BAD BRAINS: I & I SURVIVED (2002)
1) Jah Love; 2) Overdub; 3) How Low Can A Punk Get; 4) I & I Survive; 5) Cowboy; 6) Gene Machine; 7) Ghetto; 8) Rally; 9) September; 10) Ragga Dub; 11) Gene Machine (remix); 12) I & I Survive (Shiner massive mix).
Yes, you know a band is real deep in trouble when its best album in at least fifteen years turns out to be a throwaway, most probably recorded on the whiffy spur of one moment — in this case, a pack of instrumental reggae (a.k.a. dub) re-workings of their past compositions, both originally reggae ones and hardcore ones. The fans were mostly outraged, judging by the average «popular» reviews of the album; the critics remained indifferent or mildly amused; H.R. remained uninvolved (I am not even sure if he was with the band in 2002); and overall, this generally counts as a minor footnote in their discography — but, as it happens, footnotes sometimes turn out to be more informative and insightful than the main body of the work.
The thing is, these are not just reggae or «reggae-squared» reworkings of older material — these are atmospheric and, at the same time, technically impressive variations, with more creativity and diversity involved here than on any previously released Bad Brains record. This creativity does not always make sense; the reggae rhythmics occasionally gets tiresome for those who have not been particularly graced by Jah; and, clearly, this has nothing to do either with H.R.'s personal aesthetics or the hard rock pedigree of Bad Brains with which we associate the band. But are these really flaws? Just look at this:
— ʽJah Loveʼ eschews guitar heroics in favor of a jazzy horn section, playing big, but mournful brass riffs over minimalistic echoey backing; the brass parts return later several times, most notably on ʽI & I Surviveʼ where they mimick H.R.'s vocals (to much stronger effect than the original, I must say);
— ʽOverdubʼ is carried by a mildly ominous bassline, over which Darryl Jennifer dubs lamenting melodica parts, and Dr. Know throws in some electric organ flourishes for extra effect; the whole thing feels like a short walk through uncharted, slightly dangerous and unpredictable, jungle;
— ʽHow Low Can A Punk Getʼ finally introduces heavy riffage and arpeggiated metallic soloing which then goes away, replaced by a trip-hop section with more horns and strange electronic hoots with even more of that odd «nighttime» atmosphere;
— ʽCowboyʼ features a quirky ska arrangement where bass, guitars, organs, and chimes weave pretty tiny rings around each other (sometimes even an occasional mandolin breaks through and tries to turn the whole thing into a Spanish folk song, then fails, excuses itself and goes to the bathroom) for a rather mysterious, humble, and quiet four minutes...
...and so on, right down to ʽRagga Dubʼ whose title hints at an Indian synthesis, and that is exactly what it is. As weird as this thought seems on paper, Dr. Know seems to have selected this album, and no other, to test out all the ideas that he had been storing in his head for over a decade, without daring to let them out on Bad Brains' «regular» albums. By the time we come to the second half of the record, some of these ideas start repeating themselves (for instance, ʽSeptemberʼ adds relatively little to ʽGhettoʼ), but in light of the band's usual fuck-diversity attitude, this does not even begin to feel like a problem.
The regular problem with reggae, like blues, is that it «all sounds the same», but once you start thinking of blues and reggae basics as simply a formulaic foundation (after all, there are no limits to architectural variation, even if most of the buildings are based on the same skeletal principles), this problem can be easily annihilated — and with all the electronic tinkering, horns sections, experimental basslines, and fifty different modes of guitar playing, I & I Survived is... if not exactly a «masterpiece», at least a very pleasant surprise from these guys, despite not kicking the usual (wrinkled) ass and not serving as a polygon for H.R.'s (pathetic) madness. Thumbs up — these particular Bad Brains seem quite good to my tastes.