Review Summary: Bad Religion keeps on keeping on, with mediocre results.
Bad Religion - New Maps of Hell
This summer may be the summer of mediocre releases by awesome punk bands. Strung Out's Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
though praised by some has left me underwhelmed and aching for more. To offset my disappointment, I spent this afternoon cruising with my brother to Strung Out's Live in a Dive
, which even got my brother amped up (he typically only listens to The Game and Journey). Strung Out is a band that like NOFX, Lagwagon, Pennywise, and No Use for a Name blends somewhat mature songwriting, with fast, melodic punk in the California (both Nor and So) style. All of these bands have a common origin in Bad Religion whose California sense of punk melody and harmonized vocals were the foundation for the sound that would define the important Epitaph and Fat Wreck releases during all of the 90s. Bad Religion's career has been somewhat lopsided though. After being pioneers in the late 80s for this particular style, they fell off the table when guitarist Gurewitz left the band to focus on his label (Epitaph). Only upon returning did Bad Religion strike back with the clutch album The Process of Belief
, whose main single "Sorrow" was a force on popular radio as well as with even the jaded end of Bad Religion's fanbase, which is a pretty impressive feat.
Which brings us to the decidedly underwhelming New Maps of Hell
. I'm going to preface this qualification by saying if you're just a diehard fan of the Graffin's voice and Gurewitz's sense of harmony, then you're probably going to be content with this release, and really, anything BR releases. This is typical BR in a lot of ways. There are some pop-punk moments and some hardcore moments, all under a punk umbrella. It's the next installment in their discography and for some fans, that will be enough. However, for the average spectator, this album pales in comparison with previous releases from the band whether legendary (Suffer
) or just solid (Process of Belief
This lameness stems from a few keys characteristics of this album. Most importantly, the songwriting is weaker than ever before. There are some nice tracks, "Fields of Mars,"New Dark Ages" and "Honest Goodbye" included, but overall many of the songs are somewhat forgettable. Some of these are like "52 Seconds," which is hampered by its faux-melodic hardcore leanings. The fast minor key chords and shouted vocals feel like a weak, contrived throwback to their releases from 1988-1990 rather than original and inventive songwriting. In fact, the whole first third of the album except "New Dark Ages" seems to be rutted in this style. Others are just not inspiring. They have fast beats and harmonized vocals and all that classic BR stuff, but also feel like they're just attempts to rekindle BR's style from their golden years. For example, "Requiem for Dissent" has gang vocals that seem more gratuitous than gratifying, and even when the nice solos enter, they can't reinvigorate the song. The songwriting just feels too rooted in the past and doesn't even do a very good job of invoking the previous styles.
Also, the production is pretty uninspired if even weird at times. Whether it's the goofy, distorted, and compressed vocals of "52 Seconds" or the brief attempts at throwing in gimmicky production tricks like the piano fading into straight punk in the introduction to "Fields of Mars," the production just leaves me scratching my head. All of the goofy toss-ins feel extraneous unlike, say, the awesome dub parody intro to "Sorrow" from Process of Belief
or the frame-hitting on the turnarounds in "Suffer" from Suffer
. There's just something poorly chosen about the production idiosyncrasies on this album. Also, the instrumental tones don't inspire and do little to distinguish this release from any other BR offerings. The vocals don't cut through the mix as well as they used to. It's just more mediocrity.
The main plus of this album is that Bad Religion is a good band. The style that they've carved out over the past 25+ years is, even at its worst, better than that of most other punk acts. And, as I mentioned earlier, this is just the newest member of the BR catalogue. It does nothing to distinguish itself from other BR releases and some of the premier punk albums released in the past few years, but it also can immediately trump most of the stuff being put out these days on the virtue of BR's tight and likable style. If you're a diehard, pick this up, but if you're new to BR or merely a casual listener, check out / keep on enjoying the old stuff.