34 years. That’s how long Bad Religion has been a functioning entity! Occupying a genre not known for cultivating longevity in its participants, they’ve endured line-up changes, fluctuations in popularity and label changes and are (deservedly) absolute icons of punk rock.
However to use sporting parlance, you’re only as good as your last game… so how does True North come across in the current unpredictable musical landscape?
Although the band’s origins are firmly rooted in hardcore punk, they’ve consistently worked a lot of melodic content into their sound, particularly with harmonized vocals and guitar solos, which set them apart from many of their more aggressive sounding contemporaries.
Adorned with a stark grey cover depicting a finger pointing at a half suited/half naked human form, I was expecting this album to be dark, unfriendly and daunting. My assumptions were partly correct; there is plenty of social/political/religious commentary, references to Orwellian dystopias and there are song titles such as “Land of Endless Greed”, “Hello Cruel World” and “Fuck You”, but despite the seriousness of much of the lyrical content, the album somehow sounds upbeat and accessible! Of course being punk, the 16 songs on offer are fast and short, but the band sure cram a lot of great hooks into them.
They have outdone themselves with the vocal harmonies on True North. At times they reach almost Beach Boys-like proportions…ok well maybe not quite that brilliant, but nonetheless they’re very impressive, they give a seemingly grey album bursts of colour and they are surely the best the band has ever produced. Greg Graffin’s lead vocals, (while not exactly virtuosic) are given weight and drive by the poignant and focused lyrics.
Having three of the original members present since the early 2000’s has given the band cohesion and inertia that has doubtless contributed to the quality of this very impressive effort.
The instrumental performances are excellent, particularly the drumming of Brooks Wackerman (formerly of Infectious Grooves and Vandals). He plays with speed and precision, and while the drums are a little low in the mix, his performance is the standout. Not to take anything away from the other members. The guitar work of Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson is perfectly suited to the style. There are many great riffs and some reasonable solos….in fact, much like a punk incarnation of Pete Townshend (high praise indeed coming from this reviewer!) they, at times, blend lead and rhythm playing into an integrated slab of fretwork that really fleshes out the album. This, combined with the excellent drumming and great vocal harmonies, gives it an appeal much wider than that of “mere” punk.
There are some terrifically catchy and memorable tracks on True North. “Fuck You” is classic Bad Religion. Impassioned vocals, great chord progressions and melodic, harmonized “whoa-ohs” give it quite an anthemic quality. “Dharma and the Bomb” is harcore punk meets Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles(!) with its angular guitar lines and inventive harmonic sensibility, and “Vanity” is a 60 second blast of vitriol, but again, the angst is offset by the great harmonies (see a trend developing here?). “Popular Consensus” is possibly the most melodic (yet still pacy) song on offer, with an unforgettably tuneful vocal line “Maybe it’s all you need to help you through the night. Maybe you’ve seen the light. But you know the popular consensus doesn’t make it right…”
All the tracks on True North are great and it was difficult to pick favourites, but possibly the greatest song is the album’s closer “Changing Tide”. A final track of epic proportions, the harmonies soar, the guitar lines are powerful and reverberant and the lead vocals are impassioned and delivered with sincerity. A great way to end the album and whet our appetites for their next effort.
There is nothing about this album I didn’t like. It’s easily among the best work Bad Religion has ever released. It’s honest, articulate, rocking, energetic and multi-faceted. Kudos to the band for surviving for so long and continuing to release works of this quality!
“Brothers, say goodbye
Sisters, don’t you cry
All embrace the times
Wade into the changing tide…”