Graded on a Curve:
Bad Religion,
Into the Unknown

Talk about your unmitigated disasters: in 1983 the L.A. hardcore band Bad Religion nearly threw its career chances out the window when it inexplicably decided to follow up its very well received debut LP Could Hell Be Any Worse? with, get this, a synthesizer-heavy PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUM!

I mean, seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? Trying to peddle prog to the kids on the faster-harder hardcore scene circa 1983 was an even bigger dumbell move than coming out in support of Ronald Reagan and wouldn’t have made sense even as a kind of ultimate punk rock practical joke (which it wasn’t), and the blowback was (as was certain to be expected) both brutal and swift.

Into the Unknown (copies of which the band had optimistically produced in large numbers) tanked, leading guitarist Brett Gurewitz to later joke that 10,000 copies went out and 11,000 copies came back. And tellingly, only 12 people turned out to see Bad Religion when they premiered the material live, which so demoralized the band that not only did they lose the synthesizers (probably tossed ‘em in a dumpster behind the club) they actually broke up for a while. A “terrible misstep” is how Gurewitz characterized the LP, and that’s a bit of an understatement.

But here’s the thing. Into the Unknown is a fantastic LP and to my way of thinking the most interesting thing Bad Religion–a melodic hardcore band with no discernible sense of humor that has produced a whole slew of LPs that are more than competent but have never added anything absolutely essential to the hardcore conversation–will ever produce.

I’m no fan of progressive rock, but I love Into the Unknown because its anthemic teen uplift taps into (and is a logical extension of) the (far more likable because dumber) kiddy-prog that was being churned out by the likes of Styx, Kansas, and Boston less than a decade earlier. And if there’s one thing I support, it’s a Big Kiddy-Prog Revival.

Indeed, the LP’s “never give up in the face of awful teen reality” concept is really nothing more than a distaff variation of Styx’s “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” and how cool in its hokey way is that?

What makes Into the Unknown so great? Its epic scale. I cannot emphasize enough how monumentally huge these songs are, and how they build and build into big ecstatic oceanic swells of exaltation that knock your ears from under you in their sweep. This isn’t the kind of prog that emphasizes technical virtuosity for its own sake or sixteen song shifts per minute–it’s the kind that bowls you over with bombast, lighting up your pleasure receptors by means of sheer sonic overkill. Just check out LP opener “It’s Only Over When… “ for proof, partner!

It helps, I think, that Bad Religion sound like rank beginners; there’s something naive and totally likable about how technically savvy they ain’t, and while this is anything but hardcore, that good old hardcore DIY spirit comes through in the sense that these guys don’t seem to care very much about how raw and relatively primitive they sound when stood up against the abominable likes of Yes or ELP or anybody for that matter.

What they care about is getting their message across, and the biggest message as expressed in both “It’s Only Over When… “ and album closer (“… You Give Up”) is inspirational in nature. Both are paeans to hanging on in the face of teen despair and suicidal longings and general no hope when “your life is in the garbage can.”

I tend to be resistant to such messages, no hoper and inveterate pessimist in all matters that I am, but when anchored to such soaring melodies even I can’t resist ‘em. And it’s not as if the LP is all mealy-mouthed optimism by any means–”Billy Gnosis” is a very Steve Milleresque (think “Take the Money and Run”) ode to homicide, alcoholism and insanity that boasts some great guitar wank, while “Chasing the Wild Goose” is about how we’re all running after something to conquer our loneliness but “it seems the game is mostly pointless in the presence of the prize.” Styx sure never laid down any dark shit like that, although Kansas did with “Dust in the Wind”!

“Time and Disregard” has four parts in the great progrock tradition of multi-part song structures, and opens with some great mind-warp synth by vocalist Greg Graffin and this really sensitive acoustic guitar strum that kinda reminds me of Boston before climbing, step by step, towards the great unknown that gives the album its title. I totally dig the cool synthesizer interlude and Graffin’s anything but carefree scat singing and the breezy acoustic guitar segment and everything else about this baby, which climaxes (following a slew of power chords) in a tremendous explosion of synth soar and guitar splooge that never fails to make my hair stand on end, seriously!

Also worth noting: an elegiac “Million Days” that summons up Kansas and Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and features a great sing-a-long chorus, and “Losing Generation,” which could in its uptempo synth-romp way be a late-era Yes song but for some reason doesn’t make me nauseous the way Yes always does. Who cares if the lyrics are ridunkulous and your standard ecology/veganism lecture (“Who is the animal/Who is the dangerous beast?/Why were the other ones made?/I know it wasn’t just for our feast”)? I can’t stop listening to it! Or laughing at it, for that matter!

Bad Religion tried to put as much distance between itself and this baby as possible–it has never been released on CD, for instance–but I’m not gonna let ‘em because whether they know it or not Into the Unknown is the one Bad Religion LP that deserves to be put in a space capsule and rocketed into outer space for the purposes of educating any extraterrestrials who might happen upon it as to how sometimes a person’s greatest misstep can ironically turn out to be that person’s greatest achievement.

Buy this fucker!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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