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25 Years Ago: Bad Religion Sharpen Their Edge ‘Against the Grain’

Epitaph
Epitaph

Singer Greg Graffin said that Bad Religion‘s fifth album, 1990’s Against the Grain, “was all about how you have to challenge the structure of science and art to make progress.”

From most punk frontmen, that would sound at best aspirational and at worst contrived. But Dr. Graffin has the documentation to back it up: he earned both a master’s degree from UCLA and a  PhD from Cornell, making him perhaps the most overqualified singer to come out of Southern California’s hardcore culture.

Graffin’s intellect is the secret ingredient in Bad Religion’s stew. Hardcore, like any other genre, has its compulsory moves – the speed, the metronomic snare beat and two chord melodies. One isn’t going to get a prog rock organ solo or a mandolin break in a hardcore song. The structure is rigid, leaving little room for deviation without rendering the songs something else.

That’s not a criticism anymore than saying that a detailed watercolor of a seascape cannot by definition be called an abstract expressionist painting, and like abstract expressionism, hardcore pretty much all sounds the same to those who haven’t studied the genre. Play Against the Grain for the uninitiated and be ready to be asked if it’s a lost ’90s era pop-punk album from Green Day or some such. That’s just how it is, or would be if not for Graffin’s lyrics and the album’s sophisticated production.

It’s also the original home to one of Bad Religion’s best known songs: “21st Century (Digital Boy),” a track the band would re-record four years later for Stranger Than Fiction, their major label debut for Atlantic Records. The song is a play on King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but updated to address the digital tsunami heading our way as the ’90s dawned. The line “I don’t want it, the things you’re offering me / symbolized bar code, quick ID” sounds prescient 25 years later when we’re quite literally under constant surveillance of one sort or another.

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As great and catchy as “21st Century (Digital Boy)” is, it doesn’t seem to support Graffin’s hypothesis that album’s theme is progress through challenging the structures of art and science. Cuts like “Entropy” seem to cut closer to that bone. The word itself sent young punks searching for dictionaries, most of whom likely latched onto “gradual decline into disorder” as the most punk rock definition of any word this side of anarchy. That was typical of Graffin’s lyrics, though – never condescending, never talking down to his audience. In “Entropy,” he does for the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann what the Police did for Vladmir Nabokov by introducing the man to an audience that may never have stumbled across his name otherwise.

“Faith Alone” invokes Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now” almost like an answer song. Where Bacharach gently ensured his audience that “love, sweet love” was the answer to that question, Graffin is less romantic and more pragmatic. “What the world needs now is some answers to our problems,” he sings. “What the world needs now is some accountability,” concluding that “faith alone won’t sustain us anymore.”

The complexity of the lyrics and the songs’ topics are not the only areas where Bad Religion pushed at the boundaries of hardcore convention. The harmonies are as tight in their way as those of the Beach Boys, who allegedly were an influence on the band, and the album is littered with guitar riffs that would be right at home on a hard rock album (the title track’s twin guitar lead serves as a great example). On the band’s website, guitarist Brett Gurewitz provides an audio commentary on some of the other recording and studio innovations the band brought to the album, and thus to punk rock.

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Epitaph remastered and re-released the album in 2005, but did not include any bonus material. For now at least, curious fans have to satisfy themselves with bootlegs of the album’s demos, many of which are available online.

As for Bad Religion, they’re still out there getting it done. Graffin and bassist Jay Bentley are the only two Against the Grain era members who still play live, but co-founder Gurewitz continues to write and record with the band.

Bad Religion fans rank Against the Grain among the band’s finest albums. It’s their last album with Pete Finestone manning the drum kit, and the last before the band took on a more experimental sound with Generator. It makes for a great entry point into the band’s discography for new fans, yet continues to satisfy the true believers. That’s not too bad for a record that’s a quarter century old.

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