My Offense is Rank: BAD RELIGION

In which I rank and review all of Bad Religion’s 16 studio albums, from greatest to not quite as great…

by Matt J. Popham

Bad Religion had already been around for almost a decade when they released their seminal studio LP, Suffer, an album that – it is not overstating things to say – changed the face of punk rock. Adapting the aggressive, high-speed, three-chord sonic assault and confrontational “Fuck You” attitude of 1980’s hardcore to their infectious melodies, three-part vocal harmonies, and rapid-fire, hyper-literate lyrics that would give Gilbert & Sullivan whiplash, Bad Religion gave birth to a new punk aesthetic that would spawn hordes of imitators, garner legions of fans, and prove instrumental in igniting the punk revival of the 1990’s. Having formed in 1979, they were there, almost at the beginning, when punk first rose up from the basements of cities all over the map to give the finger to the world. And 35 years later, they’re still going strong, having lost not an ounce of their punk piss and vinegar. If there’s a punk rock throne – and there probably isn’t, and shouldn’t be – Bad Religion has occupied it for decades, unchallenged.

Unlike a great many of their musical offspring (ahem…) who have toned down the attitude, content to sing songs about relationships, adolescent anxieties, and masturbation, Bad Religion has never let go of the anger, the frustration, or the, at times, outright hostility so essential to punk rock, maintaining an outraged outsider’s perspective on a culture, a society, a species that seems hellbent on ignorance, conformity, and self-destruction. At the same time, they have always focused their rage through a rigorously rational, scholarly lens, asking penetrating questions and imploring their listeners to stop and think rather than reflexively react or go with the flow. Lead singer and songwriter Greg Graffin is also a professor of evolutionary biology at UCLA, and his scientific worldview informs his astute, and often critical, lyrics. Guitarist, songwriter, and indie music entrepreneur Brett Gurewitz takes a more literary and poetic approach, often turning his gaze inward, offering unflinching appraisals of the human condition as he observes and experiences it. In a way, this makes their lyrics more challenging, more provocative, more threatening to the status quo than any of the chaotic, nihilistic ravings of their early contemporaries, rooted as they are in empirical study, analytical clarity, and intellectual integrity. Or it would, if anybody bothered to consult a dictionary…

Musically, Bad Religion has never been ashamed of their love for catchy, singable, even poppy compositions, but again, unlike so many of their imitators, while they have continued to experiment with their sound, they have never purposefully sought to dull their music’s aggressive edge or rein in its extreme velocity for the sake of broader appeal. They signed briefly to a major label in the 90’s and, outside of some creative doldrums, continued on very much as before. Gurewitz likens Bad Religion’s contagious melodies and harmonies to the Beach Boys, but the truth is, their signature style is most reminiscent of 1950’s and 60’s folk revival groups like the Kingston Trio. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll or metal, punk rock, thematically, has always had a much stronger connection to folk than blues. Its forefathers aren’t Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as much as Woody Guthrie or early Bob Dylan. Minimalist and evocative, it’s music with a mission, designed to deliver messages, tell stories, offer insights, and report events. Those critics who try to dismiss Bad Religion (or any punk band) on the basis of their songs’ ostensible simplicity are not only betraying their own lack of discernment, they’re missing the point. The band’s reliance on folk inspired melodies is entirely appropriate and, in fact, one of the keys to their continued success. Steady, but never stagnant, they’ve created a defined and recognizable sound, which, on each consecutive album, has been explored and expanded, refreshed and refined, ornamented and augmented, to maximize the impact of their message.

In a genre that has proven increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to define, Bad Religion have remained punk flag-bearers, exemplifying the essentials of its past, while setting the standard for its present and future. With 16 studio albums (to date), their eminent legacy is more than worth examining…

1. THE PROCESS OF BELIEF (2002)

I can already hear the aging die-hards pulling on their jackboots, outraged that my #1 pick is not one of the “classic” albums, but there is no question, for me, that this is Bad Religion’s finest hour (or, more accurately, finest 37 minutes…). Blazing their way into the 21st Century with a renewed energy and sense of purpose following Brett Gurewitz‘s return to the fold and the band’s return to Epitaph Records, Process of Belief finds Bad Religion’s songwriting and musicianship at a career zenith, ornamenting their distinctive sound with a few expansive flourishes, while sacrificing none of their soaring intensity. From the aptly titled opener, “Supersonic,” the album launches out of the gate with an unprecedented and unforgiving vigor and never lets up. Even the slower tempo songs are invested with a relentlessly fierce commitment, thanks in large part to the presence of prodigiously gifted percussionist, Brooks Wackerman, making his debut with the band. One of the finest drummers in the genre, and certainly the finest Bad Religion has ever had, where previous drummers have often served as little more than propulsive motors for the band’s signature velocity, Wackerman brings stylish textures and accents to every song, imbuing each with an individual rhythmic character. The album also features lyrical peaks from both Graffin and Gurewitz, their contrasting approaches often functioning as a kind of counterpoint, as when following Gurewitz’s haunting, folk-inflected single “Sorrow” with Graffin’s marching, merciless “Epiphany.” Combining the cutting intensity of the “classic” albums with the broader musical palette of their later efforts, if someone who had never heard Bad Religion asked me for their definitive album, this is the one I’d give them.

