Sonic Doom: Limp Bizkit

In Sonic Doom, we delve exclusively into the back catalogue of critically-reviled acts in a bid to discover the odd unstained gem. This time out, Conor Donohoe dusts off his red cap and gets reacquainted with nu metal poster boys Limp Bizkit

Last week, I spent some quality time with Chad Kroeger’s vanity project to see what really made them tick. In the same vein – or should that be vain? – I decided to revisit my passing interest in the band led by another one of rock’s most… uh, divisive of frontmen.

Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit were poster boys for the nu metal explosion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, achieving significant commercial success around the turn of the millennium. And while critical reception for the Floridians has been mixed over the years, they’ve generally been met with revulsion from the metal community as a whole (Durst’s personality may or may not be a factor).

Much like my teenage opinion on Nickelback, I really didn’t mind Limp Bizkit growing up, although my knowledge of them was limited to a bargain bin copy of their Greatest Hitz, which does provide a fairly decent snapshot of their career. It also, in isolation, hints at a surprising range in their music – which, unfortunately, isn’t so evident when you take their discography in its entirety into account.

That said, their 1997 debut album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$ arguably has more character to it than anything else they’ve put out since. Granted, it’s red raw in places and slightly uneven, but it catches every member of the band on a level of form they would never quite reach again. In particular, Wes Borland displays his widest range of guitar playing on a Limp Bizkit record, from buzzsaw-like power chords to more insectile riffing in the higher octaves. It’s also Durst at his most bearable. He’s angry at… well, something, and he wants you to know it, but his way of dealing with it via lyrical themes isn’t as ham-fisted as it would be in later offerings. Of note, and as a bonus, the record contains their immortal take on George Michael’s ‘Faith’, which is easily one of the most amazing covers of all time.

The follow-up, 1999’s Significant Other, signalled their breakthrough into the mainstream with a much more refined sound. But while their efforts to meld the genres of hip-hop and metal are better realised here, and though Durst’s efforts at melodic vocals are to be commended for the most part, it doesn’t make as much of an impact as a package as its predecessor. Granted, the singles ‘Nookie’ and ‘Re-Arranged’ (the latter of which probably remains Durst’s best vocal performance to date) are streets ahead of any individual song on Three Dollar Bill, but away from the singles I really struggle to agree with the critical praise that this album garnered. Texturally, it’s a step back from Three Dollar Bill, with overall less interesting grooves and motifs, and the second half of the album folds like a cheap tent.

Still, it is a much more rounded attempt than 2000’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavoured Water. This particular album spawned another list of well-remembered singles, most notably the timeless ‘Rollin’, the occasionally baffling ‘My Generation’ (“John Otto, take ’em to the Matthews Bridge!”) and the lesser known but equally praiseworthy ‘Boiler’. Unfortunately, it’s Durst at his most unbearable up to this point in the Bizkit catalogue (either that or I was just beginning to lose patience at this point of the exercise). He very rarely displays anything approaching lyrical genius at any stage in his career, but when Durst boasts on ‘Hotdog’ that “If I say fuck two more times, that’s 46 fucks in this fucked up rhyme”, you begin to realise exactly what you’re dealing with.

And maybe Wes Borland did realise what he was dealing with, because he was absent (and greatly missed) for 2003’s aptly named Results May Vary.  Former Snot guitarist Mike Smith took over axe duties, but by all accounts the production process seemed to be a bit of a disaster, with only seven of the 14 songs Smith recorded with the rest of the band actually making the final cut (the remainder of the album containing songs from other scrapped sessions). This is reflected in the music, as it’s a sorry mess pretty much from beginning to end. There’s next to nothing in the way of memorable hooks or choruses, and the album fails in its leanings towards more melancholy tracks, mainly due to Durst’s tonically narrow vocal range. Borland’s absence is painfully noticeable in that there is absolutely no character to the guitar playing whatsoever. Sam Rivers’ often engaging basslines are to be commended, but they can’t fill the gaping Borland-shaped hole in this album. It’s only notable for the cover of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, which, in fairness, gets far more stick than it probably deserves objectively.

Borland rejoined the band for 2005’s  seven-track affair The Unquestionable Truth Part 1, which really sticks out like a sore thumb in their catalogue – but in the best possible way. It’s both musically and lyrically darker than anything they’ve ever released, with Borland delivering a show-stopping performance, notably on opening tracks ‘The Propaganda’ and ‘The Truth’. Again, though, Durst’s often infantile lyrics in the face of more mature themes often drag you out of the experience. “I don’t like my heroes to kill themselves with the drugs/ I don’t think success can fill you up when you need love/ I don’t like the whores that try to fuck you for your game/ I don’t like my childhood and do not need someone else to blame” he moans in one of many cliché ridden tirades during ‘The Channel’.

Finally, their most recent effort, 2011’s Gold Cobra, is something of a return to attempting to recreate their style at the turn of the millennium, and it’s moderately successful. There’s a pomp and bounce to the music not really heard since Chocolate Starfish, but it really lacks a killing blow. They’re aiming for songs like ‘Shark Attack’ and ‘Shotgun’ to be big hitters here, but these songs and others do more to frustrate than anything else; Gold Cobra is a clear attempt to recapture former glories, but there are too many points where it sounds like a blatant rehash rather than anything new.

So, generally speaking, what can be taken from this exercise? Well, I was bitterly disappointed in how few highlights there are away from the single releases.

Given my complete lack of knowledge of most of their album tracks, I had rolled up my sleeves ready to dig through the mud to unearth a diamond in the rough, but it didn’t really work out that way at all. Limp Bizkit are one of the few bands I’ve ever come across whose singles down the years probably represent their best work. Tracks like ‘Counterfeit’, ‘Sour’, ‘Faith’, ‘Nookie’, ‘Re-Arranged’, ‘Rollin’, ‘Boiler’, ‘Take A Look Around’ and ‘The Truth’ really are as good as it gets. That’s not to dismiss those singles – most of those songs are genuinely very good (especially ‘The Truth’, which is a passable Rage Against the Machine impression) but there’s far too much filler here for comfort. If I was pushed, ‘The One’ (from Chocolate Starfish) and ‘The Propaganda’ (The Unquestionable Truth) probably deserve honourable mentions, but overall it was a thoroughly disappointing research project.

And maybe that explains my general sense of apathy at the end of all of this. It’s very hard to come to any decisive conclusions, because I didn’t really learn anything about Limp Bizkit that I didn’t already know from listening to a handful of their chart releases (apart from the blindingly obvious fact that Borland, Rivers and Otto would probably be just better off without Durst). And really, that’s probably the most damning indictment of all. There’s been very little in the way of evolution throughout their career, other than The Unquestionable Truth Part 1 which eventually proved to be just a false start, and when you’re constantly covering the same ground, you’re going to end up with a hell of a lot of filler.

With a new album close – apparently titled Stampede of the Disco Elephants – two singles have already been released over the past couple of years (‘Ready to Go’ and ‘Endless Slaughter’), and while they’re fairly solid, there’s no indication Limp Bizkit will budge from their comfort zone – although the band’s intentions to record The Unquestionable Truth Part 2 do offer a glimmer of hope.

In summary, Limp Bizkit probably don’t deserve some of the more poisonous hate that gets thrown at them. They’re generally fairly solid, with a good instrumental foundation – but 18 years on and it seems Durst is stuck in a time warp, forever doomed to repeat the same handful of frat house lyrical themes. This is reflected in the stagnant nature of the music itself. Borland, Rivers and Otto are good enough musicians to move forward from ground already covered, but you get the sense that Durst would be either unwilling, or just plain incapable of following.

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