Album Review: Bad Religion – “True North”

When I first started to get into punk rock, I didn’t know where to start. New sounds were practically begging me to follow them wherever they would take me, but it was all so overwhelming. A whole spider web of bands and sub-genres and scene politics that I was semi-aware of but not comprehending. So, I asked a friend for advice. I asked him for bands, lots of bands– to add to my repertoire of awareness. These weren’t the deep and underground; these were the NOFX’s and the Anti-Flag’s of the scene distilled into one perfect list for the curious nearly-punk.

Out of all those alluring names, there was one band whose name stood out from the others, and of course it was Bad Religion. Perfectly appealing to my teenage atheist sensibilities, I dug into the depths of the internet to find out more. A cursory search revealed them to be ‘melodic’ and ‘intelligent’ and ‘wordy’ among other things that I probably thought sounded cool, but didn’t understand. With a list of buzzwords to aid in my novice appreciation, I pursued Bad Religion, soon realizing they lived up to every journalistic cliche used to describe them. Rocked by their speed, their catchy but idiosyncratic sense of melody, and uncharacteristically bombastic guitar solos– I found my first favorite band.

Years later, I feel honored to be able to write about this punk rock monolith. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you never really grow out of Bad Religion.

True North is their sixteenth album (featuring sixteen tracks), which is incredible. No matter the actual quality of the album itself, that is an impressive feat. Luckily though, True North has a lot more to offer than a number. The hype around it has colored it as a return to form, a faster and more vital collection of songs meant to hearken back to the era of Suffer and No Control. Miraculously, it does exactly what it promises, and while it’s not a perfect record, it comes damn close.

“True North” is a perfect opener, and it’s no wonder that it shares its title with the album. The song uses the concept of true north as a metaphor for morality, but more importantly it suggests that morality is malleable– an undoubtedly intriguing, but also innately rebellious concept. It challenges everything we know about good and evil and challenges us to decide for ourselves. “True North” sets the tone for the entire album, rebellion on an ideological level delivered with speed and melody.

The first half of True North is flawless, classic Bad Religion. “The Past Is Dead” is an upbeat anthem that could’ve seamlessly fit into New Maps of Hell. But one of the most impressive tracks is the timely and infectious “Robin Hood In Reverse.” Undoubtedly born out of the Occupy movement’s command of the social zeitgeist, it opens with the indelible couplet: “here’s the church, there’s the steeple/ open up the doors, corporations and people.” But it also features a solo by the legendary Brian Baker, one of punk rock’s foremost guitarists, and on “Robin Hood In Reverse” he shows us why. Baker’s guitar has as much of a recognizable tone and delivery as Graffin’s voice. He effortlessly weaves the vocal melody into his solo but takes it into different places, dominating it and making it his own.

“Fuck You” is a catchy number with a huge hook and some incredibly tight harmonies, although the title feels a little cheap (seriously, punk rock has been around for over thirty years, this dead horse has been beaten), it still feels like a throwback to the Suffer days with a bit of a modern twist.

The first place True North falters is with “Dharma and the Bomb.” And actually, one could argue that this isn’t so much a misstep as just a bizarre and jarring decision. After opening up with an interesting off kilter guitar riff, the listener will be surprised to hear the voice of Brett Gurewitz taking lead vocals for the first time in Bad Religion’s long and storied history. Gurewitz does not have a bad voice, but it’s lower and delivered more aggressively than Graffin’s. At one point, it could’ve been an exciting upset, but right now it just feels like a distraction. But, besides that, “Dharma and the Bomb” is a good song with a decidedly darker melody and a distinctively Bad Religion sounding chorus despite it’s vocal swapping caveat.

Coming in at three minutes and fifty seconds, “Hello Cruel World” is the longest song on True North. It’s a heavy, plodding number, weighted with angst. It features one of Baker’s most impressive solos to date; a reckless and desperate collection of notes that perfectly encapsulates the song’s anguish. But while “Hello Cruel World” represents a change of pace, “Dept. Of False Hope” is classic Bad Religion, through and through. Mournful, dystopian lyrics are offset by uplifting melodies, suggesting a sense of hope beyond the defeatist words.

“Nothing To Dismay” is a hardcore throwback that is driven by Wackerman’s frenetic, yet precise drumming. Throughout True North, Bad Religion reach back to their earlier days to re-explore the speed and aggression of hardcore, and they tend to be some of the most exhilarating tracks on the album. “My Head Is Full Of Ghosts” plays with the notion of Graffin singing unaccompanied (last tried on Dissent of Man on “The Day the Earth Stalled”), but it feels like a weak attempt at dynamics, rather than thrilling experimentation. Otherwise, “My Head Is Full Of Ghosts” is another fantastic song that features some of Bad Religion’s trademark elevated vocabulary (c’mon guys, didn’t you know “meta-cognition is just intuition?”).

“Changing Tide” closes the album with a sense of finality. Harmonized woahs lead us into one of Graffin’s most energetically delivered vocal performances in years. The song’s message of embracing change is a perfect signing off for True North. Bad Religion won’t be around forever, and when they’re gone they’ll undoubtedly leave a huge hole in our scene. Perhaps they’re cognizant of that too, because “Changing Tide” could be more than the perfect end for True North, it could be the perfect end to Bad Religion.

On True North, Bad Religion have culled the best of themselves from a history spanning over three decades. Unlike other scene veterans, content to be just another legacy act, Bad Religion continue to be relevant and exciting. True North is no exception.

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