Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Random Music: Bad Religion - "No Control"

This is the first in a hopefully recurring feature called Random Music.  I have about 600 CDs in my collection, and I'm going to randomly pick one to review using a number generator.  The advantage to this is that I won't always be reviewing something that I think is the best ever, and hopefully it will be more interesting that way.

That said, some bands are more likely to come up than others simply due to how many of their albums I own.  One of these is Bad Religion, whose music I devoured like a ravenous animal in college.  In fact, the first BR album I bought is today's pick, "No Control".  This is the disc that got me hooked on BR, and it definitely delivers the goods. 

For those unfamiliar with the boys in Bad Religion, they're one of the most influential melodic punk bands in history.  The recipe is fast guitars, ear-wormy melodies, lyrics that could only come from a man with a thesaurus on hand at all times, and of course those trademark vocal harmonies (a.k.a. the "Oozin' Aahs").  Frankly, if you've heard one BR album you've heard most of them, putting aside the fact that they have been slightly evolving over their 30 year history.  And then there's the odd experimental record that they release, which I love and punks rip apart for not being punk enough.

"No Control" is frequently cited as one of their best records, though I don't agree by a long sight.  It's smack in the middle of their "classic" period, between "Suffer" and "Against the Grain", and all three albums have variations on the same sound.  Honestly, I think Bad Religion got more interesting when they began experimenting and writing more than one kind of song, but punks tend to hate change and BR have always been sadly weak against peer pressure.

All the same, there's some awesome music here.  "No Control" marks the full flowering of Bad Religion's vocal harmonies, and it's honestly got some of the best group vocals that the band ever recorded.  I can imagine that it really knocked listeners on their asses back in 1989, as it knocked me on mine in 2001.  Yet I rarely listen to it today for a few reasons, chief among them the crummy production.  The vocal harmonies are mixed well, but nothing else is.  Greg's lead vocals are performed well but buried in the mix with the guitar lines in a big tinny messy stew.  The bottom end essentially doesn't exist, and the bass might as well not be there except in one or two tracks.  Worst of all, the drums are almost inaudible when anything else is playing. 

The drum problem is exacerbated by how ridiculously fast the songs on "No Control" can be.  I know that conventional wisdom says that Bad Religion are only good when they play fast, but conventional wisdom also says that creative songwriting is "selling out".  When a band plays this fast they need crisp, clear production like Slayer had on "Reign in Blood".  When you can't even pick out the drums, it all becomes an admittedly candy-sweet buzz or hum.

This combined with the fact that this album feels like it's only 15 minutes long means I don't frequently spin it.  But randomly choosing "No Control" today had the benefit of reminding me why I liked it in the first place.  Greg Graffin turns in one of his career best songs with "I Want to Conquer The World".  The lyrics are cynical yet ridiculously fun to scream along with in the car: "I wanna conquer the world / Give all the idiots a brand new religion" "Do away with air pollution and then I'll save the whales / We'll have peace on earth and global communion".  This one song has created many new BR fan all on it's own.

At the same time, Brett Gurowitz comes up with the first classic "Mr Brett" song in "You", showcasing his off-kilter, more personal lyric style married to a melody that shifts constantly and carries the listener to all kinds of places.  "Henchman" is another masterpiece, blasting out more tempo and melody changes in a single  minute than one would think possible, leaping out of the speakers from the first note to shake you violently.  And the sudden harmony burst in the bridge of "Anxiety" was the moment I truly realized that I loved Bad Religion.  It's so unexpected and perfect that I don't think the band has ever bettered that one moment.

So "No Control" really is a fine record.  Personally, I'm more likely to spin "Suffer", as that album is more crisply produced and consistent.  At the same time, the importance of this disc in the band's history can't be denied, and more Bad Religion is almost always a good thing.

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