Into the Future, the new album by pioneering D.C. punk band Bad Brains, is a fascinating disappointment. It’s packed with riffs and rhythms as fierce as any in the band’s catalog, but the vocals… oh man, those vocals!…sabotage the effort.
The “classic” Bad Brains lineup is behind the wheel here — drummer Earl Hudson, guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer and singer H.R. These are the guys who knocked America’s punk scene on its pogo-dancing ass in the early 1980s with their ferocious debut album, a blistering mix of punk, metal and reggae that remains an all-time great punk record.
Since then, Bad Brains has had its ups and downs. The band went through a series of lineup changes, spent time on a major label and lurched, sometimes awkwardly, from one musical style to another. In 2007, the original quartet came back together for Build a Nation, which was produced by the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. It was the first Bad Brains record in 12 years, and it was hailed by many fans as a solid (if not perfect) return to punk-rock form.
Five years later, Into the Future continues in that vein. The music is raw. The guitars snarl. The rhythm section pummels away with abandon. These guys might all be well into middle age, but they can still thrash as hard as any of today’s young whippersnappers. And, if I may preach for a bit, how great is that? We’re living in a time when many of our punk and post-punk heroes — Bob Mould, Keith Morris, bands like Superchunk and Dinosaur Jr. and Mission of Burma — are making music every bit at as biting and powerful as they stuff they did way back when. Can I get an A-men?
As thrilled as I am by its music, though, Into the Future ultimately stands as a middling Bad Brains effort. The primary reason? H.R.’s vocals. Yes, it’s true that he’s always been an idiosyncratic vocalist, with a sneering, nasal delivery that has traces of Johnny Rotten and Jello Biafra in it. And it would be unfair to expect him to sound just like he did 30 years ago. But his vocals on this record are weird to the point of distraction. He warbles and whines. His singing sounds so aimless and detached you wonder if he’s even aware of the music that’s playing under him.
There are moments when it all works. The song “Yes I”, which screams by in less than 90 seconds, benefits from H.R.’s suggestive yowling. So does “Suck Sess”, which repeatedly alternates between a brutally fast punk beat and a slower, sinister metal groove. (A couple of reggae tracks, including a tribute to Yauch, work pretty well, too.) Sadly, though, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Look, Bad Brains’s place in rock history is secure. The group will forever stand with the Sex Pistols and Black Flag and others in the pantheon of great punk-rock bands. Into the Future won’t enhance that legacy, but it won’t tarnish it, either. And, as the title of the album suggests, Bad Brains’s story isn’t over. I believe these guys have at least one more great album in them, and I’ll pogo as high as anyone when it arrives.