Review Summary: While not the promised sequel to "No Control", True North is pretty damn close.
"But maybe I'll inch closer to the source / When I find true north."
Prior to this album's release in 2012, Brett Gurewitz had commented, while praising Pennywise’s surprising release of “All or Nothing”, that he was inspired to create "Another No Control" for his own band & Epitaph founding mainstay, Bad Religion.
Now, let's be realistic here: any Bad Religion fan who read this, was probably full of doubt. You do not just drop that album name in a casual conversation without discussing how influential it was & still is. The most recent attempt at this kind of classical throwback was also the ambitiously uneven & faux old-school New Maps of Hell, so a bit of trepidation was warranted.
For once, it wasn't.
The album cover gives a clear indication that the band wasn't ***ing about in the effort behind this album as more old-school sounding: purposely minimalistic & 80's punk black & white w/ simple photography cutouts & edits worthy of an MS Paint session or a dumping of dollars in change at a Kinkos. The entire booklet is also minimal, & the grey & monochrome theme give major signals of this releases primary classical BR influences: 1990's "Generator", 1994's "Stranger than Fiction", & to a lesser extent, 1996's "The Gray Race".
The lead single, "*** You" is almost a complete meta joke on Bad Religion's own intellectual lyrics ("You can even get cerebral if you want to" & "Sometimes it takes no thought at all / The easiest thing to do / Is say *** you"), wrapped up in a more aggressive & straight forward punk song, with just the right amount of multi-syllabic Graffin verse play & the staple "Ozzin Ahhs". Following behind is also another interesting, refreshingly more rock oriented number called "Dharma and the Bomb" featuring…Brett Gurewitz on lead vocals? When did new Bad Religion ever do that?
The brilliant moments on this album are almost too numerous to list: the sudden budget vocal panning while Brooks hammers away on the drums in the intro to "My Head is Full of Ghosts", the aggressive old-school snare intro & completely infectious sing along chorus in "Nothing to Dismay", the surprising rhythm build-up in the verses of "Popular Consensus", the almost Generator sense of exploration in crunching guitars in "Crisis Time", the quick No Control start to "In Their Hearts is Right" & a pleasing Against the Grain feel to the slowed down / sped up chorus.
Even after the slower respite from “Hello Cruel World”, the urgent, more hardcore "Vanity" kicks the album right back into gear, sounding like a far better version of "Murder" from NMOH. The faster songs here on True North have a sense of organic speed & urgency that we haven't really heard in full since "Supersonic" opened up Process of Belief. That isn't to demean the last 3 albums faster material, nor the albums themselves, but it’s far more effective here.
I hate to bring up the concept of a "spirit" or "geist" with an album that implies “my head is full of ghosts” already, but despite musical, technical & rational analysis, there's a certain vague charm found on True North that isn't found on the genre tweaking & folk / arena rock forays of the band’s last few albums (Dissent of Man, New Maps of Hell or The Empire Strikes First, respectively).
Every song here, even the more briefer than usual closing track “Changing Tide”, manages to fit together cohesively, neither overstaying their welcome or just being underwhelmingly brief, with all 16 tracks clocking in at a much leaner 35 total mins.
Nothing is sacrificed for the runtime: the solos are solid, efficient (“no solos beyond 16 bars” old school rules). Graffin’s vocals are as perfectly suited to this band as usual, keeping up with the higher speed & syncopation of this album’s compositions. The guitar trio of Hetson, Baker, & Gurewitz keep driving the energy forward with the riffs & provide a convincing argument that this album might the best thing the band has recorded since acquiring 3 guitarists. Rounding up the rhythm section is Wackerman conducting the speed for the rest of the band behind the drums, & Bentley glueing it all together on the bass.
Lyrically, both Brett & Greg are on par with one another, & help focus the album’s themes (the irrationality of politics & corporate personhood, narcissism,illusions of security brought upon our own delusions, to name only a few brought up) into a more personalized way to the listener, even going far more existentialist on tracks like “The Island” & "Hello Cruel World".
You even get the sense that finding the title of the album itself, True North, is almost a literal description of what the band is doing here: delving into their classical sound as a means to illuminate a clearer way to future albums, after the uncertainty of their most recent output.
But I digress; while True North is not the promised “sequel” to 1989’s No Control, it comes pretty damn close. If anything, it feels much more like a sequel to either Process of Belief or Stranger Than Fiction, & while I still enjoy & appreciate their 2004 to 2010 output, this album is on another level altogether, & deserves to be considered a classic album in it’s own right.
With the band inching closer to the source, True North is truly a blast.