The Gray Race

Bad Religion

Atlantic, 1996

REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko


A limited range isn't always a bad thing. Just look at Jack Nicholson -- he's spent the past half-century playing, well, Jack Nicholson. It's a one-note performance (unless each of his independently-mobile eyebrows counts as a note). However, it's so entertaining that Hollywood has not only condoned it, they've awarded the man multiple Oscars.

If there's a punk rock equivalent of Ol' Jack, surely it is Bad Religion. Trends come and go, stars rise and fall, drummers disappear, get deported, and choke on their own vomit. Bad Religion stays the course. They started in 1981 with a solid formula... loud, fast, angry, and lyrically dense. Now, nearly thirty years have elapsed. A number of the Mohawked teenagers who shoplifted How Could Hell Be Any Worse? are now grandparents. Greg Graffin and crew? Still loud, fast, angry, and lyrically dense.

Consistency has its drawbacks, though. On 1996's The Gray Race, Bad Religion stumbled, fell, and busted its collective ass on three decades of precedent. Spurred by co-founder Brett Gurewitz's departure, Greg Graffin set out to evolve the band's sound. Ric Ocasek was enlisted to produce. Songwriting became a more democratic process than ever before. Tracks swelled beyond typical punk dimensions, like Swiss and Awkward Adjective Use soufflés within the scorching oven of Graffin's ambition.

The thing is, Bad Religion fans weren't craving innovation. They wanted the sound they'd adored for decades. Jack Nicholson fans don't want to see him portraying an emotionally-fragile oboe prodigy; they want sarcasm and eyebrow gymnastics. Similarly, fans who'd cut their teeth on 1989’s No Control (whose average track length hovered around a minute) balked at "Streets Of America,” a lumbering 3:48 behemoth.

While The Gray Race has other issues, track length is most definitely its downfall. Critics, fans, and former band members (et tu, Brett?) lambasted the disc as unoriginal, uninspired, and repetitive. Few mentioned the elephant in the mosh pit, however: the fact that Bad Religion works best in measured doses. Old-school BR albums are like heist movies -- short, streamlined and fast-paced enough to make you overlook their more ridiculous elements. When the band rips through tracks like some kind of poli-sci-loving bandsaw, they're unbeatable. At a more languorous pace, the listener is forced to confront their flaws -- namely, dust-dry seriousness and horrendously awkward lyrics (imagine Noam Chomsky running face-first into a mixing board).  It's a shame, because with some heavy-duty pruning, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Gray Race could've been a classic.

The first half of the disc would make a fantastic (and fantastically-easy) mash-up -- whack the final thirty seconds off of each track and every one's a winner. The title track's a stellar opener.  The guitars are revved-up, the pace is rapid and the innovations (in the form of more subtle vocals and harmonies) complement rather than confound. Midway through "Them And Us," however, the album's pacing problem rears its gnarly little head for the first time. The song's thrumming along nicely, you're banging your head appreciatively. It reaches a logical stopping point…and just keeps going. For this to happen once is understandable. Twice? Annoying. By the fourth or fifth time, however, it's infuriating, especially when it cripples otherwise-strong tracks.

At first, "Parallel" wows with both intensity and possibility. It's got great visceral impact (in other words, the holy trinity of Loud, Fast 'n Angry).  However, a light dusting of indie (lo-fi squeals and surprisingly raw vocals) saves it from simplicity. It's a reminder of what Bad Religion can be at their best -- why they've endured long after their peers hung up their Docs and put down their picks. When "Parallel" drones on well past its peak, it's disappointing precisely because that peak was so high.

The first half of the album is flawed but fun. And then, much like Communism, it goes more horribly wrong than its creators could've possibly fathomed. The missteps become more egregious. The songs become less-listenable. And fans of old-school Bad Religion are seized with a desire to hide in the closet with a copy of 80-85 and a hankie.

"Spirit Shine" is the antithesis of a good song which goes on too long. It clocks in at roughly two minutes, yet still somehow manages to be stuffy, disjointed and boring. You wouldn't think something so compact could be so unendurable. Even the part of the dental exam where the hygienist scrapes the Laffy Taffys of yore away from your gum line is tolerable for two minutes!

On tracks like "Spirit Shine" (and the anthemic dirge of "Streets of America"), it becomes apparent that Bad Religion's lack of nuance is their greatest weakness.  They're a tight, talented group, but they have a limited range of talents. When the formula falls flat, it's not as though Graffin can bust out some Chuck D-style rhymes (although lord knows I'd pay to see him try).  On "Drunk Sincerity," we're reminded why the bans usually eschews an upbeat (because it makes them sound like a grittier Third Eye Blind, that's why). And while "A Walk" is one of the disc's stronger cuts, it's not strong enough to compensate for Graffin's famously clunky songwriting.

I realize that criticizing Bad Religion lyrics is like shooting fish in a barrel -- easier, even.  It's like blowing away a thimble of Sea Monkeys with a bazooka.  But not even "Stairway To Heaven" itself could make up for such gems as "I don't need to live in your stinking zoo / You can't even feed the animals that were donated to you" (which I'm totally putting on a comment card during my next visit to Animal Kingdom).  Their songs have always been characterized by a sort of dull, Nader-esque earnestness. At best, it's endearing.  At worst?  It's "A Walk.”

It's always better to swing for the fences than to bunt, and for that, Graffin deserves credit.  The Gray Race has some wonderful, inspired touches, such as the noise-rock squeals of “Nobody Listens” and "10 In 2010”’s fusillade of drumbeats and yelps.  However, the album's experimentalism falls flat more often than not.  Sorry, Greg, but this is punk rock.  The genre which spawned Iggy Pop, GG Allin, and mad, manic anarchism shouldn't ever seem like such drudgery.

Rating: C

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