Friday, 29 October 2010

Bad Religion - The Dissent of Man

You want a study in longevity, and how to keep sounding fresh and vital as the years, and even decades, roll by? Look no further than Hollywood's finest, Bad Religion. Their career is the very definition of rollercoaster, and how to fight back from adversity to produce one brilliant record after another, time and again.

It would be impossible to fully give their varied and storied history justice in this review, celebrating as they are 30 years as a band this year - I'll leave that to a future article. It's an incredible achievement that the band have even lasted this long, let alone still featuring four of the very original members from their earliest days. And, far from simply touring old classics in a half-baked nostalgic look back at past years, they continue to push on, fiercely rolling back the years to keep producing records as vital as their earlier output - indeed, the album I herald as their best ever is not any of their earlier, late-'80s work, as great as they are, but 2004's blistering 'The Empire Strikes First'. It, along with 2002's excellent 'The Process of Belief' and 2007's pounding 'New Maps of Hell', showcases the best characteristics of new millennium-era BR - all the energy and clusterbomb fury of those early releases, but honed, refined and tuned with additional shredding solos and hooky riffs, and the trademark 'oozin' ahhs' backing vocals infusing the fury with soaring melodies. And now, as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations that also saw them release a free-to-download live album earlier this year, BR proudly unveil the latest addition to their mighty back catalogue - 'The Dissent of Man'

Let me state right off the bat, first impressions of this record were not good. I had heard rumours that it wasn't very strong, so I dug up the tracks and gave them a listen - and I could see people's points. It felt...flat. I wouldn't say boring - the assault is still as brutally powerful as ever - but it definitely lacked something. Tracks seem to pass by without muster, and nothing jumped out at me. Indeed, some of the riffs sounded cobbled together and forced, lacking the natural flow that is such a trademark of BR's sound. Even singer Greg Graffin's lyrics lacked the usual intelligent bite to them, and were in danger in some places of falling into cliche. Indeed, of the 15 tracks on the album, it took me until track 9, 'Someone to Believe', for a song to grab me by the collar and yank me in. I was genuinely about to write off this record as the moment where BR's age had finally caught up to them, where they had finally run out of steam and plain out of ideas, after 30 years of defying all known laws of bands and rolling back the years, this would be the moment where I finally say it was time for them to hang up the guitars and call it quits.

But then, something happened. I gave it another listen, and something began to click. Something intangible. Yes, opener 'The Day The Earth Stalled' still passed by without really a second glance. But then 'Only Rain' burst into action, and suddenly it began to make sense. Suddenly, more tracks began to leap out at me and snatch my attention, such as the sizzling lead-off single 'Resist Stance', even send shivers up my spine at some moments. It's fortunate that I didn't review this album based on first impressions, as they can be deceptive - this album is certainly a grower. I was wrong to doubt them - the grizzled old dogs of punk have done it again, pushed themselves that bit more to create something that stands alone on it's own merits as part of their repertoire.

Having said that, I will still go as far as saying this is probably their weakest record of the last decade. The main problem is consistency, and pacing - they seem to stack the majority of the mid-paced, introspective numbers right at the end of the disc, which totally kills the balance of the album - it explodes into life at the start, but peters out with a bit of a shrug at the end. Even some of the faster songs can't seem to decide on a tone - melancholy or angry? Wistful or fiercely determined? It's inevitable to a degree that they will take more and more nostalgic looks back as they go on, and 30 years into their career is as good a time as any to do so I suppose, but it comes at a cost on some songs - 'Wrong Way Kids' (or 'Keeds' if Graffin is to be believed) gets caught in this particular limbo, and looses it's impact as a result, and 'Ad Hominum' winds up coming across as an inferior remix of '21st Century Digital Boy'. It's when they focus on one particular mood that their best tracks rise - 'Won't Somebody' and 'Turn Your Back' are the picks of the more mid-tempo, melancholic tunes in this regard.

I mentioned before how BR are never a band to stand still, and will keep trying to push their trademark sound to new levels, and while all the hallmarks - Brooks Wackerman's powerhouse drumming, the crushing three-guitar assault augmented with Brian Baker's howling leads, the 'oozing ahh's' backing vocals, and Graffin's gruff and emotionally charged lead vocal delivery -
are still present and correct, they do attempt to cram other influences and approaches into the smelting pot, with hit and miss results. The most obvious experimentation is the vaguely folksy 'Cyanide', complete with a neat slide solo from Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's guitarist Mike Campbell, which comes across as a slowed-down version of 'The Quickening' from TESF. The aforementioned 'Someone to Believe' gives a heavy tip of the hat to The Ramones with it's 'Beat on the Brat'-mimicking lead-off riff and buzzsaw guitar attack, and the also previously mentioned '...Stance' opens on a searing solo lead, and rides on the back of this epic riff for most of the song.

People will try to point to this album's weaknesses and suggest it is a sign that the band are finally starting to edge into decline after years of defying the odds. Indeed, I thought this myself on first listen. But though this record isn't quite as strong as it's most recent predecessors, it still wipes the floor with most of their late-90s output, and is a worthy addition to their canon. So what if they fancy looking back a bit more nowadays - after 30 years in the game, most of that time spent at the very top of their powers, they've earned the right to, and they still manage it a lot better than other much younger bands than they. Dismiss them at your peril - on the evidence of this, there's still a helluva lot of life in the old dogs yet.

Album Details
Label: Epitaph Records
Release Date: 28th September 2010
Rating: 7/10
Standout Tracks: 'Only Rain', 'The Resist Stance', 'Someone to Believe'.

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