventually but thank god I never got that 311 tattoo.

  • It’s interesting to hear how 311 fans react in such a polarized way to their albums. It’s a testament to the subjectivity of human preferences.

    I’m also one of those 311 fans who’s been a follower since the Blue Album and for me personally, the only time I ever thought my 311 days could conceivably be ending, was after Don’t Tread On Me was released. Believe it or not, Uplifter was a redemption for me and Universal Pulse, even more so.

    I think ultimately what keeps us sticking around, eager for more, is the fact that 311 has been around for so long, continually loyal to their fans and to each other, and continually growing in their recording and their live shows.

  • I really wanted to like this album; I wanted to like Uplifter. I want to like their new big rock sound in general but…I just don’t. It feels like they’ve gone from unique to incredibly generic. I agree with Jodie Rosen of Rolling Stone who said the reggae-rock beats and power chords are blunt, dimwitted, completely formulaic. I do think this is a step up from Uplifter but only because I rank that as one of their worst ever, next to Evolver. 50% of the tracks on Universal Pulse are really forgettable and the other 50% are decent but I cannot possibly see how anyone could say “this reminds me of their old stuff.” I am probably the epitome of the curmudgeon reactionary—I have not really enjoyed an album from start to finish since Transistor.

  • I too miss the good ole days of 311 and I’m not by any means estatic or jumping up and down
    about Universal Pulse, however, I would not go as far as to say it was sucky. I appreciate
    311 for what they were, what they are now and what they will be in the future. I’m what u would
    call a loyal and dedicated fan and always will be!!!! 311 u are amazing ;)

  • I kind of went through a similar experience, but I never strayed far. Evolver and DTOM had to grow on me, but I was still able to enjoy them. In fact, Evolver is one of my top 5 311 albums now. Uplifter is a very solid album as well. I think a lot of 311 fans expect(I know I did) certain things from 311 and if that doesn’t happen they kinda act like bratty kids saying the music is not as good or not very innovating. And actually the music is very good and technical. Once it is listened to for what it is and not what it is expected to be, one can really enjoy latter 311 albums. Anywho I really don’t feel like rambling like I could on this topic. you’re review is great and thanks for taking the time.

  • The first three albums were incredible – they all flowed and had nary a weak track. The downfall started at Transistor. It wasn’t a bad record if they had picked 11-12 songs, but by filling the album with every demo they opened the floodgates and we saw how bad some of the songs could be. 311 all lived together during their first few albums, which allowed them to finish each other’s sentences and develop an incredible musical chemistry, much like the Beatles did when they lived together and performed in Hamburg in 60-62. But they rested on their laurels, and didn’t live up to their promise.

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