2. NO CONTROL (1989)

And this is the album I would follow it up with when they asked for more (that’s a “when,” not an “if”). A fast and furious assault driven by the buzzsaw twin-guitar frenzy of Gurewitz and Greg Hetson, lyrically skewering human self-delusion with machine-gun erudition, No Control finds the Bad Religion sound and sensibility honed to razor sharpness. At least half the songs here are still staples of their dynamic live shows. This is “classic” Bad Religion at its best.

3. STRANGER THAN FICTION (1994)

Brett Gurewitz’s swansong before his initial departure from Bad Religion to focus on running Epitaph Records, Stranger Than Fiction also (not coincidentally) marks the band’s major label debut on Atlantic. A rare instance of, as Jack Rabid calls it, “selling out in reverse,” Bad Religion’s eighth studio album is an uncompromising work of scathing cynicism, scientific skepticism, and searing self-examination, delivered on battering tidal waves of melodious pop-punk. Making good on the creative promise of 1993’s expansive, but uneven Recipe for Hate, Stranger Than Fiction sees the band’s growing musical openness and burgeoning sophistication gel. Graffin’s in top-form with hard-edged offerings like “Leave Mine to Me,” “Inner Logic,” and the brutally unsentimental lullaby “Slumber,” but the album really belongs to Gurewitz, who, perhaps aware that this would be his last record (for a while, anyway), pulls out all the stops, from the surging, searching “Incomplete” (featuring the MC5’s Wayne Kramer on guitar), to the tense and troubling “Infected” (a good song destroyed by radio overplay), to the cheerfully shameless “Hooray for Me,” to the sublime and deeply personal “Marked.” There’s even a completely unnecessary redo of Gurewitz’s poignant and prescient anti-social anthem “21st Century Digital Boy,” a song, originally recorded on 1990’s Against the Grain, that only gets more relevant with every passing year.

4. SUFFER (1988)

Contrary to popular belief, the punk revival of the 1990’s did not spring fully formed from Nirvana’s Nevermind. It has its real roots here, where the oft-imitated, but never-bettered Bad Religion sound crystallized, drawing the blueprint for every melodic California pop-punk band that followed – love them or hate them – from NOFX to Green Day to Blink-182. A collection of short controlled bursts of infectious, intelligent, stripped-down, melodic hardcore, taking thesaurus-armed aim at any and every American illusion – from militarism, to nationalism, to religion, to celebrity, to greed – Suffer is a milestone album, encapsulating punk rock’s past while pointing the way to its future.

5. AGAINST THE GRAIN (1990)

By the subtlest of gradations, a softer, more approachable album than its predecessors, Against the Grain finds Bad Religion adding more riffs, solos, and (slightly) slower tempos to its pummeling power chord aesthetic, allowing Gurewitz, Hetson, and bassist Jay Bentley to stretch out a bit, playing more layered instrumental melodies beneath the “oozin’ aahs.” Still unquestionably a two-fisted punk album, but a surprisingly musical one (even by Bad Religion standards), Against the Grain might be the most textured and diverse of the “classic” releases; and, like Suffer and No Control, a number of its high-energy sing-alongs might as well be carved permanently into the Bad Religion setlist (the original version of “21st Century Digital Boy,” among them).

6. THE GRAY RACE (1996)

A criminally underrated achievement, Bad Religion’s sophomore Atlantic release has long been derided by fans and even, from a distance, by Gurewitz, who dismissed it as sounding like, “a Greg Graffin solo album.” And while that might be true, I’m not sure why it’s a bad thing. In the same way that Stranger Than Fiction offered a comprehensive summation of Gurewitz’s sensibilities, The Gray Race grants Graffin the fullest expression of his worldview. As such, it’s a tough – even hard – album. Ever the cynical, misanthropic scientist, Graffin gives free rein to his withering indictments of our species’ small-mindedness, while simultaneously cautioning that he has no solutions, and acknowledging the ways in which his own human foibles contribute to the problems. As a composer, Graffin has always been more consistent, though also more formulaic, than Gurewitz, but while the same familiar folk-inspired melodies and three-part harmonies dominate the album, thanks to a more collaborative songwriting approach, The Gray Race capably steers clear of sonic uniformity. The signature Bad Religion sound is even given extra weight and heft by the addition of D.C. hardcore veteran Brian Baker’s thick Gibson guitar tones and drummer Bobby Schayer’s newfound percussive punch. Tracks like “Punk Rock Song,” “Pity the Dead,” and “Come Join Us” are as compelling and anthemic as anything the band has produced, and Baker’s creative contributions bring a fresh compositional sensibility to tracks like “Spirit Shine” and “Streets of America.” Despite its many detractors, The Gray Race, with its barrage of blunt-force musical and lyrical attacks, is powerful, take-no-prisoners punk rock, worthy of its place in the Bad Religion canon.

