Review: Bad Brains - Build a Nation
Released: June 25, 2007
For a band with a history that spans nearly three decades, the Bad Brains have a fairly small studio catalog. They released four full-length studio albums over their first decade, but only four more since then (including the hardcore-free, dub-only I & I Survived). Needless to say, the first ten years didn't just provide greater frequency of recordings, but greater quality as well. There are few punk albums that can touch their first three releases and the influence of these records extends well beyond the punk scene that produced them. Beginning with 1989's Quickness, line-up changes and recording lulls made several albums seem a bit like reunions. It's now been five years since they've recorded and 12 years since they've recorded a hardcore album, so Build a Nation feels the same. With Beastie Boy Adam Yauch producing, expectations should be pretty high this time, even though they haven't made a truly great record since 1986's I Against I.
Build a Nation doesn't burst out from the start. The chanting that kicks off "Give Thanks and Praises" doesn't necessarily bode well, but the song does get into gear, tapping into an I Against I vibe that's promising. Over the course of the album, the Bad Brains manage to revisit their prime with varying success.
"Jah People" finds the Bad Brains returning to the controlled explosion that they perfect on I Against I. Dr Know shows some of the chops that make him one of the hardcore's all-time best guitarists on the brief burst of energy that is "Pure Love." "In the Beginning" bridges the gap between these songs and the unbridled approach that they reproduce on much of Build a Nation.
Most of the album successfully shows that they still have the energy to make great hardcore. The title track simply goes off with as much force as anything they've ever recorded. "Let There Be Angles (Just Like You)" and "Send You No More Flowers" both tap into that same energy without losing the Bad Brains’ essential vibe which is what always set them apart form hardcore in general.
They include five reggae tracks, none of which matches the forays into reggae on their early albums. They are generally good songs, but over-production strips them of the raw honesty of "I Love I Jah" or "I & I Survive." The organ in these tracks was a nice touch, but otherwise, the instrumentation was a bit too full. With the exception of "Until Kingdom Comes" which is just a dull track, they're good songs that suffer from a little too much meddling.
Clocking in at under 40 minutes, there shouldn't be any filler, but they do come up short on a few tracks. "Expand Your Soul" tries to capture the I Against I era, but lacks any spark and falls more along the lines of Quickness or even God of Love. Adam Yauch shouldn't put this album down on his production resume anyway, but he's particularly weak on this song. "Universal Peace" finds Dr Know tapping into generic riffs rather than his own distinctive sound, resulting in lackluster track, at least by Bad Brains standards.
The album finishes up with its best reggae track, "Peace Be Unto Thee." Not only is it a fine ending musically, but it also leaves the Bad Brains positive message on the table rather than wrapping it up in a blast of energy.
Most hardcore bands would be proud to create an album like Build a Nation. For better or for worse though, the standard is quite a bit higher for the Bad Brains (perhaps higher than for any punk band other than the Clash), because they are both a social and a musical revolution. It is interesting that this is the second time that a high-profile musician has filled the production chair (Ric Ocasek produced 1983’s Rock for Light) and both times the production wasn’t particularly good. Perhaps it is because each came in with a vision for the respective albums, but were unable to get control of music that defies any vision other than its own. Even though this album is clearly in the musical wake of the Bad Brains’ past, it shows that they still have all the passion that makes them great even if they can't quite hit the high bar they've set.