Armed with four chords and a higher education, Southern California’s Bad Religion offers compelling proof that blistering punk-rock energy and provocative, artistic intelligence can do better than merely coexist — they can meld into something of much broader cultural consequence. After an early career that looks fairly hapless in retrospect, Bad Religion was able to find itself, set an agenda and stick to it without compromise, reaching adulthood and achieving major-league stardom — playing music once considered too rugged for mass appeal — without bending an inch to any outside will.
Inspirational in its work and achievement, able to accept major-label involvement without allowing interference, Bad Religion defies the genre’s typical preaching-to-the-converted limits by offering two reasons to believe: the invigorating music’s raw, atavistic power sets fire to one audience while the lyrics’ thoughtful sophistication can speak to and hold the attention of another. (Whatever mingling there is comes as a social bonus.) Bolstered by the concurrent growth of founding guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph label (home of the Offspring, Rancid, NOFX, Pennywise, etc.) — which has had a greater impact on the sound and style of ’90s rock than most corporate ogres — Bad Religion has come to stand for more than it actually amounts to. That the group’s creative growth has been incremental (the stylistic differences between, say, Suffer and Generator are barely worth noting) is disappointing; consistency is not the only attribute a band this important needs to uphold.
The San Fernando Valley rockers spent their early years changing lineups and playing a brand of hardcore that stood out from the headbanging crowd. The first album has such unexpected attributes as piano, dynamics and university-level lyrics in an otherwise routine sore-throat-vocals/maximum-overload-guitar sound. The well-recorded LP meets the minimum daily requirement of loud and fast rock without sacrificing basic human intelligence in the process. Into the Unknown, a mini-album, is even better, a swirling blizzard of noisy, catchy psychedelia and paisley rock, with real songs and a sound that resembles Nazz tunes played by early Deep Purple.
But Bad Religion had serious second thoughts about that direction, broke up and, upon regrouping, reversed its allegiance, taking pains to renounce eclecticism. Half the original lineup, joined by guitarist Greg Hetson (on loan from the Circle Jerks) and a guest bassist, made a conscious reversal on the one-sided 12-inch EP, Back to the Known, which banishes the stylish keyboard sound in favor of an unreconstructed punk assault. Still, Greg Graffin’s articulate vocals are way above average, and the stun-volume chords don’t swamp out the melodies or lyrics. Not bad at all.
Graffin (who had acquired a master’s degree in geology from UCLA in the interim; he later earned a doctorate in biology from Cornell — take that, you lowlifes!), (“Mr. Brett”) Gurewitz, Hetson and the founding rhythm section of drummer Pete Finestone and bassist Jay Bentley, who had quit early in the Unknown sessions, reunited in 1988. Considering the years elapsed since Back to the Known, Suffer‘s youthful fury is a revelation. While most turn-of-the-decade LA punks had fallen off or succumbed to hackneyed metal-faced cliché, Bad Religion simply surged forward: the album is faster, meaner and leaner than any in the band’s past, the attack ablaze with unusual hooks (sea chanteys seem to be a primary source for song shapes, which give the band an abiding folk-roots undercurrent), pointed riffs and pseudo-erudite lyrics (“The masses are obsequious contented in their sleep / The vortex of their minds contented in the murky deep”). Unfortunately, with two slower exceptions (“Best for You” and “What Can You Do”), the relentless velocity makes it hard to tell the songs apart.
Suffer was just a warmup, however, for No Control, an awesome achievement in an otherwise moribund genre. Arguably one of the best hardcore albums ever, No Control recaptures all of the form’s exhilarating attributes, with inspired songwriting, vocal harmonies, transfixing highbrow lyrics (“The automatic man is the quintessential mindless modern epicene”), explosive playing and Graffin’s soaring, pleading, tearing voice. The lack of rhythmic and stylistic variety can’t sabotage this firecracker, as the sheer power of might meeting melody is too satisfying.
Against the Grain maintains No Control‘s pace, another deranged rollercoaster ride without a seat belt. Smoking hot self-production makes Graffin’s sensational voice seem even more sinister on such tracks as “Get Off,” “Anesthesia” and a scathing indictment of the anti-abortion movement, “Operation Rescue.” The few slow songs (like “Faith Alone”) test his range, but he delivers dramatic performances. Although this first rendition of it is turgid and sloppy compared to the Stranger Than Fiction remake, “21st Century (Digital Boy)” — in which Mr. Brett rewrites the Kinks and King Crimson in one blistering swoop — is one of the band’s strongest, catchiest songs. In offering a heavy dose of the danger modern rock so rarely possesses, Bad Religion has become not only the best contemporary hardcore band, but one of the best rock’n’roll bands, period.
Other than the new face behind the drums (Bobby Schayer) and individual songwriting credits (which the faster/louder Graffin and poppier/rockier Mr. Brett had been sharing since Suffer), the riveting Generator doesn’t provide much to remark on beyond the intellectual meat on the songs’ familiar bones. Taking a firm stand against conformity in “No Direction,” Graffin turns the tables on those who look up to their cultural idols: “No Bad Religion song can make your life complete…you’ll get no direction from me.” The diabolical title track — as usual, the album’s best — seethes with philosophical passion (“Like a rock / Like a planet / Like a fucking atom bomb / I’ll remain unperturbed by the joy and the madness that I encounter everywhere I turn”) forced into precision stop-start rhythms that heighten the tension. Rich harmony vocals give “Too Much to Ask” and “Heaven Is Falling” extra juice, recalling nothing so much as prime X.
Recipe for Hate struggles vainly against the band’s stylistic straitjacket, but the slide guitar (which had to be played by a sessioneer) that gives “Man With a Mission” its wry country flavor sticks out like a minuet in the middle of a wrestling match. Graffin’s impressive multi-tracked vocals (aided by such choirboys as Eddie Vedder) and a few songs that consciously try to move beyond standard structures (“Portrait of Authority,” “All Good Soldiers,” “Struck a Nerve”) aren’t enough to keep the record away from been-there-heard-that fatigue. Racing 4/4 beats can be a sturdy platform or a barbed-wire fence; here they rope-a-dope Bad Religion with a simple slipknot.
Bringing in Andy Wallace as co-producer of Stranger Than Fiction got the band a more varied and musical drum sound and opened the door to some unprecedented approaches. The central Bad Religion thesis remains fast, taut, rhythm-guitar rock with Graffin’s articulate pontification, but other ideas are given room to develop; small details throughout the writing and arrangements spread the songs into a wider panorama. “The Handshake” has an especially conscious lyric; “Infected” and the folky verses of “Slumber” vary the pace to land on new emotional planes. “Television” simply revs into overdrive, but with an above-average pop melody that makes it refreshing anyway. The much-improved encore of “21st Century (Digital Boy)” supplies this crucial album — the band’s first for Atlantic — with a reliable catalogue item, but Gurewitz equals it with “Stranger Than Fiction,” a mobile descending riff, catchy pop chorus and lyrics that compare reality to literature: “Life is the crummiest book I ever read/There isn’t a hook, just a lot of cheap shots/Pictures to shock and characters an amateur would never dream up.” (We know what you meant, Brett.)
Gurewitz bowed out after Stranger Than Fiction. In late ’94, when the band hit the road to tour behind their first major-label record, he stayed behind to devote himself to Epitaph. Punk veteran Brian Baker (Minor Threat/Dag Nasty/Junkyard) took over his rhythm guitar slot and stayed in the lineup to put an extra charge into The Gray Race. Neither Baker nor Ric Ocasek’s co-production nor the fact that the songs are all Graffin’s drastically affects the sound of the record, other than to be a bit less catchy and take further advantage of the group’s less strictured approach and vary the textures within familiar walls. Graffin’s lyrics are especially invigorating: following the sarcasm of “Punk Rock Song,” “Come Join Us” repeats an old sentiment with fresh enthusiasm.
The 80-85 CD — a consolidation of Bad Religion, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and Back to the Known in full, plus a handful of compilation cuts — bypasses Into the Unknown as if it were a dog puddle. All Ages does the same thing in less conspicuous fashion: only two of the songs predate 1985, and one of them (“Fuck Armageddon…This Is Hell”) appears in a ’94 live-in-Sweden version (as does Suffer‘s “Do What You Want”). Otherwise, the retrospective makes the band’s prime pre-stardom years easily available to late arrivals by cherry-picking the four albums released between 1988 and 1992 — but unwisely including the inferior first version of “21st Century (Digital Boy).”
In mid-’96, Gurewitz unveiled his new musical project, a studio quartet named the Daredevils, with a CD single of “Hate You” and “Rules, Hearts.” For all the spite motivating his efforts (the band’s bio refers to Bad Religion as “the bloody corpse of Thesaurus Rock”), the A-side’s doubletracked vocals, big, chunky chord progression and gutsy, proud lyrics sound mighty familiar.
The import-only Tested, recorded on tour in 1996 in Europe and North America, surpasses the average live punk album by eschewing studio overdubs and mixed-in crowd atmospherics for a clear board-to-PA mix. In addition to a recap of the band’s past, the set includes a few new songs. The booklet describes the technical aspects and the peculiarities of road life.
No Substance is as apt a title as Into the Unknown was. Though the booklet’s poke at Deepak Chopra promises more BR mischief, the major-label polishing that inexorably followed the punk-signing glut of the ’90s firmly caught up with the band. The plethora of mid-tempo (by Bad Religion standards) rockers make the band sound plodding (“Raise Your Voice”, “The Hippy Killers”) and with no strong melodies it often sounds like hardcore at the wrong speed. Elsewhere the band simply sounds lackluster. The best tracks (“Hear It,” “Mediocre Minds”) feature the conciseness that marks the band’s better output. Early copies included a preferable bonus disc of B-sides and rarities.
The cleanest production (by Todd Rundgren) of a Bad Religion album to date on New America removes some of the needed edge. An improvement from the previous LP, with a few standouts supported by better arrangements (“New America”) and playfulness (“It’s a Long Way to the Promised Land”), the album still missteps in spots (“I Love My Computer,” “Whisper in Time”) and a stalemate in style is evident. With that, BR left Atlantic. Punk Rock Songs is a German compilation covering 1996 to 2000.
After Bobby Schayer left due to an injury (he was replaced by ex-Suicidal Tendencies drummer Brooks Wackerman), Bad Religion made The Process of Belief, which returned Gurewitz to an active role. The three- guitarist approach brings back the spark and rush of their 1988-’94 peak. Power not heard since Against the Grain and structures abandoned since Recipe for Hate combine in tracks like “Sorrow,” which are among the band’s most skillfully mature. The feverish opener “Supersonic” sets the pace, although acoustic guitars are ably blended into “Broken.”
The Empire Strikes First attacks the perceived ills of the Bush regime in stalwart punk fashion and is another strong album. While not as edgy as The Process of Belief, it is more complex and better produced. What’s more, Dr. Graffin (now known in the field of evolutionary paleontology) infuses the lyrics with academic observations. The majority of tracks combine the flair of Recipe for Hate-era arrangements with the crunch of The Process of Belief. A couple of tracks go on too long, but few bands who have stayed this close to the loud/fast/message formula can still offer something relevant and punctual after so long.
American Lesion is a piano-based Graffin solo record which ventures far from the band’s rock. Playing all the instruments, Graffin delivers a cathartic exposition on frustration and relationship pain, occasionally sounding like a Rundgren/Costello fan trying on alt-country. For comparison’s sake, Bad Religion’s “Cease” is redone with spare piano for accompaniment.