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Bad Brains – Build a Nation

Bad Brains’ Build a Nation is a frustratingly unsatisfying record by a seminal American punk band.

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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.

(Megaforce Records)

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Crossed Keys – Saviors

Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds

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Crossed Keys Saviors

Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.

Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.

For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.

(Hellminded Records)

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Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”

A glorious sound of a time gone by

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Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.

I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).

To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.

Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.

While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.

Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.

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