For punk bands, the debut album is both a blessing and a curse. For one, most punk debuts are a creative statement, aimed at showing the audience what the band thinks is wrong with music, and how they’ve broken down rock ‘n’ roll into a primitive form. For The Ramones, their self-titled debut was the band shunning typical prog and arena rock, and a return to the “Wall of Sound” rock popularized by Phil Spector. For the Sex Pistols their debut was a shunning of traditional British values and mores, with an Anarchist bent. For hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains, their debut album was a melding of uncompromising, back-breaking punk, and laid-back dub-reggae, showcasing the bands Rastafarian religious beliefs, and commentary on life in Washington D.C.
At the same time, after punk bands make their statement with their debut, there’s nowhere for them to go artistically (with the exception of The Clash, whose creative nadir happened with their third album London Calling). After the statement and modus operandi have been set, familiarity sets in. The Ramones’ sound became tired after three albums. The Sex Pistols couldn’t keep it together for a second album. And Bad Brains, who released their self-titled debut in 1982 on cassette, have since been in constant turmoil, and released albums of diminishing returns and creeping mediocrity, and the band wasn’t able to buck the trend with their new album Build a Nation.
The album, split about 60 percent between the typical thrashing punk, and 40 percent dub reggae, is nothing above the ordinary, except for the fact that the band’s music hasn’t sounded this tight in years. Brains’ guitarist Dr. Know, a terribly underrated guitarist, melts his fretboards on numerous tracks (bow down to the opening minute of “Universal Peace”) and bassist Darryl Jennifer lays unparalleled funk (check “Natty Dreadlocks…) that bumps and grinds underneath the battering ram drumming of Earl Hudson.
The main problem with Build a Nation is the fact that singer H.R.’s vocals are so reverb-soaked that it is impossible to hear what he is saying on nearly all of the tracks. If producer, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, wanted the album to sound like the band’s debut, which was recorded on inferior audio equipment that rendered most of H.R.’s vocals incomprehensible, he succeeded. If he wanted to make contemporary music fans unable to understand what the big deal about Bad Brains was, he succeeded as well. For a band that wants to perform songs about peace, war, and God, making sure people can understand you should be at the top of your in-studio concerns.
Build a Nation is a frustratingly unsatisfying record by a seminal American punk band, whom shouldn’t still be relegated to underground territory. If only this band could get the right producer, and could regain their old energy, they could finally be hailed universally as the kings of hardcore punk, a title they’ve deserved for 25 years.