Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 11: 311, "Freak Out"

Artist: 311
Song: "Freak Out"
Album: Music
Year: 1993

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When you deal with a band that has such a unique sound, one that pulls influence from so many difference genres, it is often nearly impossible not only to choose their “best” song, but even to pick a song that most fittingly represents their diverse sound.  Following this line of thought, as a band blends more styles into their music, it becomes proportionally harder to define them as a band, and there are few groups that so perfectly display this idea as one finds in reggae-funk-rap-rockers, 311.  Starting off as a band with a similar stylistic approach to Red Hot Chili Peppers, 311 infused far more of the hip-hop world into their music, and in retrospect, have proven to be a far more high-energy band.  Starting off releasing independent records in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, the group caught their “big break” after moving to Los Angeles and signing with Capricorn Records.  Soon after, in 1993, 311 released their major label debut, Music, and the group almost instantly began to gain a cult following.  As is the case with many bands, it is their first record which best defines them, and in the case of 311, it is no different with this record boasting a number of stellar tracks.  Among these stands one in particular, where the sound, lyrics, and overall attitude of 311 come together in perfect harmony, the ground-shaking song, “Freak Out.”

The song kicks off with a somewhat relaxed, but wonderfully funky bass groove, and this would become a trademark opening for many of the groups’ songs over the years.  These amazingly addictive riffs, the centerpiece of 311’s sound come from one of the groups’ founders, Aaron “P-Nut” Wills.  What follows this fantastic opening again personifies the groups’ sound, as the entire band drops in, already at full energy, and the music gives an instant view into how wild their live performances are known to be.  The aggressive, almost heavy metal style and tone of the guitars of Tim Mahoney and Nick Hexum provide a hard edge to the music, and it is often within this clashing of sounds that the true “magic” of 311’s music lives.  It is also via the guitar playing that the bands’ ska influences come to light, as the rhythm guitar of Hexum is often a no-so-distant cry from the roots of that genre.  The way in which Hexum and Mahoney manage to balance the heavy sound right alongside the more airy, island rhythm is a talent that remains largely unmatched, and it is one of the keys to 311’s distinctive sound.  Brilliantly playing in and around all of these styles, drummer Chad Sexton often sounds as if he is trying to completely demolish his drum kit, and his performance on “Freak Out” is no different..  Seamlessly sliding from the more aggressive approach to the bouncing sounds or reggae, Sexton’s skills are nothing short of stunning and the completely unique sound of the four is perfectly summed up in the line, “…how strange we should be here at all…”

Along with his amazing sound and presence within the musical front of the band, there has truly never been another vocalist quite like Nick Hexum.  In both vocal approach as well as the sound of his voice, Hexum is easily one of the most instantly recognizable frontmen in music history.  Again working in multiple genres simultaneously, Hexum possesses one of the most endearing singing voices, as well as bringing an uncanny presence and power in his more rap-esque vocals.  “Freak Out” brings both of these to the forefront, as well as everything in between, and the song is easily one of the finest vocal performances of Hexum’s career.  Often serving as the “response” to Hexum’s vocal “calls,” DJ Doug “SA” Martinez displays a superb vocal synchronicity with Hexum here, and the force of their combined vocals is yet another way in which 311 stands far above a majority of their peers.  It is also within the groups’ lyrics that they make themselves unique, as Hexum stands as one of the finest writers of his generation, with a majority of his lyrics able to be interpreted on multiple levels.  On “Freak Out,” Hexum drops one of his finest phrases, as the bridge sings, “…if you don’t have someone to do it with, it’s not worth doing…”  While it may come off as a very simple thought, given the nature of 311’s music, and their general attitude, one can interpret this line as a reference to everything from drugs to sex to travel and everything in between.  Hexum’s ability to make something so universal is again in line with the groups’ diverse musical approach, and it is rarely on more obvious display than within the sounds of “Freak Out.”

Often times, when a band attempts to mix more than two genres together simultaneously, it ends in a sound that is chaotic and unfocused.  Yet for more than two decades, 311 has managed to consistently create brilliant songs that infuse so many different genres, that it simply defies any sort of categorization.  Centered around a magnificent fusion of heavy metal and hip-hop, the band spins in reggae, ska, funk, and a number of other genres, creating a sound that can only be described by the band name itself.  The duo of Hexum and Mahoney are without question one of the finest musical duos of their generation, and the fact that they are still churning out exceptional songs after all these years serves as a testament to their musical prowess.  Whether they are smashing together guitar riffs that, in theory, should not sound as amazing as they do, or whether they are exploring the lighter, more musical side of their abilities, the group stands as one of the most creative bands in history.  Powered by the seemingly unending energy of the band, driven by the mesmerizing vocal work of Hexum,  With lyrics that match their music both in terms of diversity, as well as interpretation, 311 stands as one of the most important bands in history, and one can hear the sounds they pioneered within the music of countless bands that followed.  While there is hardly a “bad” song anywhere in the catalog of 311, one would be hard pressed to find a more accurate embodiment of the bands sound, or a more furious, yet fun song than one will find in their 1993 classic, “Freak Out.”

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