7. THE EMPIRE STRIKES FIRST (2004)

Between 2001 and 2008, almost every existing punk band produced at least one album protesting the George W. Bush presidency, and with The Empire Strikes First, Bad Religion cast their stone into the fray. Though the band has always been, in large part, sociopolitically conscious, Empire Strikes First might be their most overtly, pointedly political release since the “classic” years. From the blistering opener, “Sinister Rouge,” a scorching condemnation of the Catholic church, through to the bleak but beautiful Orwell-inspired ballad, “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever,” the album targets religion, warmongering, American imperialism, mass media, and dystopian fatalism, with a focused, purposive pugnacity. Which makes it interesting that Empire Strikes First might also be the most musically versatile and textured album of their career. The old standby sound is still present, but there’s also a lot of experimenting and searching. “Los Angeles is Burning” is a terminally catchy piece of barely punk pop-rock, “Beyond Electric Dreams” is appropriately reminiscent of Devo-esque synthpunk without the synths, and the galloping “Let Them Eat War” seamlessly slides into a rap interlude from Sage Francis. As is always the case with these type of albums, not everything works. “To Another Abyss” tries to recapture the catharsis of Recipe for Hate’s “Struck a Nerve,” but really only succeeds in being dreary, there’s the clunky and awkward title track, and the album closer “Live Again (The Fall of Man)” seems less like a finale than a minor footnote after “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever’s” dramatic weight. But these are minor missteps. Empire Strikes First remains one of Bad Religion’s most unique, intriguing, and rewarding efforts.

8. TRUE NORTH (2013)

A return to form after 2010’s more muted and morose Dissent of Man, True North’s title proves to be a fitting one, as it finds Bad Religion picking up the punk pace again with expert precision and polish. Of course, a return to form also means a return to formula, and as the band barrels through the album’s opening songs, one could be forgiven for feeling that it’s all a bit familiar. Or is that fatigued…? Don’t get me wrong. The songs are all solid. Some are quite strong. The two singles, “Fuck You” and “True North” are great, galvanizing anthems of punk defiance, and the rousing “Robin Hood in Reverse” features some of Gurewitz’s sharpest lyrical lacerations as he lambasts Citizens United. But given the creative stretching of True North’s immediate predecessor, it’s difficult not to wonder, during the album’s first few tracks, whether the Bad Religion aesthetic – or perhaps the band, itself – is showing signs of wear. Fortunately, what comes next capably demolishes any such notions with what might be the band’s best recorded output since Process of Belief. Following “Fuck You,” the pace slackens momentarily for two terrific Gurewitz numbers – the bitter, acidic ballad, “Hello Cruel World” and the downright groovy “Dharma and the Bomb,” – and then takes off into a revitalized, full-blooded sprint that pumps the musical progress of Dissent of Man full of punk rock adrenaline. Not only is there not a bad song here, they’re all excellent, and “Crisis Time,” “Dept. of False Hope” (with its chorus worthy of Crosby, Stills, and Nash), and the superlative closer, “Changing Tide” offer the freshest and most compelling take on the signature Bad Religion sound in over a decade. The fuller, but less noisy mix allows for a thicker sonic assault, but also shows off the intricate instrumental interplay that often gets lost in the onslaught on their punkier records. Despite its somewhat prosaic start, True North is proof positive that, while tides may change creatively and culturally, you can ride the waves without losing your sense of direction.

9. DISSENT OF MAN (2010)

One of Bad Religion’s least confrontational, most approachable, and (for a punk record) most beautiful efforts, Dissent of Man is both too weighty to be condemned as a “sellout” album, and too effective to be dismissed as an awkward experimental phase. A creative leap as startling as 1993’s Recipe for Hate or 2000’s New America, but ultimately more successful than either, Dissent of Man effectively demonstrates that Bad Religion, even after three decades, is still growing. The old-school, hardcore zealots might say growing old: Turn down the distortion, and “Devil in Stitches” could just as easily be a long, lost Springsteen track. “Cyanide,” due, in large part, to the presence of Mike Campbell on guitar, evokes classic-era Tom Petty. Quite often, in fact, the album sounds less like punk than classic rock. But far from being an attempt to court some kind of popular approval, the slower tempos and poppier melodies seem to emerge organically from the pervasive sense of melancholy that haunts the album, its softer words and sentiments even more surprising than its softer sound. Gurewitz’s soulful and sorrowful meditation on religious conviction, “Only Rain,” has the lyrical structure of a prayer, exposing its subject’s hollowness with an unusually delicate and sympathetic irony. Even the unrepentantly tough-minded Graffin injects some of the wounded mournfulness he first tapped on New America into tracks like “The Pride and Pallor,” “Avalon,” and the breakneck opener, “The Day the Earth Stalled” which angrily recalls the death of a youthful dream. For a band known for their penetrating intellectual polemics, Dissent of Man is a surprisingly emotional, reflective record, and a surprisingly successful one. There are some unabashedly high-energy scorchers, like “The Resist Stance,” “Meeting of the Minds,” or the irresistible “Someone to Believe,” but here, they’re the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately, after reaching some great new heights, the album winds down with a succession of increasingly mediocre offerings, finally petering out with the listless “I Won’t Say Anything.” Regardless, for the better part of its 43 minutes, Dissent of Man displays an earned and affecting creative evolution. If this is the sound of Bad Religion growing old, they’re sure as hell doing it gracefully.

