Depending on your tastes, when Less's Piano Wire Smile
came around in 2001 you either loved the hard rock firepower or thought you'd been fooled into listening to Alice in Chains. While some folks had Less tabbed for The Big Time, that break never came. Now here we are three years later, with the band's second full-length portraying a stylistic shift and a musical maturity that may have been lacking the first time around.
Probably closest in spirit to a Godsmack album -- if Godsmack were smitten with a case of bardlike wandering -- Cover, Protective, Individual is magisterial and disgruntled, filled with epic passages and low murmurs. It's not a theme album, but it does have a larger-than-life feel -- it's a dark fable for a modern age. Each song is another tale woven into the sonic tapestry, flowing together as the track numbers fly by. The lyrics are intoned in classic Layne Staley fashion, but are always secondary to the nimble riffs and foreboding atmosphere. This isn't the sensationalized story of a dragon killer; this is the weak-kneed, sweaty-palmed gut check that is conveniently left out of the legend.
Matching ornate, discordant guitars to staccato rhythms and spiraling song structures, Less grab your attention early and make it easy to lose track of time. The small moments pull the disc together -- the vinyl scratches and escalating intensity of the topical "Patriot Act", the steely, Jimmy Page-worthy drone on "Our Sin". Granted, sometimes the songs blend together a little too well, but there's something to be said for crafting an hour-long opus from a collection of taut riffs and knowing growls.
Perhaps Less's failure to conquer the world lies in their inability to be pigeonholed; record labels aren't exactly seeking out the Next Big (Unclassifiable) Thing these days. It doesn't help that their style has shifted between albums, from a Tool and Nine Inch Nails feel on 2001's Piano Wire Smile to a gypsy guitar grunge that's closer to Led Zeppelin circa "Kashmir". They're too nuanced for "industrial", but they're also too structured for "noise", too gothic for "folk" and too creative for the murky "DIY" blanket misnomer. Thus I find myself inventing genres in which to file them just so I can pretend I've wrapped my mind around this sonic gem. It's a false confidence, but it helps me cope.