311 have been called a lot of things -- primarily some variation of either funk metal, rap-metal, or ska-metal -- but they don't fit neatly into any of these particular subgenres. They borrow from all three styles, plus reggae and new wave, creating their own skatepunk sound that vaguely recalls such contemporaries as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, No Doubt, and Sublime, but never quite sounds exactly like them. Part of that is due to the vocal interplay of singer Nick Hexum and rapper S.A.; their interchanges are unique among skatepunk. 311 also have different ambitions -- ever since their 1995 commercial breakthrough, 311, the band seemed intent on making a great album. Its successor, Transistor, was a flawed effort the length of a double album, and its studio follow-up, Soundsystem -- a 1999 album that followed a live 1998 record -- has its own aspirations. Longtime producer/engineer band associate Scotch Ralston worked with Hugh Padgham (the Police's former producer) on Soundsystem, and the differences are immediately apparent. Benefiting from Padgham's professional skills, Soundsystem is a tighter record, clocking in at 45 minutes. Padgham also helps the band incorporate its various influences into a more digestible form. Though they never come up with a single as strong as "Down" anywhere on the album, the increased focus makes their musical mélange potent. Often, they come close to tying together a vast array of styles -- metal riffing, funk bass, rapping, hip-hop scratching, melodic choruses, trippy reggae vibes, Latin, and ska rhythms -- into something distinctive. It's not necessarily radio-ready, but that's not necessarily a detriment, since they have more musical character than many of their peers. Where most bands are content to ride one groove, 311 pack as many as three or four into one track. This may be at the expense of a pop hook, but it does give them identity, and -- in a weird way -- musical integrity, since their ever-shifting musical gears are clearly the result of a band intent on pleasing itself and its hardcore audience, not a pop market. That means Soundsystem will not play to fans of "Down," even if it's punchier than Transistor. But that additional focus and punch makes it their best album since 311, a fact their hardcore fans will appreciate.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine