When everyone else is moving backward, the man who refuses to budge an inch can sometimes find his way to the front of the pack — just ask this stridently unchanging Orange County surf-punk band. For the first several years of its career (which actually began with a self-released 1987 single), the Offspring didn’t make much of an impact on the second — or third, depending on who’s doing the counting — generation of similarly minded suburbanites moshing through Southern California clubland with the distant ring of patriarchs like Agent Orange and TSOL resounding in the distance. But with revivalist punk rendered boffo box office in the mid-’90s, the quartet’s derivative-but-catchy riffage propelled it to multi-platinum status and the distinction of being the biggest-selling indie-label rock band ever.
On Offspring — which barely sold out its three-thousand-copy pressing upon initial release — the group displays a knack for crunchy, repetitive songs that suffer from frequent charges into thrash territory led by overwrought guitarist Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman. There’s nothing particularly eventful in the songs themselves; frontman Bryan “Dexter” Holland throws all the right socio-political shapes, but his libertarian “insights” into subjects like Middle Eastern politics (a subject he beats into the ground on “Teheran” and “Beheaded”) are strictly out of Ayn Rand for Dummies. When Holland looks in his own backyard, he doesn’t show that much more acumen: “Elders” and “Blackball” (the latter reprised from that first single) are little more than rote expressions of lingering-adolescent angst. Baghdad (again with the Persian Gulf?) sees the band slam through three identikit originals, appending a version of “Hey Joe” that sacrifices all of the song’s inherent tension for a transient power-chord rush.
That speed-is-everything aesthetic isn’t as pervasive on Ignition, but the continued reliance on superfluous dynamic shifts and proto-metal textures is positively grating. There’s no denying the band’s ability to craft a mindlessly catchy hook — the call-and-response chorus of “Kick Him When He’s Down” is guaranteed to stick in your head for a good while after the album is shelved — but those moments are far outweighed by the scenery-chewing that plagues songs like “Take It Like a Man” and the nebulous call-to-arms “We Are One.” Holland is the worst offender, lapsing again and again into a rangeless bellow that suggests nothing so much as testosterock precursors like Rob Halford or Ronnie James Dio scaled down to a lower octave. Wasserman (who does inject some compelling surf leads into “Dirty Magic”) and drummer Ron Welty are just as likely to overreach, however, wrecking some fairly canny song structures with extraneous eruptions.
Although the foursome had raised its profile a mite by the time Smash was released, there was little reason to assume the Offspring would reach beyond the skate-punk set: after all, the stiff surf-thrash sound that ricochets from the album’s grooves is almost identical to that of the band’s previous releases. However, the Offspring succumbed to the lure of novelty, tagging a Latino-rap catchphrase onto the chorus of an otherwise undistinguished moshfest and — presto! — scaled the charts with “Come Out and Play.” The fact that Epitaph could muster the financial resources to hire the same radio promotion people employed by the big boys didn’t hurt, but more than anything, the Offspring gets over on a combination of lowest common denominator angst (see the Henry Rollins-meets-Dick Dale self-help groaner “Self Esteem”) and aggro dance-party fluff (like the ska-tinged “What Happened to You?”).