Thirty years ago this month, Bad Religion released Into The Unknown, their follow-up to their blistering 1982 debut How Could Hell Be Any Worse?
Their first work was pure punk rock, focused on political and social issues.
Into The Unknown was...something totally different, a musically-ambitious prog-rock album loaded with synthesizers and guitar solos that were less "punk" than "something you might hear on a Boston record."
Even the album cover was weird -- a sort of tranquil outer space setting. Whereas the cover of their debut, a stark photo of downtown L.A., implied something gritty, this seemed to imply....science fiction?
Their fans didn't know what to think. It seemed to be almost universally rejected; the legend was that of the 10,000 copies originally shipped, almost all were returned.
The stress even caused the group to briefly disband.
Even to this day, the album has never been officially issued on CD. In fact, it's been pretty much ignored by the group completely, save for its vinyl reissue as part of a 2010 box set of their whole catalog, and the performance of one of its songs at a New York City show that same year.
Personally, I'd been a fan of Bad Religion since I was a teen. But I still went a long time without hearing the album. And none of the numerous Bad Religion fans I met over the years had either.
And so, a few years back I decided to take matters into my own hands. I downloaded the work from Mediafire or one of those and actually listened to the damn thing.
I thought: "How bad could it be?"
Well, if I were a 16-year-old L.A. punk rocker in 1983, I certainly would have been dismayed. At least by opening track "It's Only Over When...", which has a THX intro and is driven by hard rockin' synths.
The acoustic guitars lurking underneath the Electric Light Orchestra gloss on the second track, "Chasing The Wild Goose," no doubt would have had me hurdling the record into the trash.
But as the cultured, level-headed (heh heh) thirty-something I now am, I must say that Into The Unknown sounds good. While the political vitriol of the band's debut is absent, the songs really aren't as lightweight as they've been portrayed. In fact, I think they're pretty fucking great.
The theme of corporate greed, for example, which has underpinned much of Bad Religion's best work since then, is also in effect here:
One more acre, one more tree
It's all untamed, of course it's free
One more acre, it seems that no one cares
Another great chance to put a building there
The seven-minute centerpiece track "Time and Disregard" is probably the most oddball track in the group's history. It's the story of a farmer losing his land to corporate commercial interests, told through acoustic interludes and soaring synth solos.
It's simultaneously one of the most beautiful and depressing tracks in the group's catalog. But I must say -- that's exactly why I find it so sweet.
In any case, the disastrous response to Into The Unknown sent them back towards punk rock with 1988's Suffer.
They would have ceased to be relevant years ago, however, if they did not possess a gift for songcraft, which began to increasingly shine through over the years thanks to the prowess of band leaders Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz.
Their post-Into The Unknown output has been excellent. But should they ever want to explore that terrain again? Maybe their fans would be pissed, but I for one wouldn't mind at all.
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