It’s easy to call Bad Religion “old” … because after listening to the initial samples of the New Maps of Hell, the song “Honest Goodbye” in particular, the gut reaction is “man … these dudes sound old.” But after repeated listens, you realize that “old” isn’t quite the word you’re looking far, but rather “ripe.” Ever since Brett rejoined the ranks (and the band returned to Epitaph), they’ve been searching for their perfect tone- in both songwriting and production- that would keep the band relevant in the current music landscape while not forgetting their rather dynamic and significant past. The New Maps of Hell then, is their conquering ode to the Bad Religion history that not only holds up well alongside some of their greats, but finally marks the pinnacle of their reformed and re-energized sound.
Their initial foray back into the “indies,” 2002’s The Process of Belief and 2004’s The Empire Strikes First, were relatively benign in their composition- providing instances of flair but rarely holding out for the duration. Thankfully, they never encroached on becoming caricatures of themselves and even their most uneventful of songs proved at least worthy of a few listens. Bad Religion seemed to merely chug along (as opposed to blazing through as they once did) on their most recent records, and it really isn’t until you listen to New Maps of Hell a few times that you realize it’s the natural progression from their previous two. It still has the expected up-tempo punk numbers, “Murder” and “Requiem for Dissent,” rip through the paces as “Modern Man” and “I Want to Conquer the World” once did, it’s just that their more mid-tempo, slow-building songs have finally found comfort beside them. “Honest Goodbye” may actually turn out to be one of the finest cuts from the album- a song reminiscent of Generator’s “The Answer” in potency. The band’s noted melodic tone is ever present as well- songs like “Dearly Beloved” and “Grains of Wrath” evoke some of the band’s finest moments, while maintaining a certain urgency to them.
It is however, no secret that once you’ve heard a few Bad Religion albums, you’ve really heard them all. New Maps of Hell is certainly no musical messiah of the future- it really is the same Bad Religion album, topically and musically, since 2002, just much better. The one true throwaway track of the release is the opener “52 Seconds.” It really should be renamed “a waste of 52 seconds” as the track does nothing to further the band or the album. If the band were ever in danger of self-parody, this song would be it. But as soon as the machine gun percussions of “Heroes & Martyrs” kick in, it’s pretty sweet sailing from then on.
New Maps of Hell won’t change your mind about Bad Religion whatever your current view on the band is. While it may not be the band’s finest moment, it is easily the best album they’ve done since they left Sony, and it is clear that Bad Religion remains the shining beacon amongst the sea of noise that has become the cross-pollination of the major label world and the independent one.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.