Bad Religion are as responsible as anyone for the homogenization of punk rock. Sometime around 1990'sAgainst The Grain, it sounds like they decided they'd already reached perfection, so why bother trying to do anything new anymore?
Here's how Bad Religion songs go: verse where introduces an idea, fist-raising chorus with anthemic oozin ahhs that sums it up which follows the format [name of song] [phrase] [name of song] [phrase that rhymes with the first one] [name of song again], then a small guitar solo, followed by another verse where Greg restates the idea with a different metaphor, another chorus, a longer guitar solo, another chorus, maybe two with the guitar solo continuing over it then finish. Sure there are variations on the format but all too often it sounds like their songs were pumped out by a Bad Religion Machine and not by people (talented people, even!) with instruments and ideas. So why write about them in a series about punk bands that—to steal Bad Religion's own parlance—go against the grain?
Well, have you ever heard Bad Religion's 2nd full length album? 1983's Into The Unknown? It's the one that comes between their genre-defining debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse and the also-pretty-good Back to the Known. You probably haven't. And there's a solid reason. It's not that great. It's so not that great that the band recalled all copies of the album and promptly disposed of them. But unlike similarly recalled entertainment (See also: Atari's infamous ET game, and Mos Def's True Magic), it has some actual value beyond the curiosity factor.
The story goes that Greg Graffin received an analog synth for his birthday from Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Feeling that punk rock was a stylistic dead end, he and Mr. Brett wrote a set of slower, more melodic songs that owed more to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, than to Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee. Unlike their previous efforts, the songs stretched well past the 4 minute mark, and feature complex musical arrangements. In 5 short years, punk had gone from defying the musical excesses of progressive rock to embracing them. There are multi-tracked acoustic guitars, tempo shifts, extended solos, and heavily effected drums. But the music and the lyrics are still decidedly punk. Graffin sings about social and political issues in his typical pissed-off-college-philosophy-teacher mode while distorted guitars blare out simple powerful riffs.
In every measurable way, Into The Unknown was a failed experiment. Fighting between band members during the recording process caused a breakup of the band, and most instruments had to be tracked by Brett and Greg (not the last time Bad Religion became little more than a solo project for Greg Graffin). Although there are some small highlights, generally the songs rank among Bad Religion's worst (even worse than 2000's consistently mediocre The New America). But they're also by far the most intriguing. The punk-with-synths sound prefaces both The Refused's 1998 masterpiece The Shape of Punk To Come and possible future Nation of Misfits entry Atom and His Package by 15 years. The slow tempos and complex arrangements predict the impending emo-core revolution by three years, and post-hardcore by five. And the angry folk music sound is something Graffin would return to in his solo records (1998's mostly fantastic American Lesion is in many ways a direct descendant of Into The Unknown).
As a devoted fan (I criticize because I love), Into The Unknown sheds some interesting insight on a band with an often contentious relationship with their fans (the first Bad Religion show I went to in Boston opened with Graffin announcing “I fucking hate Boston” to a chorus of boos). Was Into The Unknown the album they intended to make? Or did their ambition overtake their ability? Did the process of pouring their heart and soul into a universally hated record cause them to refuse to deviate from their sound for the next 30 years? Does the fact that Greg Graffin clearly had something more complex inside him than the punk-by-numbers of subsequent Bad Religion records explain the boredom behind their mostly un-listenable late 90's output? Does album opener It's Only Over When... really need 2 synth solos? And most importantly should I feel dirty that I never skip it when it comes up on my mp3 player?
Vinyl, Digital, or Torrent: Torrent this one. Unless you can find yourself an original LP for a decent price (and not the even-worse-than-the-original sounding German repress on colored vinyl that pops up on eBay all the time).