BAD RELIGION: BACK TO THE KNOWN (1985)
1) Yesterday; 2) Frogger; 3) Bad Religion; 4) Along The Way; 5) New Leaf.
I do not normally review brief EPs — as important as the format used to be for most of the «underground» artists with no opportunity for / an aversion to serious record contracts, it usually provides very limited grounds for a full-fledged review. But every now and then there are vital exceptions. This particular release, for instance, although it clocks in at a measly ten minutes (allegedly, Side A of the EP was left mirror-blank for obscure artistic purposes), is one of the most important albums in the Bad Religion catalog — and besides, isn't ten minutes sort of the ideal format for a self-respecting hardcore artist?
Basically, it is a bit odd to be reviewing Into The Unknown without saying a few words on its quintessential antipode — Back To The Known, released a year later and firmly returning Bad Religion to its feet on familiar territory. Not only that, though: «back to the known» it may be, but the songs do not sound much like the ones on Hell. In fact, they are seriously better.
First of all, they got themselves a cleaner production style. All the guitars now sound like they belong on a major label speed metal album rather than on some lousy bedroom tape. Does that compromise the spirit? Hardly — because everything else, the speed, the riffage, the lyrics, the vocal aggression all remain at the same level; should we blame the recording engineer for a simple human wish to capture more of the frequencies and cut down on the noise levels? Second, all of the tunes have clearly been designed as «melodic songs» rather than «punkish rants» — not only do they try to make the riffs more distinctive, but Graffin actually tries to sing, including attempts to sing poppy hooks, some (most? all?) of which actually work. No limits to miracles!
In addition, there have been important lineup modifications: in particular, Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson replaces Gurewitz as the new-look band's chief guitarist (although Brett is still credited as the album's co-producer), and new bass player Tim Gallegos replaces Paul Dedona. Not sure just how much of an influence these particular shifts had on the overall sound, though, so let us just turn to the actual songs.
ʽYesterdayʼ, far from being a hardcore deconstruction of Paul McCartney, could have easily been written by the likes of The Easybeats two decades earlier — but it wouldn't have kicked so much ass without this raging bull of a guitar sound, nor would it be allowed to contain the classic line "kiss your ass goodbye with a shadow dream of yesterday". ʽFroggerʼ inserts a fun lyrical and musical reference to the 1981 arcade game as a one-minute metaphor for life in general. The title track is a «cleaner» remake of the band's anthem, originally released on their first EP (Bad Religion) in 1981 — and I think it improves on the early take, due to a clever use of the stop-and-start technique and somewhat more restrained (and hence, more subtly dangerous) vocals.
ʽAlong The Wayʼ slows down the tempo for a «hard-folk» anthemic march, spiced up with a healthy dose of wah-wah blabber and a less healthy dose of moralizing, including Tommy, of all things, as its point of reference ("Like Tommy, you are free, and you will not follow me"). Finally, ʽNew Leafʼ goes as far as to feature some wannabe-melodic backup vocals (and a barely audible guitar solo to wrap things up). Neither of these two songs is a real smasher like the title track or ʽYesterdayʼ, but they do inject a nice shot of diversity.
Not all the fans loved this — most were pleased to see the band drop its heretical «progressive» attitudes, but many would have loved to see them really get back to the actual «known», that is, release a clone of Hell: these five songs, in contrast, were seen as too «tidy» and poppy. But, like I said, the whole thing still sounds completely authentic and credible, and it takes talent and hard work to make a «clean hardcore» record, kicking your ass in not just a brutal, but a subtly brutal manner. I wouldn't hesitate to count this among their very best offerings, and a thumbs up is firmly guaranteed.