10. NEW MAPS OF HELL (2004)

Conceived, in part, as a commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of their 1982 debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, New Maps of Hell attempts to recapture some of that album’s rough and tumble early punk aesthetic. The result is a raw, relentless, and slightly reckless race through a blasting furnace of fiery punk fury that, while easily one of Bad Religion’s hardest releases, manages to look backward without regressing. The songs are just as layered and stylish as anything on 2006’s Empire Strikes First, just tighter, faster, and less accessible. Tracks like “52 Seconds,” “Murder,” and “Heroes and Martyrs,” are among the most aggressive and dissonant in the entire Bad Religion catalogue, and though the album does slow for the Weezer-ly, Gurewitz-penned, “Honest Goodbye,” it feels less like a breather than a brief stumble. The rest is all melodic, muscular momentum that moves almost fast enough to disguise the occasionally uneven songwriting. There are a number of high points along the way, including Graffin’s piercing state-of-the-union protests, “New Dark Ages,” and “Grains of Wrath,” and Gurewitz intriguing parable of apostasy, “Dearly Beloved,” but, at 16 songs, the album does slightly overstay its welcome with a handful of weaker tracks crammed together towards the end. Despite that, it’s worth sticking around for the stellar finale, “Fields of Mars,” a song which ranks among their very best.

11. RECIPE FOR HATE (1993)

The band that put the “I” in irony, it’s tempting to think that the title of Bad Religion’s seventh studio album was intended as a sly double entendre predicting the effect its experimental sound would have on their die-hard fans. Compared to their most recent output, Recipe for Hate just sounds like another Bad Religion album, but at the time, with its measured tempos, country-inflected riffs and melodies, power ballads, and guest appearances by the likes of Eddie Vedder (the horror!), it represented a radical shift in the Bad Religion sound. After four albums in a row of increasingly sophisticated, but also fairly uniform, melodic hardcore punk, it’s entirely reasonable to think the band might have been feeling a bit restless and constrained, and would want to branch out. But punk zealots are a skittish bunch and, ironically, often intolerant of change. So when critics praised the album and Atlantic Records came a knockin’, punks everywhere started converting their Bad Religion vinyl into Frisbees. Time being a great healer and leveler, it’s possible now to look back on Recipe for Hate and see it for what it was: an admirable creative leap that fell just short of the mark. For all the fuss, much of the album is actually still pretty recognizable old-time Bad Religion, from the title track, to “American Jesus,” to “My Poor Friend Me,” to “Modern Day Catastrophists.” The real offenders were songs like the country-fried “Man With a Mission,” the clanking and angular “All Good Soldiers,” and the hauntingly tragic “Struck a Nerve,” which, with its grim, street-level portraiture, remains one of Bad Religion’s most powerful and affecting ballads. The real irony is that, in retrospect, the creative departures often make for more interesting listening than the, at times, tired-sounding traditional numbers. Overall, Recipe for Hate is perhaps more fascinating than good. An erratic, uneven record, balancing moments of true inspiration and conviction with awkward creative stumbles and ho-hum retreads, it remains a milestone documenting a willful and courageous attempt by one of punk’s (even then) most enduring bands to push beyond their –and their fans’ – musical comfort zones.

12. GENERATOR (1992)

The last of the “classic era” albums and also the weakest, Generator charges out of the gate with three or four of the best songs in the Bad Religion catalogue and then quickly runs out of steam. The fatigue and dissatisfaction that would explode on the following year’s Recipe for Hate is palpable, but outside of some slower tempos (Generator’s 11 songs clock in longer than No Control’s 15), there’s little in the way of any risk or resourcefulness to counter it. Most of the tracks, in fact, feel like they might as well be titled “Generic Bad Religion Song.” “Heaven is Falling” recycles How Could Hell Be Any Worse’s “Fuck Armageddon, This is Hell” to no great effect, and “Two Babies in the Dark” is an embarrassingly clumsy, half-baked attempt at a lullaby. The album bounces back briefly for the dynamite “Atomic Garden” but then descends again into a kind of punk languor. It’s not that Generator is a bad album, per se. Almost half the tracks are solidly great, and you’ll find yourself singing along to the rest. But the inspiration and intensity, the conviction and commitment that drove the previous three releases seem somehow depleted.

