BAD RELIGION: HOW COULD HELL BE ANY WORSE? (1981)
1) We're Only Gonna Die; 2) Latch Key Kids; 3) Part III; 4) Faith In God; 5) Fuck Armageddon... This Is Hell; 6) Pity; 7) Into The Night; 8) Damned To Be Free; 9) White Trash (2nd Generation); 10) American Dream; 11) Eat Your Dog; 12) Voice Of God Is Government; 13) Oligarchy; 14) Doing Time.
One might think that competition among hardcore punk acts is somewhat like competition in between a pack of wild buffalo — thriving, aggressive, life-asserting, but ultimately they all look alike anyway. Which is why, even though early Bad Religion were by all means a worthy competitor, it makes lots of sense that they only released one full-length, «generic» hardcore album before embarking on a complex quest to find their own identity.
«Generic» does not necessarily mean «stupid and boring», though. From the early start, Bad Religion put serious emphasis on technicality (as opposed to «virtuosity») and melodicity, although in terms of melody they would rather veer off into metallic territory rather than power-pop, as did many of their LA colleagues. In the rhythm section, bassist Jay Bentley frequently benefits from moments of silence that allow him to throw in some nicely thought out, quiet lines (check the coda to ʽInto The Nightʼ). Guitarist Brett Gurewitz throws out riff after riff after riff, mostly variations on standard Ramones fare but with an occasional nod to Sabbath as well — and then he overdubs flashy, wailing, melodic solos in the brave rock'n'roll spirit of Mötörhead. (On one of the songs, ʽPart IIIʼ, the solos are played by Greg Hetson, who would soon become an integral part of the band's sound). And the vocals?
Well, it is true that Greg Graffin had not yet found a distinct vocal style. But it is already quite clear, if you ask me, that he is heading for one, just as lyrics like "Early man walked away as modern man took control", not exactly standard fare for yer average illiterate punker, already seem to presage his future academic career. He does not sing much, or else he would be violating the hardcore aesthetics, but neither does he go for straightforward toneless barking — his is a more restrained approach, sort of a hoarse snobby sneer that allows for slightly more distinctive articulation: what use, after all, is heavy investing in your lyrics if no one understands them anyway? This might not make How Could Hell Be Any Worse? an «intellectual's dream» by itself, but this is one instance where words actually do matter, since many of them go way beyond the generic «my girl's a bitch, fuck the system» thematics.
Graffin does favor fucking the system, of course, but he frequently sets his sights higher — for instance, Bad Religion's ʽPityʼ shares pretty much the same message with George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ; it is only the speed and the tone of delivery that are different, and the terser, more sociological phrasing — "if we endure the aggression that's inside all of us, we'll wipe out our own species... pity on the masses of ignorant people, on the future centuries to come". How the emotion of «pity» can be yoked together with the musical aesthetics of hardcore is not easy to understand — but, apparently, that is the essence of early Bad Religion: take a detailed, if not exactly original, philosophy of society and convey it to the hardcore crowds. Better us future university professors than ignorant skinheads, right?
Memorability is a touchy issue with these songs: a few of the choruses are catchy enough, either as «shout-along» slogans (ʽFuck Armageddon, This Is Hellʼ, in which the «this» should come in italics, I guess; ʽWhite Trash, Second Generationʼ) or simply as agonizing outbursts (ʽInto The Nightʼ), but the riffs all drift together after a brief while, so that generally, the songs are only distinguishable when they are adorned with some particular gimmick — such as the sarcastic «Christian» speech in ʽVoice Of God Is Governmentʼ, the classic garage-rock soloing on ʽLatch Key Kidsʼ, or the almost psychedelic guitar tone that appears on ʽDoing Timeʼ to conclude the album. But such tricks are quite rare.
Overall, this is definitely a must for every fan / historian of hardcore, but those who like to associate their hardcore with explicitly youthful rebellion might be disappointed: Greg Graffin does not care all that much whether you are young or old, socially rewarded or socially discriminated — his pity is for all of us, whether we want to take it or not. "You're just gonna die anyway", goes the last line of the album, and who could disagree? Pretty powerful statement here. I give the whole thing a modestly curious thumbs up — modestly, because (a) I'm not much of a hardcore fan myself, and (b) I prefer the Adolescents, and maybe even the Dead Kennedys. But in general, a hardcore record must be judged according to whether it sounds dumb or smart, and this one sounds quite smart, if not, perhaps, quite deserving of a UCLA professor. But then again, Greg wasn't quite a UCLA professor yet. For a 17-year old, this is quite impressive.
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