For sheer ferocity, it's hard to match the hair-on-fire intensity of Bad Brains' self-titled first album. Arguably the crucial bridge between hardcore punk and thrash metal, the D.C. quartet blow through their songs wreaking fuzz-drenched mayhem like a whirling twister that's passed before you catch your breath.
Their breakneck punk paeans cite growing societal fascism ("The Big Takeover"), threaten bourgeoisie values ("Fearless Vampire Killers"), and herald the value of a positive mental attitude ("P.M.A."). The rhythm section's a V8 so close to your ears you can hear the pistons exhale.
Guitarist Dr. Know's (a.k.a. Gary Miller) chunky menace comes lined with fluid, searing leads that bear a trace of his early jazz-funk fascinations. The rhythm section of bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson is the foundation. Mercurial frontman H.R. (short for Human Rights) is the storm's eye, an enigmatic figure capable of spitfire lyrics, evocative vocals, and (initially) live-wire stage acrobatics, but whose attitude has shaped the band for better and worse.
While there's no denying their incendiary Molotov fury, it's only half the story. Their punk is interspersed with dreamy reggae jams that offer the listener a moment to catch their breath (especially on early albums). Now, nearly a quarter-century after they began, they seem to be rediscovering their old power and camaraderie as they work on their ninth studio full-length, a follow-up to 2007's Build a Nation.
Initially, the band members were schoolmates and neighborhood friends. Their first rehearsals found everyone in a basement. There was a jazz-fusion element that quickly turned into something indescribable, which they didn't try to put a name on.
"It just all kind of came out of 'each one teach one' of all our influences we listened to," Miller recalls. "Because in those days, we were very versatile, and there were no labels on music. We just did what we did and didn't care about style. That was a very embryonic time for the whole scene. Being young and growing up in hypocritical D.C., we felt like we had to say something here, you now? Just to try to get these people together."
There was only one venue initially willing to host them, in a room over their restaurant. The experience inspired their underground classic "Banned in D.C."
"Those were the days of pogo-ing, before slam dancing. You had 50 people jumping up and down, and the chandeliers downstairs in the restaurant were rocking. So that's when the whole 'Banned in D.C.' thing happened. It wasn't just us that got banned. It was the entire scene," Miller laughs.
Bad Brains moved to New York in the early 1980s and became regulars at CBGBs. They made their '82 self-titled debut, which they followed the next year with Rock for Light, featuring reworked versions of songs under the production eye of the Cars' Ric Ocasek
The band broke up shortly after its release, inaugurating a pattern that would limit their creative output and ultimate legacy. Sometimes, passions can't be bottled, particularly when the bonds are so deep.
"It's not tension, so much" Miller clarifies. "It's that we grew up together, and we're like brothers — sibling rivals or whatever. And then you get to be mid-twenties and it's like, 'OK, let's take a break.'"
They reunited in '86 and produced the sterling I Against I album, which continued to balance reggae and hard-hewn rock, though this time the punk was laced with a strong metal aesthetic. After a year-long '87 tour, the band broke up again. They reunited for 1989's Quickness, which offered an eclectic blend of metal, punk, and funk, but just a single reggae tune. More break-ups and reunions ensued through the 1990s. They reunited with the original lineup for God of Love in '95 on Madonna's Maverick label, cashing in on their underground cred. In 1999, they began to perform as Soul Brains, trying to purge themselves of their "bad" karma.
It wasn't until 2007 that Bad Brains released Build a Nation, their best album since the mid '80s. When this next album comes out — presumably next spring — it will represent the first time the band has ever completed consecutive records without an intervening break-up. Things are looking up. Miller's particularly excited about the completed basic tracks.
"There's some different little flavors here and there. We try to keep it interesting," he says. "I'm liking it. A little different, some the same. We just kind of do what we do. But I like this particular approach, writing it in the studio, which we've never done. So it's always spontaneous. It's like we look at each other and somebody starts and 'Here we go.'"