13. HOW COULD HELL BE ANY WORSE? (1982)

Most people probably wouldn’t recognize Bad Religion’s 1982 debut as being from the same band that later recorded “Empire Strikes First” or even “No Control.” A solid chunk of lo-fi, SoCal hardcore punk, its rough and raw musical attack is more reminiscent of early Adolescents than latter-day Bad Religion. But while it might not be as seminal or potent, musically, as Black Flag’s Damaged or Fear: The Record, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? firmly established Bad Religion’s one-of-a-kind worldview and lyrical sensibilities. Trading the nihilistic, ideological pyromania typical of the L.A. punk scene for intellectual analysis and focused, articulate social criticisms, songs like “We’re Only Gonna Die” and “Fuck Armageddon, This is Hell” capably combine a sneering, in-your-face punk attitude with a steadfast rationality, setting the philosophical tone for the band’s future releases and earning their status as minor punk classics. While there are hints of what’s to come sonically (check out the three-part harmonies on “American Dream”), for the most part, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? offers pretty average early 80’s punk music, but with an above-average punk perspective. The current version of the album also includes their first self-titled EP and 1985’s Back to the Known, a five-song missing link in Bad Religion’s musical evolution that bridges the gap between their first two albums and 1988’s Suffer.

14. INTO THE UNKNOWN (1983)

Bad Religion’s bastard child, Gurewitz tried for years to keep Into the Unknown secreted away in a windowless vault where it would cause the band no embarrassment, then quietly rereleased it on vinyl only, as part of a Bad Religion box set in 2010. (Of course, he, of all people, should know that this is the digital age, and everything – especially music, humiliating secrets, and various combinations thereof – will eventually find its way online. The album has been available in mp3 form for well-over a decade…) On first listen, Into the Unknown will be jarring to any Bad Religion fan, with its plodding tempos, swirling keyboards, and reverb-heavy acoustic guitar, but the truth is, strip away the prog-rock pretentions and Into the Unknown is very recognizably a Bad Religion album. In hindsight, it actually emerges as the real point of origin for what we think of today as the Bad Religion sound. Whereas How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was pretty standard SoCal punk, Into the Unknown was the first Bad Religion album to feature the folk-inspired melodies and frequent use of three-part harmonies that, once channeled through a fast and furious, three-chord punk aesthetic, became so integral and essential to the band’s style. The instrumentation might be different and the pace slower, but tracks like “It’s Only Over When…,” “The Dichotomy,” and “Losing Generation,” would not only be right at home on some of the band’s 21st century releases, they’re actually damn fine songs. Others don’t fare as well. “Million Days” and “Billy Gnosis” are hamstrung by their ponderousness, musically and lyrically, and “Time and Disregard” is a tragic miscalculation of a song (or maybe two songs… two incompatible songs… stuck together… neither of them very good…), but it would be revealing to hear the band reinterpret any number of these tracks in their contemporary style. It may not be T.S.O.L.’s Beneath the Shadows (the gold standard of early-80’s punk prog peregrinations), but in the words of Greg Graffin, himself, Into the Unknown is not as bad as some would have you believe.

15. THE NEW AMERICA (2000)

It’s difficult to find any technical fault with The New America. Bad Religion’s last Atlantic offering, and their last without Gurewitz, it’s a cleanly produced, tightly arranged album that charts new territory for the band, both musically and lyrically. The new pop hooks and radio-friendly rhythms mesh cleanly with the harmonic choruses, and only one or two of the songs could be fairly described as ill-conceived or downright bad. Graffin should be commended for his earnest, if not always successful, attempts to add a more personal, introspective element to his lyrics. In fact, the album’s high point, “1000 Memories” is a genuinely heartbreaking plea to his ex-wife that might be the most openly vulnerable song Bad Religion has ever produced. At the same time, for all Graffin’s lyrical sincerity, one can’t escape the feeling that, musically, there’s something calculated and manufactured about New America. Ever since Recipe for Hate, the band has injected a poppier sensibility into many of their songs, but the melodies reflected their particular fondness for the classic pop-rock of the 60’s and 70’s. What’s odd about New America is how much it sounds, not like Bad Religion, but like one of their many more ingratiating and inane 1990’s imitators. It’s an ill-fitting sound that not only dulls the band’s intensity and passion, but also fails to support Graffin’s lyrical efforts. It’s also worth noting that whenever Bad Religion has struck out in new creative directions – as on Recipe for Hate, Empire Strikes First, or Dissent of Man – their musical discoveries have been folded into their overall approach on successive albums. But, to date, the overwhelming majority of New America’s explorations have not been absorbed, but abandoned. Though one can’t deny that New America represents a creative step – and a step up from its immediate predecessor, 1998’s dreary No Substance – it is, nonetheless, a step in the wrong direction.

16. NO SUBSTANCE (1998)

Like 1992’s Generator, No Substance finds Bad Religion struggling with a period of creative malaise. Unlike Generator, No Substance effectively dries up after its opening track, “Hear It.” From there, it trudges laboriously through 15 weary, uninspired, almost desperate variations on the traditional Bad Religion formula, during which time you’ll realize that, of course, you HAVE heard it. You’ve just never heard it sound so unfocused and lethargic. Even Graffin’s lyrics seem almost apologetically rote, as though wrung from a dry cloth. It’s not that the album is jarring or abysmally poor. The music is listenable enough, and the lyrics are no less accurate for being routine. Despite the title, there’s actually plenty of substance here. What’s missing is the energy and investment that carries their better songs and albums, reinventing and reinvigorating the sound and the sensibility that have become their signature strength.

