PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Bad Religion: Against the Grain / How Can Hell Be Any Worse? [remastered]

Christopher Orman

Bad Religion

Against the Grain [remastered]How Can Hell Be Any Worse? [remastered]

Label: Epitaph
US Release Date: 2004-04-06
UK Release Date: 2004-04-19

For the most part, punk rock serves as the ethnomusicologist's antithesis to disco. It broke from the exorbitant, cloying conformity of the late '70s, erupting from the Sex Pistols and Blondie, pouring from the Clash and a myriad of CBGB fare. Where rock and roll found itself again.

But in the United States, punk evolved beyond 1980, serving a more political purpose. The ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency coincided with the untrammeled real estate boom, to create a period rife with visual and social stagnation. Southern California areas such as Orange County and San Diego County saw leas become seas of tract homes and smog. The Northeast witnessed the other aspect of Reaganomics ("trickle down", to use the anathema term now propounded by CNBC economists) with a sharp increase in homelessness and education continuing its precipitous decline under the pressures of small budgets and disinterested teachers.

In interviews Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye promulgated these problems and their social pertinence, as if his songs extending Henry Rollins' Black Flag animosity weren't lucid enough. Songs were broken to their core, turned into one-and-a-half-minute lambastes against everything the establishment had concocted and crafted. MacKaye continually mentioned the 1960s, the protest era, and his band often came across as a modernized version of the MC5 in using lyrics and haphazard speed to inform the populace.

Not only did MacKaye "preach" about change, he did so with a third-person slant. In Minor Threat's lyrics, the word "you" is the fulcrum for the polemics. The listener has been the prick. The listener has been snorting too many lines of coke. The listener has preconceived notions to expunge. The listener must change. Theoretically and politically, MacKaye's concept makes sense: only if the listener realizes the current problems can a shift commence.

What MacKaye did, and how he conflated his music with his words, can be heard in LA's Bad Religion. With their first album, 1982's How Can Hell Be Any Worse?, now reissued on Epitaph Records with a bounty of unreleased tracks, Bad Religion followed a similar approach, believing in two minutes (or less) the change could begin. With the problems and their results also came from the same source. However, despite their similar goals and perspectives, Bad Religion had a somewhat more Marxist philosophical undergirding.

Unlike Minor Threat, who primarily detailed and limned the current social stifling, Bad Religion took a more sanctimonious (dubiously quixotic?) approach: religion is the opiate of the masses. The majority of the tracks, the buzzing guitars and sloshing sloppy drums, pound forward with lead vocalist Greg Gaffin vehemently shouting "fuck Armageddon, this is hell!" As if the three horsemen mentioned in Revelation aren't merely phantasms, but an endogenous disease eating at the mind. The man selling religion on the street doesn't care about the now, thinking the holy salvation awaits.

For Bad Religion, especially on How Can Hell Be Any Worse?, that is the point. Apathy and listlessness surface when an individual just accepts every moment as pre-ordained, as fate and by the hand of God. When Gaffin recounts the story arc of Hitler on "We're Only Going to Die from Our Own Arrogance", he does so pointing towards the populace. When it reaches its shattering climax, the words "killed himself with his own mind" pour forth. Simple, yet effective, in conveying how shockingly myopic the population can become when mollified into acceptance of quotidian fate.

Even though Bad Religion show a predilection towards issues regarding religion, several tracks fall more patently into the Minor Threat framework. "Politics" and "Voice of the Government" are cries against Reagan's politics, both in the White House and in Sacramento, while "Slaves" provides some big brother paranoia.

After Bad Religion broke up, reformed, broke up, and then reformed, their 1991 effort Against the Grain exposed the band's enormous growth and, in particular, Greg Gaffin's enormous vocabulary via his Cornell education and subsequent teaching career. It may also represent the band's zenith. While the themes remain the same, detailing the government's wrong doings, environmental problems, and several blasts at pro-abortion protesters, Gaffin's lyrics now read as dissertations.

With "The Positive Aspect of Negative Thinking" he strings together a series of GRE words, creating a flow of prolix tropes to describe the government. Then with "Entropy" Gaffin uses physics metaphors to eviscerate the idea of steadfast acceptance of a simple (i.e., religion) answer to demise. One could rail Gaffin for preaching, but his language creates a sense of ambiguity for the listener who can't quite pick out everything being said.

Musically, it is still punk, but there are minor gestations from the band's two previous outings, No Control and Suffer, while light years from their teenage How Could Hell Be Any Worse?. The band sounds tighter, the production more exact. The speed and melodies arguably surpass any hard punk album ever recorded. Ironically, it also features some stunning arrangements, changing time signatures for example, and rather exquisite harmonies, things often missing or avoided entirely in most punk during this period.

Somewhat surprisingly, the songs on both of these reissues hold up fairly well and ring with an element of clairvoyance in retrospect. References to the government, to oil, to "morons in power" carry more weight now than they did back then. Yes, it can become moribund and downtrodden. Yes, Gaffin's polemics might go too far for those without a disposition towards such ideas. But they expose what Bad Religion sounded like in their heyday before they became radio friendly and far less invigorating, as if the world counted on what they created. They also show what punk really embodied in that nascent Southern California punk scene alongside TSOL, Social Distortion, and Agent Orange.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.