[22 July 2008]
Generally, when established rock groups begin releasing deluxe editions of past albums, they start with the oldest recording in their catalog and go down the line chronologically. Not Bad Religion. These über-slick over-40 message punks chose their most recent album, 2007’s New Maps of Hell, for their inaugural deluxe repackaging. I guess they plan on working backwards. You know those 28-year-career Southern California rock sextets fronted by harmonica-playing, Wisconsin-bred Ph.D holders. They always have to go against the grain.
Hilarious puns aside, methinks this new New Maps of Hell only exists because the album didn’t do as well as Bad Religion wanted it to when it was originally released last year. So they threw in an acoustic EP, a concert DVD, some nifty posters, and tossed the son of a gun back on the sinking ship that is the physical record retail market. I can respect that kind of huckstering, but only because New Maps is a pretty sharp collection of new material worthy of attention from punks all around. The tried and true Bad Religion agenda of pointing out how humankind is being deceived amidst zippy riffing and soaring choruses of oohs and aahs (“Oozin’ ahs,” as the liner notes call them) shows few signs of stress or weakening.
It does seem, however, that lead singer Greg Graffin is running out of ways to use all those big words trapped in his large, balding cranium. In “Germs of Perfection”, it sounds like homeboy is just reading out of a thesaurus (“Lacerate, eviscerate, perforate, and mutilate!” he shouts, adding “deprecate, repudiate, ameliorate, adjudicate!” a minute later). Weak sauce, Greg. At least his distinct geeky yelp hasn’t changed much over the years. Graffin’s one of the few singers out there whose voice is unique enough to never have been accurately or successfully duplicated/imitated.
The acoustic EP is nice touch, and it serves to underscore how unnecessarily complicated the Bad Religion sound has become over the years. Nothing on the electric version of New Maps, which is chock full of the complex vocal harmonizing and wall-to-wall guitar work that has defined Bad Religion since the mid-to-late ‘90s, comes close to the simplistic beauty of Recipe for Hate’s “Skyscraper”, appearing here as a soft, Billy Joel-type piano number. When you’ve got a melody and imagery that strong, you don’t need ten thousand compressed instruments and an army of guys harmonizing on top of it. In this humble reviewer’s opinion, an entire acoustic album highlighting the genius of early BR might be in order.
Muddy sound mars the full concert included on the bonus DVD, but again, how could Bad Religion in person ever live up to the cosmic rock sheen heard on all their albums? At least the fellas play a nice cross section of songs from their near-three-decade career for the various snot-nosed 13 year olds and cute 20-somethings in attendance. Guitarist Brett Gurewitz wins the award for Band Member Who Looks Most Like the Coolest Dad You Know, with fellow axe man Brian Baker coming in at a very close second. The behind-the-scenes material included here is agonizingly short; the highlight of said proceedings is an impromptu a capella version of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” sung enthusiastically by Graffin. Stirring, frightening, almost worth the price of admission.
Now there’s an idea: barbershop renditions of 1970s arena rock anthems performed with little to no practice by assorted members of Bad Religion. Perhaps that can be an extra on the deluxe version of 2004’s The Empire Strikes First that they’re bound to release sometime in 2009. Rest assured, I’ll be the first (and only one) in line for that.