Saturday, August 15, 2009

Into the Unknown

Statement: Every Bad Religion song sounds the same.

Response: Incorrect.

Last night I was reading Greg’s write up on Bad Religion and their album No Control in which he mentioned that these “Godfathers of Modern Punk” released “a space-rock album that was almost immediately out-of-print.” Before I even finished Greg’s post I went to the all-knowing Wiki, bowed low and read up on the alluded to album. And with my penchant for discovering and judging for myself those disowned, “We didn’t really mean that,” out of print missteps (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s Squeeze, The Doors’ Other Voices, etc), I went to my secret source and got me a copy.

But first, a little history…

I was introduced to Bad Religion in high school via another punk band, Down By Law, who was fronted by my hero at the time Dave Smalley. One of the songs on DbL’s debut album, The Truth, was helmed by drummer Dave Naz and displayed a completely different type of melodic punk than the rest of the album. I loved it. My friend Steev pointed out that if I liked that song then I’d like Bad Religion. Since he was right about Minor Threat and Verbal Assault, I figured I’d take a chance (remember kids, this was long before Al Gore gave us the internets with streaming audio and MP3 samples). I picked up 1990's Against the Grain on a trip to Pensacola with my parents and then girlfriend to buy a suit, and while I loved that album to death, that was the extent of my affair with Bad Religion. See, they went major in 1993…and in 1993 that was a cardinal sin. So that was that. So much so that I put Against the Grain in a box of “never to be listened to” discs and eventually sold it (or at least lost the box).

(As for The Truth, it’s almost the best song Bad Relgion never wrote.)

Plus, I could (again) argue the age-old indie adage that all Bad Religion songs – and therefore albums – sound the same, ergo all you need is one…but again, incorrect. And as proof I give you their second album, Into the Unknown from 1983.

Talk about a sophomore slump. I can’t imagine what the rest of the guys were thinking when (I assume) Greg Graffin walked in with this batch of songs and overall concept, but it was enough to essentially break up the band. I mean this is almost their attempt at an ELO album, complete with a “reaching for Mars” cover that would have fit nicely alongside the album artwork of Boston, Journey and, of course, ELO. And what’s interesting is that at least the first couple of tracks seem like an average Bad Religion song with someone like Trevor Horn in the production booth. And then some just aren’t. But two things somewhat unify this album with its more true-to-form cousins; the signature traits of harmonies (Graffin’s voice is instantly recognizable) and topics along the lines of social/political awareness…though neither as biting or poignant as on more standard releases.

I have to think this wasn’t a mindless mistake, but a well-intentioned misstep. These guys are known for being the “intelligent” punk band, and even though they were all just hovering around the age 20 mark, I believe this was a calculated attempt at, well…something. If nothing else this album (despite obvious inner band turmoil) was fun to make and can be seen as a tribute to the times. This was, after all, the “anything goes” 80s. And again, the first two tracks could have easily been (and probably were) standard Bad Religion punk when somebody got the idea to throw whacky keyboards all over the place. But by four songs in, Time and Disregard, all semblances of anything Bad Religion or punk are long out the window. This cut alone (at just over seven minutes) channels everything from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle to The Who to the Moody Blues. And there are others just as removed, such as the acoustic guitar driven Million Days and the Night Ranger-esque keyboard anthem Losing Generation (complete with blistering guitar solo). But again, not all punk is lost and there are times when this bastardized batch of songs can sound as legit and endearing as some of your more average Stranglers moments.

Seriously, this is not a good Bad Religion album, but it’s not a bad album either. Three our four well-received punk efforts in, and Graffin (whom I’ve decided to just all out “blame”) could have released this as a side/solo project with a few scratched heads and knowing winks, but without the vitriol that allegedly followed in the wake of its release. gives it 4.5/5 stars and the moody, ever hard to predict Robert Christgau an A-. So really, you have to weigh this album (25+ years after the fact) as what it is and not what it was supposed to be…the anticipated follow up to How Could Hell Be Any Worse?

So, seeming attempt at career suicide (before it really even began) or just misjudgment on their part, we’ll probably never know, ‘cos the band has completely disowned this record. And though they wouldn’t have another full album until 1988’s Suffer, they would acknowledge their mistake with the 1985 e.p. Back to the Known, which found them touting their initial sound, got most of the original line up back together and is I think proof that they had a sense of humor about it all.

***Since this album is out of print, I can't give you any tracks to sample (at least not with my limited internet knowledge), however, I did find a You Tube link of The Dichotomy live from 1983, which is one of the aforementioned Stranglers-esque songs, and in this take more "acceptable" sounding than the album version.***

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