Advertisements

Le Butcherettes – Cry is for the Flies

by Matt J. Popham

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

It’s hard not to be reminded of William Golding’s savage masterpiece while listening to Le Butcherettes’ brilliant and harrowing “Cry is for the Flies.” The fact that Teresa Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender), Le Butcherettes’ founder and frontwoman, once achieved a certain notoriety by performing on stage with a severed pig’s head only serves to make one wonder if the evocation is deliberate. The band’s 2011 debut, “Sin Sin Sin,” (a winking bilingual double-entendre) was riddled with literary references after all, name-checking such authors as Tolstoy, Rousseau, Fitzgerald, and Salinger. But while “Lord of the Flies” is never explicitly mentioned on “Cry is for the Flies,” and Suarez has since abandoned most of her gruesome stage theatrics, an urgent, primal menace, reminiscent of Golding’s novel, seethes through her latest collection of songs. Even if the association isn’t intentional, it’s apt.

Mercilessly intense, but undeniably compelling, “Cry is for the Flies” strips Le Butcherettes’ already minimalist punk aesthetic to its bare bones. What’s left is raw, hard, and often unsettling. Gone is the cheerfully serrated mischief of “Sin Sin Sin” with its catchy garage rock hooks and sharp, show-offy lyrics. “Cry is for the Flies” is a darker, subtler, less comfortable listen, but also a stronger, more assured, and more impressive one. From the ominous opener, “Moment of Guilt,” a tautly whispered spoken word prologue by Butcherettes admirer Henry Rollins, through to the throbbing, threatening closer, “Blackhead,” each track is an austere expression of barely contained, but masterfully controlled, madness. Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s bass stalks and growls like a wounded animal over Lia Braswell’s eruptive drumming, creating an unrelenting tension, perfectly punctuated by Suarez’s thundering power chords. Even the album’s more upbeat, keyboard-driven tracks, like “Boulder Love Over Layers of Rock,” or the stunning “Poet From Nowhere,” sound dangerously unhinged: the former like a commercial jingle having a psychotic episode, the latter like a carnival ride careening off the rails.

But ultimately, it’s Suarez’s voice that carries the album and gives it its distinctive, disturbing character. Trading the punk rock screams of her past efforts for more tuneful, but no less impassioned, emotional exorcisms, she commands each song with impressive dramatic range and power. Down and dirty one minute, launching into an off-kilter falsetto the next. A defiant and discordant snarl on the assaultive “Burn the Scab.” A haunting howl on “Your Weakness Gives Me Life.” Wearily dragging the deep end of her lower registers on the wrenching “My Child,” before thinning into reedy, brittle grief. Her vocal theatrics, at every turn, are both jarring and powerfully genuine, delivered with almost terrifying commitment. If Suarez is no longer performing in bloodied butcher’s aprons, or dancing with pig’s heads, it’s not because she’s gone soft or toned it down. It’s because she’s successfully absorbed and integrated such provocative artistic strategies into her singing and songwriting, her fierce intellect now equally matched by a near-demonic musical and emotional ferocity.

“I can’t get at you,” Rollins whispers, as the personification of Guilt.

“Why do you think that is?” the track’s protagonist queries.

“Because you’re a monster,” Guilt replies.

“It took you this long,” says our protagonist, “to figure it out?”

Suarez has figured out her inner monster and delivered it into the world with blood, sweat, and screams. A riveting, ravaging work of striking severity, stark simplicity, and searing sincerity, “Cry is for the Flies” should secure Suarez’s place in the rock pantheon alongside the likes of Patti Smith, Kathleen Hannah, and Sleater-Kinney – gifted music icons and feminist flag-bearers whose influence she wears proudly on her blood-spattered sleeve. Like so many great albums, it’s an original, uncompromising, even brutal work. In short, it’s a Beast. Give it a chance and it will get inside you and swallow you whole. It will become inescapable. And you’ll love every thrilling minute.

Wild Flag – Self Titled

by Matt J. Popham

“Hey, hey! Can you feel it?” Carrie Brownstein asks in the opening line of “Romance,” a paean to the power of music that kicks off Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album. One of the album’s strongest tracks, as its thumping, guitar-and-keyboard riff gives way to the infectious, sing-a-long chant of the chorus, you may just find yourself saying, “Damn right, I can!” But when the band declares, in three-part harmony, “We love the sound! The sound is what found us,” it’s hard not to find yourself wondering just whose sound they’re referring to…

In September of last year, Brownstein (33.3% of the tragically defunct Sleater-Kinney) announced on her NPR blog that, after a five year hiatus from music, she and some friends were putting a band together. That prospect alone might have been enough to start music fans salivating, but when the news broke that these friends included Brownstein’s former S-K bandmate, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole of The Minders, and indie guitar goddess Mary Timony, excitement levels went through the roof, making this newly formed, all-girl, alt-rock powerhouse the most talked about supergroup of the alternative scene. Before a single note was recorded, Wild Flag’s built-in following had declared their upcoming record a surefire masterpiece and a candidate for Album of the Year.

