Brandon Boyd of Incubus Credit: Juan Kattan

The 1990s are far enough gone that the voracious nostalgia cycle has begun to nibble at nu-metal. That much-maligned genre became the pop-facing side of metal in the late 90s, when Korn and Limp Bizkit competed with N-Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears to get videos on Total Request Live. People who were in junior high when Kid Rock dropped Devil Without a Cause in 1998 are now old enough to own houses, have kids, and contribute to retirement accounts (though let’s be honest, nobody in their 30s or younger today is ever gonna be able to retire). People with gray hairs and back problems get misty about Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach screaming that he doesn’t give a fuck if he cuts his arm. And Incubus—once the prettiest boys in nu-metal—are one of the biggest acts at this year’s Riot Fest.


Sunday 7:45 PM, Rise Stage

Incubus formed in 1991, while the core members were still students at Calabasas High School northwest of Los Angeles. At first they occupied a gray area between several kinds of alt-rock: they played funk-metal harder than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they were sillier than most self-respecting radio-rock acts, and they used too much turntable scratching for the jam-band circuit. As nu-metal began its ascent, though, Incubus streamlined their sound and made it more accessibly aggressive, falling perfectly in sync with metal’s newest pop manifestation.

In 1996 Paul Pontius, the A and R man who’d signed Korn to Epic Records imprint Immortal a couple years earlier, brought Incubus aboard at the same label. The following year it released the second and most nu-metal Incubus album, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. The band hit the road with Korn, toured Ozzfest for two summers, and in 1999 released Make Yourself, their mainstream breakthrough. Nu-metal signifiers glimmer here and there in its songs—scratching, rapid talk-singing that could almost pass for rapping—but they’re mostly straightforward pop-rock. It went platinum in summer 2001, and in November of that year the Chicago Tribune commented, “Incubus is a nu-metal band for people who don’t like nu-metal bands.”

By that point Incubus had thoroughly distanced themselves from nu-metal. In October 2001 they released Morning View, an album almost indistinguishable from what radio wieners call “active rock.” The band’s DJ, Chris Kilmore, told he thought some of the songs on Morning View could be big on pop radio. He also dismissed the scene that Incubus had left behind: “A lot of what is out there is pretty much crap,” he said. “There are good bands—Korn, Deftones, and even Limp Bizkit. . . . I think a lot of bands saw that and said, ‘Oh wow, if we just make this style of music this way like this, we’re going to sell a lot of records and make a lot of money.’ And because of that, I think that makes that category and that genre weak.”

Unhitching their wagon from nu-metal was a good call for Incubus. After screamo and metalcore knocked the genre from its pedestal in the early 2000s, Incubus were able to continue more or less unburdened by their previous association with it. (Especially in retrospect, nu-metal looked like a musical symptom of toxic white masculinity.) Since 2001 Incubus have released four bland, middleweight pop-rock albums, most recently last year’s 8, which peaked at number four on the Billboard 200. These days they only engage with nu-metal in the past tense. Last year front man Brandon Boyd told the Guardian that being associated with it had always made him cringe: “So much of nu-metal was openly misogynistic . . . and that always felt really weird to me.”

But as the case of George W. Bush proves, nothing is too terrible to be rehabilitated by the 24-hour hot-take machine. Lately tastemakers have been praising nu-metal for its contributions to pop: the Fader published an oral history of Korn’s bruisingly feral “Freak on a Leash,” and Stereogum celebrated Kid Rock’s bone-stupid Devil Without a Cause. I was curious to see if Incubus would condone or ignore this rosy reappraisal of nu-metal at Riot Fest—would they tilt their set toward their nu-metal years or pretend that whole thing never happened? I reached out to the band through their label’s publicist, but alas, I never heard back.

Incubus probably wouldn’t have told me what they planned to play at Riot Fest anyway, but I could still learn something about their other gigs this year by consulting the admittedly unscientific data at Were they dipping more and more into their old nu-metal material, emboldened by the upsurge in nostalgic retrospectives?

YouTube video

Unfortunately, the 49 Incubus set lists I analyzed didn’t suggest a trend one way or the other. From set to set, the band mostly slightly altered song orders or rotated tracks in and out. Of the 42 songs Incubus have played live this year, only nine are from their nu-metal years, and just two come from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. The band have been drawing half their material from three of their eight albums: seven songs apiece from 8, Morning View, and Make Yourself. I’m counting Make Yourself as one of Incubus’s nu-metal albums, but its connection to the genre feels incidental now. The ballad “Drive,” its biggest hit, wouldn’t sound nu-metal at all if not for the sparse turntable scratching. When Incubus play it at Riot Fest, they won’t be pandering to nu-metal nostalgia. They’ll simply be obeying the iron law of outdoor music festivals: never skip the lighters-up song.  v