Review Summary: Unknown Road is unfortunately an overlooked album in the Pennywise catalogue, as it’s one of the best Surf Punk albums from the golden era of that genre.
As you can probably tell, I’m a Pennywise fan. They were the first Punk band I knew. This was the first album I ever bought with my own money, I think. Everyone’s musical journey starts somewhere. This is where mine began. We all go through dozens of phases in our musical tastes, but for all of us there are those enduring albums (and bands) that will always hold a special place in our hearts. Obviously you can see where I’m going. It’s pretty hard for me to look at albums like this completely
objectively, as I’ve loved songs like Homesick
for 11 years, and I can still remember how happy I was the first time I played the intro to Time To Burn
on bass. But personal bias aside, this is an engaging Punk album that saw the band develop musically, and Jim lyrically, while offering up their best material at that point in their career.
In an year defined by Siamese Dream
, In Utero
, Surf Punk was marching along nicely just below the mainstream. Dookie
changed a lot of things the following year, and the rest is, er, the present. But bands like NOFX
and Bad Religion
kept the Surf Punk flag flying high for many years to come, and Unknown Road
played an undeniably significant role in establishing Pennywise’s 20 year career. While their self-titled album was full of energy and enthusiasm and expanded upon their debut EPs, it was no more than a solid debut album that needed to be built upon if a successful career was to be had. And so it is that Unknown Road
is a marked shift - ah, development - in the Pennywise sound. Gone are the harsh vocals and rushed production, and the interplay between the drums and bass is beyond anything seen in the five years prior. The fact that 11 of the 13 tracks were recorded with Randy Bradbury on bass - rather than Jason Thirsk - is the obvious reason for this, but Byron McMackin’s role shouldn’t be understated either. But above the musical development - heck, the self-titled wasn’t poor by any stretch - the production and recording of the album is one of the most pleasing aspects here. It’s far more polished and refined than anything the band had done up to this point, as Fletcher’s guitars remain ferocious but, crucially, distinguished from the wall of noise that is Pennywise in full flight. With the benefit of hindsight, Unknown Road
is unmistakably the link between early, raw Pennywise, and the period of the band’s greatest work, the late ‘90s: there are moments that scream About Time
, while there is equally a certain self-title influence.
With a back-catalogue of upwards of 150 songs to choose from, only Homesick
and Unknown Road
seem to have stood the test of time and feature regularly at Pennywise live shows. Probably fair enough, as Unknown Road
, with its iconic piano intro and the fact it’s the title-track, is one of the pre-eminent tracks and Homesick
is classic Pennywise - no-nonsense, forceful Punk Rock and positive lyrics with an overriding sense of realism. The chorus is catchy, melodic-yet-assertive Punk and at times the vocal lines are Jim Lindberg at his best: “The city used to be such a beautiful place, But now you can’t walk down the street, And things don’t seem the same. My hands are in the air, It makes no sense to me, And I cannot explain this tragedy.
” The bass fill in the middle of the solo in Homesick
is, for lack of a better phrase, absolutely sick. The rugged Punk power chords that kick-off the title-track set the scene for the album and the sentiment it draws upon throughout - optimism and realism. The lyrics of the opener speak of missed opportunities and hesitancy - literally, not walking down the unknown road
, and staying on the beaten path. It’s a formula that Lindberg has drawn upon on many following albums (many say ad nauseam
), but here it was original and engaging. The Offspring
-esque fast (yet in no way ‘Hardcore’) Punk is prominent on Unknown Road
and the overall sound of the album is largely different from any other Pennywise album. The sound isn’t as ‘full’ or as powerful as the Pennywise albums of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, as the band achieves an attractive mix of unity between the instruments and distinguishing each instrument’s own identity. The blistering guitars and drums are here - as prominent as on any Pennywise record - yet the roaring, formidable sound heard on Straight Ahead
and From The Ashes
is only seen in glimpses - certainly a positive aspect, as heavy, bustling numbers would seem incongruous here.
The most alluring feature of Unknown Road
is probably the consistency. While all Pennywise records have a defined sound which is seldom deviated from, in the case of Unknown Road
, this is used to full effect. The formula of fast Surf Punk is explored to its fullest, offering up tracks that would seem at home on a Bad Religion
album - diversity (however minute) has never been a feature of Pennywise: savour it. But like almost all Pennywise albums, there are a handful of tracks that pale into anonymity, largely because of, ahem, their similarity. Tracks like Dying To Know
fail to distinguish themselves in any discernible way. Nonetheless, You Can Demand
and Dying To Know
give the middle-section a couple of highlights and the ferocious Vices
- which, with it’s themes of substance abuse, would seem more at home on About Time
- serves up two minutes of aggressive Punk, with a blatant message. The unmistakable development of the band’s ability to pen harmonies and melodies is apparent throughout the album, with the self-titled album being completely outshone by the choruses and backing vocals here. Certainly the secret track - apparently called Slowdown
- is a fun, fast, Punk
way to round out the album, displaying Pennywise’s reputation as a tight, energetic live act while letting some lucky fans get in on the act at the same time.
When you buy a Pennywise record, you know what you are getting. Pennywise aren’t a diverse band, but for an early-‘90s Punk - read Surf Punk - album, Unknown Road
is up there with the best of them. This music suits surf videos so well it’s crazy. I guess that’s half the reason why it’s called Surf Punk, but anyway. While melodic Punk tends to be more the domain of the Strung Out
s and Offsprings
of the world, Pennywise incorporate it into this Surf Punk record better than they had previously, and just about as well as they have since. It’s hard to detach myself completely from this album, and I haven’t been able to settle on a rating for this one at all. But all allegiances aside, this album still rocks, and listening to it now - like I haven’t for some time - I can still enjoy it 11 years after buying it. Certainly the zenith of the first phase of Pennywise’s career, and while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it’s a consistent, likeable Punk album that is, if anything, a product of its epoch.
You Can Demand
City Is Burning
(the secret track).