Of course, that’s the inherent problem with “supergroups”: the mere idea of them sends expectations rocketing skyward, only to have them crash-and-burn when confronted with the all-too-frequently disappointing reality. Rock history is littered with a multitude of all-star efforts amounting to little more than underwhelming curiosities at best and abject failures at worst. Most never evolve beyond short-lived side projects, crumbling under the weight of conflicting egos or dissipating from benign neglect. The few true successes tend to be those that transcend the “supergroup” label entirely (does anyone think of Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash as “supergroups,” anymore…?), by discovering a new sound and establishing a unique musical identity that eclipses their individual members’ former achievements and acclaim.

So, after a year of hype and hyperbole, now that their debut has finally been unfurled, is Wild Flag worth saluting…? The truth: It’s probably too early to say. But, for now, at least, the legacies of Helium and Sleater-Kinney remain unthreatened.

Which is not to say that Wild Flag is a bad album. Far from it. From start to finish, it’s a fascinating, invigorating listen, full of tonal zigzags and energetic flights of fancy. The hip-shaking pop seduction of “Romance” gives way to the eerier, more cryptic “Something Came Over Me,” which, in turn, explodes into the post-punk desperation of “Boom,” only to be followed by the sprawling, hippies-on-Helium psychedelic jam, “Glass Tambourine,” etc. Throughout, one can’t help but get the feeling that Brownstein and Timony split the songwriting chores almost down the middle, as each alternating tune exhibits trademark elements of one or the other’s wildly different signature styles. You could even be forgiven, at times, for thinking you were listening to a shuffle of b-sides from “One Beat” and “No Guitars.” Which are both fantastic records. But that’s the thing…

While the individual songs are good – even great – and fans of Sleater-Kinney, Helium or The Minders will find much here to savor, at the end of Wild Flag’s 10 songs, it’s still unclear what Wild Flag, the band, is going to sound like. Because what the album captures best is not the sound of a new musical force on the scene, but the sound of four top-notch musicians and unique stylists trying to figure out how exactly they fit together. The results can still be intriguing and rewarding, as in songs like “Short Version” or “Future Crime,” where Timony’s guitar is pushed out of its usual medieval-tinged comfort zone into the wilds of rock ‘n’ roll riffage. But there are also a few awkward collisions. While Janet Weiss’ powerful Keith Moon-style pounding provided the perfect muscle for Sleater-Kinney’s sinewy two-guitar interplay, it is, at times, too heavy and too direct for Timony’s more delicate, idiosyncratic compositions and angular strumming, occasionally weighing them down rather than supporting them. The good news is that the fortunes far outnumber the flaws, but even Wild Flag’s highest points have the texture of stylistic aggregate. Rather than a unified band with a unique voice, Wild Flag is still, at this point, a heterogeneous mixture of individual approaches that have yet to coalesce into a sonic whole.

What keeps Wild Flag, the album, from sounding either too schizophrenic or too familiar is the joyful abandon of all four women as they explore, experiment, share and discover. Unlike Timony’s and Brownstein’s previous collaboration, The Spells, which sometimes came off sounding like two talented gals just messing around, the proceedings here are being taken more seriously, but not so serious as to become ponderous or pretentious. The album is held together by a thematic, rather than musical unity, as each member revels in the freedom and the thrill of being a part of something so new and full of possibility. Almost every song, both lyrically and structurally, can be read as a celebration of music as an inspiration, a solace, a way of life. “Come and join our electric band…” Timony entices on the track of the same name. Boundaries are pushed, past successes are relived, and personal histories and influences are audibly shared. “Endless Talk” with its mix of poppy keyboards and bluesy vocals is surprisingly reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s Doors numbers. “Racehorse” is a galloping jam that sounds like the MC5 fronted by Patti Smith. All in all, it’s a restless, searching record, but also a fun and fearless one.

Certainly, when it comes to our expectations of supergroups, the case could be made that the fault lies not in our rock stars, but in ourselves that we are underwhelmed. Great musicians, after all, come together to jam out of mutual admiration and a sense of fun, not to make history. But it’s hard, when you have this much talent concentrated in one place, not to hope for something mind-blowing, something life changing, something wholly new and different than anything you’ve heard before. It’s even harder when an album this vital and this passionate displays all the promise and potential inherent in an artistic alliance while falling just short of fulfilling it.

