It’s no doubt that Bad Religion has always been, and continues to be, one of punk’s most beloved bands. Yet, much of BR’s love has often been derived from their earlier work; certainly most people would name-drop albums like How Could Hell be Any Worse?, Suffer, and Against the Grain as their strongest. And though it is certainly arguable that much of their later work from the mid-1990s onward can written off as confused, uninspired, and repetitive, it’s surprising to see how much Generator, this mid-career masterpiece is neglected. Hell, even Allmusic.com- one of the most liberal and gratuitous critical sites for music on the web- doesn’t care much for it. Here’s their entire review on the aforementioned album:
“Generator demonstrates an improved sense of melody from Greg Graffin, which doesn't mean Bad Religion have abandoned their blistering hardcore inclinations. Instead, the band has managed to incorporate melody within the framework, adding an increased depth to their already provocative songs." (3 out of 5 stars)
And though Allmusic.com touched a bit on Generator’s qualities in their brief 2-sentence review. Much has to be said of this album and in my opinion I find that this happens to be one of their finest works to date. Just take a look at the opening title track, as vocalist Greg Graffin spews forth some of his finest and most intense lyrics yet:
“like a rock, like a planet,
like a ***ing atom bomb,
I'll remain unperturbed by the joy and the madness
that I encounter everywhere I turn,
I've seen it all along,
in books and magazines,
like a twitch before dying,
like a pornographic scene,
there's a flower behind the window,
there's an ugly laughing man,
like a hummingbird in silence,
like the blood on my door,
it's the generator"
As Graffin beckons on, he does so over a churning, chaotic barrage of guitars that manages to keep simplicity and aggression akin to charming vocal harmonies and excellent drum rhythms. All this spirals up to a raw and feedback-drenched solo courtesy of Brett Gurewitz. Thus, as “Generator" suggests, this album is a big step forward for Graffin, as well as the rest of the band. Graffin has managed to develop a keener sense of melody and vocal harmonies which suits his charismatic and calm baritone very well, itself a rarity in punk. And though Graffin rarely raises his voice above a shout, his lyrics provide all the urgency needed and unlike any of his peers, Graffin has the uncanny ability to remain politically-critical without the need to preach at his listeners aimlessly. “The Answer" is a startling parable and metaphorical account of “democracy" in modern America while “Fertile Crescent" paints one of the finest and most disturbing portraits of the first Gulf War in music. Complimented with a catchy staccato-heavy guitar melody, Graffin describes the “ghosts of humanity" with lines like “I don't agree with this outdated trend, nationalism is an evil friend, but hatred is instilled by invisible lines."
Though Graffin is a major cog in the Bad Religion wheel, the rest of the band shine just as bright on Generator and much of this can be accounted for the more robust production on the album. The guitars are loud and crunchy but still retain a tinny-kind of treble edge that avoids the grunge sounds of the early-1990s. However, like the grunge sounds of the said era, Gurewitz mingles more heavily with feedback and sloppy phrasing that gives surprisingly delightful results. “Two Babies in the Dark" features such a melody in which Neil Young and Santana are channelled to provide a very haunting and even passionate tone to the song. “Only Entertainment" meanwhile feature some very solid intertwining of the two guitars in the mix. As well, this album also features the introduction of drummer Bobby Schayer to the group, who has to be one of the best punk drummers of his time, and quite possibly ever. Every beat on the snare and kick has perfect tone and pitch and his cymbal crashes cut through the mix with great intensity. Every fill meanwhile, sounds perfectly necessary and in time. In general, Schayer not only has a great sense of rhythm but is quite a minamalist in the sense that he doesn’t try to overstuff his beats with constant snare-and-kick work that could at times wear on the listeners ear after awhile.
Though every song on this album is solid and is very cohesive to each other, the pinnacle on Generator is “Atomic Garden". Taking a rollicking piano melody inspired from Elvis Costello “Atomic Garden" is a menacing and moving account of nuclear deterrence influenced by neo-realist political thought during the Cold War. Graffin, In a Kubrick-esque manner, provides a stunning portrait of paranoia and instability among leaders of nuclear nations (the nation in this song is quite obvious though it does need to be mentioned). The second verse in particular is great as Graffin remarks:
“ All my scientists are working on a deadline,
so my psychologist is working day and nighttime,
they say they know what's best for me,
but they don't know what they're doing,
and I'm glad I'm not Gorbachev,
'cause I'd wiggle all night,
like jelly in a pot,
at least he's got a garden with a fertile plot,
and a party that will never stop."
If anything could be said about this album that is negative, it could be the fact that it is simply too short. Though intense, the fact that it barely clocks in over 30 minutes, the album is definitely not long enough to really settle down and enjoy.
But all in all, this is certainly one of Bad Religion’s strongest efforts to date: the neglected middle album that combines the aggression and fury with beaming intelligence and catchy melodies in a neat little package.