“Chemistry cannot be manufactured or forced,” noted Brownstein on her blog, perhaps acknowledging the inevitable pressures that would be faced by Wild Flag’s stellar ensemble, “But after a handful of practice sessions, spread out over a period of months, I think we all realized that we could be greater than the sum of our parts.” After listening to Wild Flag, the album, it’s clear that she’s correct, even if they’re not quite there yet. After all, if Cream had disbanded after their uneven first album, they’d likely be little more than a musical footnote today, and Wild Flag is already a more consistently enjoyable debut than Fresh Cream. On “Black Tiles,” the album’s soulful, melancholic closer – a beautiful, powerful track that could also be the best indicator of what Wild Flag might sound like when they finally gel – Brownstein acknowledges that, “For all we know, we’re just here for the length of the song.” I, for one, hope that the band’s obvious commitment, both to music and to each other, means they’ll be here a good bit longer than that. Because as enjoyable as it is to hear them celebrate who they are and where they’re from, the most exciting thing about Wild Flag will be discovering who they become and where they’re going. In the meantime, with this first step, they’ve planted a flag worth flying.

Sinead O’Connor – The Lion and the Cobra

by Matt J. Popham

(Originally Posted: March 17, 2014)

Most people started paying attention to Sinead O’Connor circa 1990. The video for her Prince-penned smash single “Nothing Compares 2 U” became a ubiquitous presence on MTV (back when having your video in rotation ad nauseum was a sign of cultural relevance), and hordes of the hypnotized rushed out to buy the album from whence it came, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (back when people still rushed out to buy albums). At seven million copies worldwide, it remains her bestselling record to date. In the years since, O’Connor’s uncompromising opinions, confrontational style, and other such badges of artistic integrity have cost her many of those fans, leaving only an ardent million to purchase her several or so subsequent releases, right up to 2012’s scorching and stellar “How About I Be Me (and You Be You).” But in the waxing and waning of all the hype and hysteria since she caught the world’s attention, too few ears have been turned towards O’Connor’s acclaimed 1987 debut, “The Lion and the Cobra.” To this day, I am surprised by how many people – even avowed fans – I encounter who are unaware that this album exists or, worse, give it dismissive short shrift. Of all the injustices Sinead O’Connor has had to endure in her long career, this may be the most unforgivable and obscene…

Like everyone else, I discovered Sinead in 1990 (or, rather, I discovered Sinead when my sister discovered her in 1990), but it wasn’t her multi-platinum sophomore effort that made an impact. The popularity of “Nothing Compares 2 U” had, in fact, caused me to regard her as little more than another trite pop songstress with a manufactured, attention-grabbing image. It took less than two songs from her first album to thoroughly incinerate that notion. It’s hard to describe exactly how I felt the first time I played “The Lion and the Cobra” all the way through, but if it’s possible to describe the sensation of a white-hot dagger slowly penetrating my soul, only in a positive way, that would be it. At the time, I was in an exclusive relationship with all manner of loud, testosterone-heavy, aggressive rock (perhaps with a bit of classical or jazz on the side to show-off my musical sophistication), largely because it provided the ideal outlet for my adolescent angst. But just in the course of the “The Lion and the Cobra’s” opening ballad, “Jackie,” O’Connor’s voice, building from haunting beauty, to defiant rage, to anguished commitment, reached heights of emotional power and intensity, the likes of which I had never – even in all my punk/metal peregrinations – encountered. It remains one of the only songs I know of that can flood my eyes with tears merely by my THINKING about it…

What I forget – what I ALWAYS forget – about the album is how spare, how electronic, how 80’s the whole thing is. Full of danceable beats, synth-y accompaniments (Is that really a Casio SK-1 I hear in “Never Get Old”…?), and light, airy guitars whose maximum muscularity is about on par with your average New Wave outfit, it’s always something of a shock to put it on and realize how atypical it is among my all-time favorites. But then she sings… O’Connor has one of the rarest of voices: confident, clear, clean, and most importantly, strong enough and passionate enough to seemingly bend any musical accompaniment to her fiery will. And in that way, the mild, minimal musicianship of “The Lion and the Cobra” becomes one of its strengths, accentuating the searing vocal iron with which she brands all of her songs. The jangly dance-pop of “Mandinka” erupts into a raging declaration of self, the lyrical dreamscape of “Jerusalem” burns with the fury of sincerest threat, and the mournful “Drink Before the War” escalates into a scathing, apocalyptic condemnation. Even the accessible, danceclub come-on of “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” seems to throb, not only with the expected lust, but an aching, pleading desperation for simple human contact. And after so many tidal waves of passion, the album’s soft and simple closer “Just Call Me Joe” seems less like a delicate request, than a lone whisper in the aftermath of Armageddon.

On St. Patrick’s Day, it might seem more fitting to extoll the virtues of “Sean Nos Nua,” O’Connor’s 2002 collection of traditional Irish folksongs and ballads; and that album is, inarguably, worthy of superlative praise. But “The Lion and the Cobra” still remains my favorite of her impressive catalog, perhaps all-the-more because I feel it is so often forgotten. A pitch-perfect debut, an arresting announcement of artistic arrival, it remains, even today, as fierce and unflinching as its Biblical title suggests. O’Connor might be Ireland’s musical answer to Joan of Arc, but if you’re looking for something unforgettably cathartic to accompany your pints and whiskeys on this fine St. Patrick’s Day, “The Lion and the Cobra” is sure to drive the snakes from your soul…